RALPH BUNCHE - PROFILE IN PEACE
(KUNM Airdate: 1/26/07)
In the middle part of the 20th century, if there was a news
story about a peacemaking mission around the globe, chances are it contained
the name of African-American diplomat Ralph Bunche. A scholar of world affairs
and race relations, Bunche was recruited from academia first into the U.S.
State Department, then into the fledgling United Nations. He stepped boldly
onto the world stage as a peace negotiator and advocate for the liberation
of peoples of color from colonial rule. Along the way, he was targeted and
cleared of communist allegations, criticized as a pawn of the white establishment,
and ultimately heralded as a role model for all in human relations.
On this edition of Peace Talks Radio, we'll highlight just a few chapters from Ralph BUnche's remarkable life, and try to take away some lessons about peacemaking as we talk with Bunche's UN colleague and biographer Sir Brian Urquhart, William Greaves, a filmmaker who produced a PBS documentary on Bunche, Tonya Covington, a diversity trainer inspired by Bunche and with Ralph Bunche Jr., son of the late
You may also find out more about all the programs in our series on peacemaking
and nonviolent conflict resolution at www.peacetalksradio.com
A direct link to the website about the film documentary Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey.
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SHOW TRANSCRIPT EXCERPTS
(courtesy Rogi Riverstone)
PAUL INGLES: Ralph Bunche, an outstanding athlete and scholar in school at UCLA (suma cum laude, phi beta capa) delivers the class valedictory address at his graduation. Even in his twenties, the words in his speech, which he called, "The Fourth Dimension of Personality," seemed to hold what will drive him, throughout his entire life. Let me read a little bit of this. It says: "Man learns and knows. But he does not do as well as he knows. This is his weakness. The future peace and harmony of this world is contingent upon the ability of the world - yours and mine - to affect a remedy." This is really a signpost for the rest of his days, wasn't it?
SIR BRIAN URQUHART (former Undersecretary of the United Nations and Ralphe Bunche colleague): Absolutely. Just to go back a bit, he was headed for the usual kinds of employments: what passed for an education for young, Black men in Los Angeles, in 1919 - 20. His grandmother, who was virtually illiterate, had insisted that he not have that kind of education, that he go into the serious kinds of subjects that white boys went into. In Ralph's case that was very much politics -- international politics -- and political science. Once that field had been opened up to him, he realized the extraordinary gap between knowledge and actual performance, particularly in the political and diplomatic world. In that speech you just quoted, he really outlines, for himself, what he was going to do. This is interesting, because what he was set to do was to become an academic. He was an academic, basically, all his life. It is one of the reasons why he was so successful in the U.S., because he had a very powerful, analytical mind and he was fired by a passion for justice, and a passion for trying to resolve problems from which many human beings suffered. He made it a rule that there was no human problem, which was not susceptible to some kind of improvement, no matter how long it took. This is one of the reasons why he was such a good negotiator. It is an extraordinary thing to see a young man, who'd come afire (as he had, already) sketch out - almost unknowingly - the course he was going to take.
INGLES: In the documentary, you talk about the importance of "drafting," in peace negotiations, or in drawing up the League of Nations' charter. It's something you said Bunch was good at, throughout his career. Could you elaborate on this and suggest what Bunch could do so well that is still crucial for negotiations of all kinds today?
URQUHART: My vision of Ralph - who I spent more hours with, in my entire life, than anybody else - is of him, hunched over a legal-sized pad and a whole supply of pencils, and writing in a whole number of things. Mostly, it was formulas, to try to get 'round problems that had come up during the day. He was a great perfectionist. As I said, he was an academic. Ralph's great genius was to be able to listen, all day, to two or three or whatever it was sides to a conflict and then, in the night, to write up a form of words which they could all accept. This means you could move forward.
The great, classic example of this was the Armistice Agreements between Israel and her five, Arab neighbors, which he drafted and for which he got agreement in 1949. This was one of the reasons why he was so good at negotiations. He could intuit, in his own mind, the problems, the fears and the difficulties of the people with whom he dealt - not least, the kind of reception they were going to get when they got back home, if they'd given away too much. He could get all that working, with the objections they had made to some previous proposal and he could reformulate that proposal in a way that would give everybody just enough leeway to get through. It's something that very few people can do. To do it, you have to have, first of all, an enormously acute, analytical mind and, secondly, a very great capacity for understanding the difficulties of other people.
INGLES: What you're talking about is a capacity for empathy.
URQUHART: Absolutely. One of the generals whom Ralph employed in the Middle East once said that Ralph had the kindest eyes that he'd ever seen. I think it was true. He was a person who really had an unusual appreciation and liking for his fellow human beings. Curiously enough, it is not necessarily a very common quality. He really cared about the whole idea of helping people in trouble. Those are the people he was interested in. He was surprisingly little interested in very important people, celebrities, that kind of thing. He didn't mind about them, at all. He was deeply interested in the lives of ordinary people and how he could improve them. That gave him a very great motivation for getting on with these extremely difficult subjects.
INGLES: Did he also have a skill for being present and, I assume, an extraordinary skill for listening?
URQUHART: He was an incredibly good listener. In fact, I think it was Moshe Dayan - who was, at that time, an up-and-coming general in the Israeli Army - who once described, during the Armistice Agreements that Bunch would sit there, for hours, just looking at the person who was speaking, absolutely unmoving, and you could, somehow, see this knowledge, being received into some central area of his brain and being filed accurately, so that he could pull it out later on.
INGLES: Ralph Bunche, Jr., what do you think was at the core of his conflict resolution philosophy, which made him successful?
Ralph Bunche, Jr.: He was a tireless worker. As a family, we didn't see him very much. He was a good father, but he wasn't home a lot. He was an excellent listener on both sides to a conflict. He knew how to relax people with humor. Only after studying about it, thinking about it, for quite some time was he able to find compromises that seemed to appeal to both parties. He'd never believe that fighting it out was a solution. He started out with a bias against armed conflict. Through humor, and long hours, he was able to assure the parties that they were going to get the semblance of a fair shake on both sides of it.
INGLES: How do you recall him, communicating the message of nonviolence, tolerance and conflict resolution to you and your sisters? Was there something conscious, that you can recall, about conversations that the family would have in those times?
BUNCHE: I think it's more living in the '40s and '50s. I don't think we appreciated an America - we look back on it now and say, "God, that was a great time!" It was a great time for our country, after the war. We were heroes, obviously. We had a strong economy. It was just very clear; he didn't think fighting was the solution to anything. What we all learned, after the Second World War, was, "this is not the way forward. There has to be a better solution." That's what he believed in and, hopefully, that's what the United Nations did. And, hopefully, it can recreate itself in a way that the world will look to it for conflict resolution, as opposed to what's happening to us today.
AT THE U.N.
INGLES: Ralph Bunche faced conflict over race relations and over warring countries, throughout his career. He confronted all of those directly. He earned his reputation as a peacemaker and a skilled negotiator. I wonder if some of the overriding principles that he followed, and techniques that he applied, individuals can pick up on in everyday life.
TANYA COVINGTON, Diversity Trainer: I think one of the most important things, as Ralph Junior has said is that Ralph Bunche - and, I think, everyone else who is a good peacemaker and negotiator - begins by being a good listener. Beyond being a good listener, they are genuinely interested in the well being of other people and other groups. That's something that I certainly see in what's missing in a lot of what's going on in the current situation: when you have people who are only concerned about themselves, or their particular party or country, and not as much concerned about the well being of the world. Then, you're always going to have problems. It's difficult to make peace, if you're not genuinely concerned about the people you're trying to make peace with.
INGLES: Your work is, often, on a smaller scale. What about the application of those principles?
COVINGTON: Same thing. I find that, when I go into a conflict situation, I try to go into it, looking at it as though what I'm going to do is not only important to the people with whom I'm working - the people who are in conflict - but it's important to me. I feel that everything we do is the ripple in a pond. If we've got a small disagreement over here, it causes ripples and more ripples. Pretty soon, you end up with a tidal wave. But if you can begin to smooth out those ripples, you end up with a peaceful body of water. I feel we are all, very much, intertwined: far more than we know.
INGLES: Bill Greaves, I'm interested in your personal journey of discovery with this project, the documentary on Ralph Bunche. You admitted in another interview that you, as an African American, didn't know as much about Ralph Bunche as you felt you should have known, when you began this process.
WILLIAM GREAVES, Film Producer, Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey: That's quite true. I really didn't have too high of an opinion about Ralph Bunche, because I really didn't know anything about him.
INGLES: If you didn't have too high an opinion of him that must have been based on some undercurrent about him and his history right?
GREAVES: Yes, that's quite true. I felt, like so many people that I knew at the time, that he wasn't really a very effective person. He was just involved with a whole lot of white people who were not interested in the Black experience. It came to pass - as I did this research on him -that I came to realize that he was a very powerful thinker, a very complicated individual, who was a master in conflict resolution. Once he got into the United Nations organizations - and even before that - he chanced to become involved in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, working closely with Eleanor Roosevelt, and getting the Declaration accepted - endorsed - by the United Nations, which is no small fete.
INGLES: He ended up going to Harvard for graduate school. Your documentary points out that Black civil rights leaders had their eyes on him, even when he was only about twenty-five years old, as a future leader.
GREAVES: In an interesting and curious way, he is a kind of a precursor to Barack Obama. Barack Obama is the closest thing, I think, to Ralph Bunche, as far as I'm concerned. Ralph Bunche was very much involved in these various initiatives. The thing that really bothered him all along, throughout his career - particularly in the early part of his career - was simply the fact that America, the American creed, was something that, even though it had all these lofty words that talked about freedom, democracy and liberty for all, the Bill of Rights and so on, he really thought that was all just so much air, small talk. He knew that it was important to put teeth in those words. "Freedom" and "Liberty for All" had to be words that were more than words. They had to be reality.
WEBSITES AND OTHER RESOURCES
Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey Film Documentary Site