It’s Oscar night! Let’s throw popcorn at the screen for…the first African-American recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize! (Curveball!) You’ve probably never heard of him! (Another curveball!) And there will probably never be a movie about his life, not because it isn’t interesting but because he did WAY too much. You couldn’t get it narrowed down.
(Or I should say that I can’t get it narrowed down. Could not adapt it to a two-hour runtime. Just trying to summarize it here is daunting.)
Ralph Bunche was a political scientist and anthropologist who (in roughly chronological order):
1. Helped write the landmark study of American racial dynamics, “An American Dilemma.” (Incidentally, he was the first African-American to get a PolySci doctorate from an American university, specifically Harvard, but he also did postgrad stuff at the London School of Economics and the University of Cape Town.)
2. Worked in the OSS (precursor to the CIA) during WWII, a fact which was only recently declassified. He worked closely with Algier Hiss, the maybe Soviet spy! Also he was chief of the Africa division. He was in charge of interpreting the intelligence on an entire continent, and was by all accounts brilliant at it.
3. Was in fact so brilliant that the State Department grabbed him and made him the first African-American desk officer. He helped draft the UN Charter. He worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt to create (and lobby for) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
YES. THAT ONE. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After SETTING UP THE UN.
Surely that was enough to get a Nobel prize. But no – it was for something else! (Curveball again!)
4. This is the Nobel part. As so many have before and after him, Bunche tried to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict as a mediator. As so often occurred, things seemed to be moving forward and then there was an assassination (in this case of the Swedish count who was supposed to be Bunche’s superior). Bunche pursued the very brilliant strategy of playing a lot of billiards with the Palestinian and Israeli neogiators while talking all casual and clever and suave. (Total better-than-Bond move.) They signed a vital armistice agreement. NOBEL PRIZE.
5. Was in the Civil Rights movement, obviously. Was present at the March on Washington. Did the Selma to Montgomery march.
6. Simultaneously spent that era serving on the boards of a bunch of universities, and also negotiating the ends of violent conflicts in the Congo, Yemen, Kashmir, and Cyprus.
7. Became undersecretary general of the UN in 1968. Took them long enough. He obviously already had the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then.
That’s just the high points. This guy, I am telling you. He is exactly the kind of guy I want in charge of the world, and fortunately he was.