Ralph Johnson Bunche Biography

Claim to Fame: Nobel Peace Prize winner; U.N. diplomat
DOB: August 7, 1904
Date of Death: 1971
Diabetes Type: unknown

Ralph Bunche was an American political scientist and diplomat who received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation in Palestine in the late 1940's that led to an armistice agreement between Jews and Arabs in the region. He was originally hailed from Detroit, MI. His father, Fred Bunche, was a barber in a shop having a clientele of whites only. His mother, Olive (Johnson) Bunche, was an amateur musician. His grandmother, who lived with the family, had been born into slavery. When Bunche was ten years old, the family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the hope that the poor health of his parents would improve in the dry climate. Both, however, died two years later. His grandmother, an indomitable woman who appeared Caucasian, took Ralph and his two sisters to live in Los Angeles. Here Ralph contributed to the family's hard pressed finances by selling newspapers, serving as house boy for a movie actor, working for a carpet-laying firm, and doing what odd jobs he could find.

Bunche was valedictorian of his graduating class at Jefferson High School. He attended the Vermont Avenue (the original) campus of UCLA, graduating in 1927. With the assistance of money raised in his community and a scholarship from Harvard University, he studied for a master's degree and ultimately a doctorate in political science, the latter while teaching at Howard University.

Bunche spent time during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency) before joining the State Department. He participated in the preliminary planning for the United Nations at the San Francisco Conference of 1945, and in 1946 he was a member of the first U.S. delegation to the U.N. He then became an employee of the U.N. as the first Director of its new Trusteeship Department, at the appointment of Secretary-General Trygve Lie.

From June of 1947 to August of 1949, Bunche worked on the most important assignment of his career - the confrontation between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. He was first appointed as assistant to the UN Special Committee on Palestine, then as principal secretary of the UN Palestine Commission, which was charged with carrying out the partition approved by the UN General Assembly. In early 1948 when this plan was dropped and fighting between Arabs and Israelis became especially severe, the UN appointed Count Folke Bernadotte as mediator and Ralph Bunche as his chief aide. Four months later, on September 17, 1948, Count Bernadotte was assassinated, and Bunche was named acting UN mediator on Palestine. After eleven months of virtually ceaseless negotiating, Bunche obtained signatures on armistice agreements between Israel and the Arab States.

Bunche returned home to a hero's welcome. New York gave him a ticker tape parade up Broadway. Los Angeles declared a Ralph Bunche Day. He was often asked to lecture, was awarded the Spingarn Prize by the NAACP in 1949, was given over thirty honorary degrees in the next three years, and the Nobel Peace Prize for 1950.

From 1955 to 1967, Bunche served the U.N. as undersecretary for Special Political Affairs and became undersecretary-general in 1968. Suffering from heart disease and diabetes, Ralph Bunche resigned as undersecretary-general on October 1, 1971. He died on December 9, 1971.

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Last Modified Date: November 28, 2012

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