When Kal Raustiala first set up his office in Bunche Hall in 2006, the UCLA professor didn’t know much about Ralph Bunche, he admits in his new book, “The Absolutely Indispensable Man: Ralph Bunche, the United Nations, and the Fight to End Empire” (Oxford University Press).
He knew that Bunche had won the Nobel Peace Prize (the only UCLA graduate to do so) and, as a leader at the United Nations, had been one of the few Black Americans to rise to the top ranks of midcentury diplomacy. But beyond that, he knew almost nothing about Bunche’s brilliant career. With this illuminating, insightful biography, Raustiala fills that gap handily and gives readers a chance to know much, much more about this visionary, courageous internationalist.
Raustiala is the Promise Institute Distinguished Professor of Comparative and International Law and director of the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA.
In your book, you call Ralph Bunche one of the key architects of post-WWII international order. Golda Meir credited him with being the “outsider” most central to the birth of Israel. At the height of his celebrity, he was lauded as the most honored African American. But 51 years after his death in 1971, what does the general public remember of Bunche? What was Bunche most proud of having achieved?
Ralph Bunche was once so famous he handed out the Best Picture award at the 1951 Oscars. He led a fascinating life. Yet today, outside of a few places, he is largely forgotten. Even here at UCLA, many students know Bunche Hall and the Bunche Center, but don’t know much about why we honor him. This is one reason I wrote the book: to introduce Bunche to a new generation, to put his career and accomplishments in context, and, along the way, to tell the story of the institution he cared so much about and its greatest success story: The United Nations and the decolonization of much of Africa and Asia.
Bunche was best known for his Nobel Peace Prize. But there were two things he would sometimes say he was even more proud of. The first was his role in the invention of UN peacekeeping. Peace is mentioned almost 50 times in the U.N. charter, but peacekeeping is not. Yet today, in large part thanks to Bunche, it is a central feature of the international order.
The second accomplishment he was most proud of we may appreciate more here in Westwood: His three UCLA basketball trophies.
Bunche’s life path took him from a childhood in South Central Los Angeles through UCLA, Harvard and Howard universities to the highest level of global diplomacy. He was, you said, “a rare Black man in a field that was notoriously ‘Pale, Male and Yale.’” How did he personally deal with racism?
He really began to fight the racial injustice that was so prevalent and overt at the time while in high school. He would later point to his grandmother, a huge influence on his early life, as someone who taught him to stand proud, never back down and work hard.
In this sense, Bunche very much embodied a central strain of thinking in the Black community in the early 20th century. He remained active throughout his life in the NAACP and other organizations that fought for equality. He was generally an optimist on most things, including race relations.
As time went on, though, his views on American racism grew more anguished. He was both encouraged and troubled by the ferment of the 1960s. Even as someone who once declared himself a “professional optimist,” he was deeply disheartened both by the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and by rising interest in Black separatism. When the police brutally attacked protestors in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention of 1968, he told Coretta Scott King that this was perhaps good news, because now white America will understand what Black people have long known.
While doing research for his doctoral dissertation at Harvard, Bunche worked hard to understand the political relationship created by European colonial rule and how it affected a country’s history, politics and governance. How did those experiences shape his views?
Bunche was almost unique in pre-war America for his knowledge of colonial governance in Africa. This is one reason why he was recruited into the early version of the CIA in 1941 — they needed an Africa expert as the nation prepared to enter World war II. His fieldwork in French West Africa had a huge influence on his career trajectory. For one, it taught him that self-determination would require close supervision of colonial powers, and real efforts — and real mechanisms — to ensure that they actually moved their colonies to independence.
He also believed, as nearly everyone did at the time, that many colonies were not really ready for independence. But, to his credit, he did not think this justified colonial rule. To the contrary, it meant that the international community might need to assist new nations in their transition to freedom.
To Bunche, the domination of Europeans over Africans, Asians and others was a global form of racism. He saw the central question posed by colonialism as a moral one of whether “the white man could ever accept darker peoples as equals.” How did he make that connection?
Bunche was not alone in seeing colonialism as a form of racial injustice and oppression. But he was unusual in the degree to which he worked both on the domestic and the international fronts of the fight against injustice. Many people in the 1930s believed empire was actually benevolent. Even Bunche at times would say this. But in an article in the UCLA Alumni Magazine, then called “The Southern Alumnus,” he wrote critically of European rule in Africa. He strongly believed that tangible benefits — if they even existed — did not justify the rule by one people of another. Equality demanded liberation.
One of the consequences of decolonization was civil war. You state that since 1945, the majority of all civil wars in the world have broken out in formerly colonized nations. Did Bunche foresee this consequence?
As new states gained independence, they faced a huge array of challenges, many of which were the direct result of colonialism. Their arbitrary borders and weak governments were often a recipe for political conflict. As a result, Bunche worried as he fought for decolonization that the process of independence could easily be rough and challenging. But the rise of civil war in the postwar era was not really anticipated fully by anyone.
How did Bunche shape the United Nations’ peacekeeping role?
The first peacekeeping mission is often said to have been an observer force put in place in the Middle East in 1948 to assist the U.N. mediators working there, among them Bunche. But the real birth of peacekeeping came later, in the Suez Crisis of 1956, when Bunche put together a large, armed U.N. force in Egypt. He corralled troops from many member states — he actually had to turn down offers from around the world — and he helped to invent key features of U.N. peacekeeping such as the use of “blue helmets.”
Bunche is probably best known for winning the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his marathon bilateral mediation of the first Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1940s that resulted in armistice agreements. He barely escaped being assassinated. What happened, and how did the experience impact his mission?
Bunche was appointed deputy to U.N. mediator Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swede, as the U.N. tried to implement its early plan to partition British Palestine into two states. One September day Bunche found himself stuck in Haifa and late to meet Bernadotte. Bernadotte, a stickler for punctuality, did not wait. As Bernadotte’s car drove through Jerusalem, a group of what appeared to be Israeli soldiers stopped the caravan. In fact, they were members of the Stern Gang, a dissident Jewish group. They opened fire on the car, killing Bernadotte and the man next to him — whom they thought was going to be Bunche. Bunche —and the world — was outraged by the assassination. But it was the event that catapulted him into the role of chief U.N. mediator and, thanks to his negotiating skills, to the Nobel Peace Prize.
While his contributions to world peace are celebrated in history books, what role did Ralph Bunche play in the civil rights battle at home?
Bunche was active in the civil rights movement from the beginning of his career. For example, he helped to found the National Negro Congress. He also served as a longtime board member of the NAACP. During his U.N. career he would often speak about the need for racial justice, but his position at the United Nations limited what he could do and say. Toward the very end of his life he again became more active, in particular with Martin Luther King. Bunche was arm and arm with King in the Selma to Montgomery March and on stage at the mMarch on Washington, D.C. He and King had their differences, in particular, over Vietnam, but as the two Black Nobel laureates of their day, they admired each other and worked together closely.
Finally, what do you hope to achieve by writing this book?
Ralph Bunche led an extraordinary American life that deserves to be remembered by all of us, especially as Bruins. Mine is not the first biography of him, but it is the first in nearly 25 years, and it is perhaps the one most focused on what was the through line of his career — the fight against empire. I hope this book does justice to his life and underscores the significance of his legacy, both at home and abroad.