In April 1949, President Harry S. Truman offered Ralph Bunche a coveted position as the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern, South Asian and African affairs. The position would make Bunche, then the United Nations’ chief mediator between Israel and the Arab states, the highest-ranking African American in the federal government and would position him to become the first black secretary of state.
As a senior diplomat, he would have a major say in determining U.S. priorities and strategies, just as the Cold War with the Soviet Union was entering one of its hotter periods. That year, the division of Europe between a pro-Soviet east and pro-U.S. west was consolidated by the division of Germany. Mao Zedong and the Communist Party had emerged victorious from the Chinese Civil War, boosting similar efforts in Korea and in the French colonies of Indochina. Indonesia, the world’s most populous colony at 80 million, was on the verge of overthrowing 350 years of Dutch rule and following India and Pakistan as an independent nation.
Truman’s choice of Bunche for the post was evident for several reasons. There was arguably no other American who so completely embodied the American dream of equality of opportunity that the Truman administration wanted to project to the world’s emerging nations. Bunche was born in 1901 in a predominantly white working-class neighborhood of Detroit before moving west, first to New Mexico and then Los Angeles, where he was orphaned and raised by his grandmother, the strong and compassionate matriarch of the Bunche family. He graduated as valedictorian of his high school class in 1922 and of UCLA in 1927, earning a master’s degree in political science from Harvard the following year. He was then awarded his Ph.D. in 1934, the first by an African American in Harvard’s department of government.
It was clear that the next threat from the Soviet Union would focus on the decolonization of Africa, where 80 percent of the continent remained subjects of several European empires. There was probably no American citizen at that time who had a greater understanding of the pressing issue of African decolonization from so many different perspectives than Ralph Bunche.
Bunche first traveled to West Africa in 1932 to do research for his doctoral dissertation at Harvard. He returned to Africa in 1937 on a fellowship to study the crises of modern imperialism as experienced by the native groups in the colonies, with a stop at the London School of Economics. There he met many of the leaders of the African anti-colonial movement—notably Jomo Kenyatta, the future president of Kenya, who taught him Swahili, and George Padmore, a leading Pan-Africanist thinker who would become an adviser to Kwame Nkrumah and the independence movement in Ghana.
Bunche visited Kenya, where his friendship with Kenyatta provided access to local African leaders opposed to British rule, and South Africa, where his academic fellowship and connections to British politicians gave him freedom to travel that few native blacks enjoyed. Sometimes this meant that he had an entire train compartment to himself. The South African government—a decade away from full-scale apartheid—acquiesced to his special treatment but insisted that he refrain from “preaching” or making public speeches. Typically, he ignored this advice and attended a meeting of the African National Congress, at which he criticized its more conservative members.
Bunche was also responsible for establishing and heading an Africa section within the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, which was founded in 1941 just before the U.S. entry into World War II. Faced with a dearth of materials in the Library of Congress, Bunche noted that Nazi Germany had far better intelligence on Africa and began producing a wide range of documents to build up American intelligence about the continent.
In April 1946 Bunche began working for the U.N. Secretariat, the international-organization governing body, where he gained a reputation as a particularly skilled diplomat and negotiator on a range of issues in addition to decolonization, most notably in the Middle East. In 1948 he served as principal secretary of the U.N. Special Commission on Palestine, seeking a truce in the war between the new state of Israel and its several Arab neighbors.
Following the assassination of Count Bernadotte of Sweden, the U.N.’s chief negotiator, by Israeli extremists that September, Bunche continued to seek an armistice between the warring sides, and over months of tense negotiations he established separate armistice agreements between Israel and its four main Arab neighbors. This truce largely kept the peace in the Middle East until the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War in 1967, and it also served as a model for U.N. diplomacy and peacekeeping in the decades that followed.