Robert A. Hill, Edmond J. Keller, eds. Trustee for the Human Community: Ralph J. Bunche, the United Nations, and the Decolonization of Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010. xxii + 205 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8214-1909-0; $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8214-1910-6; ISBN 978-0-8214-4344-6.
Reviewed by Rowland M. Brucken (Department of History, Norwich University)
Published on H-Human-Rights (March, 2011)
Commissioned by Rebecca K. Root
Recovering Ralph Bunche
Ralph Bunche is absent from our memories today not for what he did, for there can be no disputing that, but for what he came to represent. Bunche’s identity does not fit into any of the neat categories we use to store legacies. He grew up poor and without a father’s guidance but was successful. He was an integrationist but comfortable with and proud of his racial identity. He was a liberal who believed in the old-fashioned values of individualism and hard work. He was an internationalist who was proud to be an American. He was a scholar who spent his most productive years in the bureaucratic politics of the United Nations.
Political scientist Charles Henry, in his own biography of Ralph Bunche, provides the touchstone for this edited volume about Bunche and his scholarly and diplomatic ties with an African continent undergoing decolonization. Seeking to resurrect Bunche’s life and accomplishments from the dustbin of history, the academics and policymakers who contributed essays analyze his scholarship on African history, his role in writing the trusteeship provisions of the United Nations Charter, and his controversial role in mediating the complex conflict in the Congo. The contributions originated from a 2004 conference held at the University of California at Los Angeles, a gathering to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of his birth. The essays are generally of high quality even if they sometimes border on celebrating his accomplishments without offering a more critical assessment of his various roles. This might be expected, though, given the conference’s stated purpose of publicizing an unfortunately forgotten pathbreaking historian and humanitarian. The preface states an assumption adopted by each of the authors, namely that “it would be difficult to think of another individual whose role or vision exceeded or even equaled that of Bunche’s in terms of meeting the challenges of postwar colonization as well as the issues of international security and peace and human rights” (p. vii).
The book is divided into three parts that reflect the sections of Bunche’s life in relation to Africa. The first and most extensive examines his trailblazing interest in African history and sociology while a graduate student at Harvard. Contributors Martin Kilson, David Anthony, Robert Edgar, Elliot Skinner, and Pearl Robinson consistently argue that Bunche arrived at leftist convictions as a young man who experienced both racial discrimination and the unprecedented opportunity to pursue higher education in a field dominated by a small number of liberal professors. Such luminaries as Alain Locke, Charles Wesley, W. E.B. DuBois, Kenneth Clark, and Rayford Logan, and his dissertation advisor Arthur Holcombe, rubbed elbows with Bunche in his formative years, directing his scholarship toward the study of Africa. The field in the 1930s was essentially an intellectual backwater dominated by white scholars imbued with colonial biases and paternalistic lenses. Bunche’s dissertation, entitled “French Administration in Togoland and Dahomey,” was notable for several reasons. It was one of the first pieces of African scholarship based on field research. His time in these French colonies molded his central skepticism of colonialism that lacked international accountability for the advancement of native peoples, and he kept this jaundiced view for the rest of his life. His graduate work provided networking opportunities and also gave him some measure of fame as the first African American to earn a doctorate in political science. Bunche was also the recipient of the prestigious Toppan Prize for the best political science dissertation at Harvard. Finally, he gained additional intellectual support for his core leftist beliefs in the self-determination of peoples and active opposition to racial discrimination. Yet Bunche tempered these principles with a healthy dose of pragmatism. He did not support the immediate independence of African colonies if it would result in instability and underdevelopment, and he eschewed African nationalist demagogues who railed against colonial settlers.
While chair of the Political Science Department at Howard University in the 1940s, Bunche embarked on the second phase of his interaction with Africa as a specialist on decolonization for the United Nations. Unfortunately, only Neta Crawford’s essay touches on the critical work of Bunche in this area to which he applied lessons learned in his dissertation research. His three months’ stint in the French colony of Dahomey and the French mandate of Togoland (gained from Germany in the Treaty of Versailles) taught him that European nations exploited natives less in terms of required taxes and forced labor when they faced nominal supervision by the League of Nations. Determined to create a trusteeship system with more teeth after World War II, he sought to ensure that native peoples could appeal human rights violations directly to a trusteeship body, allow the body to visit and inspect trusteeship territories, and ensure that steady progress occurred on the road to independence. Crawford concludes that Bunche’s role in the conference that drafted the U.N. Charter, and his stint as director of the U.N.’s Trusteeship Division, not only resulted in the creation of a viable trusteeship system, but one that should be a model today for rebuilding collapsed states under U.N. auspices.
It was in his role as a mediator in the Belgian Congo crisis that Bunche found his principles tested. Having received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in forging the 1949 Israeli-Arab Armistice, he played an active role in U.N. peacekeeping planning during the 1950s that brought him to the attention of Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld. The Swede dispatched Bunche for two months in the Congo, where Bunche tried to smooth a transition to independence despite armed secessionist movements, intervention by developed nations and outside mercenaries, and unstable and uncompromising African nationalists. Political scientists Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja and Crawford Young, and Bunche’s assistant in the Congo operation John Olver, offer mixed assessments of Bunche’s diplomacy. Olver depicts a man tirelessly advocating peaceful resolution despite being under constant stress and physically weak from diabetes and other ailments. Responsibility for the failure to stop a civil war did not lay at Buche’s feet, but was due to the refusal of Patrice Lumumba and Moise Tshombe to share power in a unified country. Young takes a similar view, concluding that the failure of the Congo mission was not Bunche’s fault, for he did as much as he could, and perhaps more than most other diplomats could, within the constraints of his impartial mediator’s role and limited U.N. mandate. Only Nzongola-Ntalaja takes Bunche to task for committing two errors. First, he should have pushed for a U.N. invasion of Katanga Province to force Tshombe’s surrender and the departure of Belgian forces. Second, he incorrectly viewed Lumumba as a Soviet agent rather than an African nationalist, which makes him partially responsible for Lumumba’s removal as prime minister by a communist-wary Western bloc.
In a concluding essay, historian Ralph Austen relates African decolonization to modern processes of globalization. He argues that the European takeover of the continent in the late 1800s was due in part to fear of a global economic depressions and the race for territorial acquisitions. The creation of closed-door empires was a logical consequence of European desire to gain access to raw materials and provide markets for metropole-produced finished goods. After World War II, transnational ideological, political, and economic forces fed a trend toward decolonization that over the past decades has recolonized Africa by subordinating its peoples to structural adjustment programs and foreign military intervention. Only the creation of new economic and political models of development by Africans will allow for real and humane progress that materially benefits Africans rather than operates at their expense.
The essays collectively situate Bunche as a pioneering scholar of Africa, a tireless advocate of self-determination, and an engaged and determined peace-seeker. There are some parts of his life that the authors might have explored more. His African American identity, which led to incidents of racial discrimination throughout his life, receives scant attention as a source of his social justice ideals and identification with African peoples. Did he compare personal humiliations suffered in the United States with the treatment of Africans under colonial rule? Edgar, for example, in his essay on Bunche’s four months in South Africa in the late 1930s, mentions the topic in only one sentence while Skinner touches on it briefly while Bunche studied at Harvard. The volume also pays short shrift to his U.N. trusteeship work, and in particular his success (in conjunction with other, more powerful diplomats) in arguing for applying lessons learned from his dissertation into the U.N. Charter at the San Francisco Conference. Crawford’s essay ignores this part of his life, focusing instead on the principles of League mandates and how U.N. trusteeships operated under different standards. This is a difficult task, though, as the preeminent historian of decolonization, William Roger Louis, explained in a 2004 essay, for Bunche left few archival sources of his time with the State Department. This leaves the first section, on Bunche’s formative years as a scholar of African studies, as the strongest and most important addition to the relatively small historiography of Bunche and its focus on his most famous role as a peacemaker in the Middle East.
In the opening quotation, Charles Henry tried to explain why Bunche is forgotten today. The authors of this volume could have added that the present marginalization of African studies in the United States, the unpopularity of international trusteeship as a model for rebuilding failed or failing states, and the ultimate failure of the U.N. mission in the Congo conspire to erase our consciousness of Bunche’s contributions to history, political science, and international relations. Ralph Bunche was a man of real insight and personal courage, whose analysis of how international oversight can assist disadvantaged peoples achieve real self-determination is still applicable today in countries struggling with political power vacuums and economic hopelessness.
. Charles P. Henry, Ralph Bunche: Model Negro or American Other? (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 243.
. William Roger Louis, “Ralph Bunche and International Trusteeship,” paper presented at the International Studies Association Conference, Montreal, Canada, March 2004.
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Rowland M. Brucken. Review of Hill, Robert A.; Keller, Edmond J., eds., Trustee for the Human Community: Ralph J. Bunche, the United Nations, and the Decolonization of Africa.
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