Award ceremony speech


Presentation Speech by Gunnar Jahn*, Chairman of the Nobel Committee

Dr. Ralph Bunche was born forty-six years ago in Detroit in the United States. So today he is still a young man and indeed, along with Mr. Carl von Ossietzky, the youngest to be awarded the Peace Prize. Consequently, while most laureates have left their best years behind them, Dr. Bunche can still look forward to a long period of active life. At the same time he can also look back on years of persevering toil devoted to the unremitting campaign to develop, as he says, man’s ability to live in peace, harmony, and mutual understanding with his fellows.

The life story of Dr. Bunche is like that of many another American youth. Born and brought up in difficult circumstances, he had to go to work at an early age, becoming an errand boy at seven, and at twelve working long hours in a bakery, often until eleven or twelve o’clock at night. It was at this time that both of his parents died, and his old grandmother Nana took him and the other children to Los Angeles. Here young Ralph’s life was divided between school and work, for he had to work in order to live. But again Ralph Bunche was no exception, for, as he recalls, seventy percent of the students at the University of California were obliged to do the same. Such a life can bee hard on the young, but it can also serve to develop the strength of character necessary for making one’s way in life and meeting the problems one faces.

In 1927 Bunche passed his examinations at the University of Califomia, and in that same year started his studies at Harvard where, in 1934, he took his doctorate in political science. From 1928 until 1938 he was an instructor, and from 1938 until 1941 a professor, at Howard University in Washington

It was during these years that Bunche began to study colonial and racial problems. In 1936 he received a grant from the Social Science Research Council to examine colonial policy and the position of non-European peoples in South Africa. But before setting out for Africa, where he was to stay in Cape Town and later visit the African tribes, he prepared himself for the work ahead by study in London.

Bunche became one of Gunnar Myrdal‘s closest collaborators in his study of the American Negro1. He soon caught the attention of the American administration which, in 1941, gave him a post in the Office of Strategic Services as an expert in colonial affairs. Later, in 1944, he was appointed territorial specialist in colonial affairs under the State Department, and in 1945 became head of this division. He was at this time, as he himself points out, the first Negro to reach a position of such responsibility in the American administration. On repeated occasions he was sent as an official representative to international conferences: Dumbarton Oaks in 1944, the International Labor Conference in Philadelphia in 1945, the Constituent Assembly of the United Nations in San Francisco the same year. He was also a member of the United States delegation to the United Nations conference in London in 1945 and in 1946, as well as being among the representatives to the 1946 ILO Conference in Paris. It was in 1946 also that he was appointed director of the Trusteeship Department of the United Nations Secretariat.

These are the highlights of his remarkable career. But they give little insight into the man himself.

For Bunche, as for most of us, the early years – before we acquire the knowledge and experience that life and work give – were the formative ones. Looking back on his childhood, Bunche can remember no time when his family lived in conditions other than those of extreme poverty. But it was not poverty which made him the man we know today; for in the midst of this poverty was that highly gifted woman, his grandmother Nana. He tells of his childhood, when his grandmother and her four adult children, with their families, all lived under the same roof. It was a closely knit, matriarchal family, in which the grandmother was the dominant personality. A woman who had been born into slavery, she must have been a truly extraordinary person, and she unquestionably contributed more than anyone else to the molding of young Ralph’s character.

«But life was no idyll», says Bunche. «I was learning what it meant to be a Negro, even in an enlightened Northern city.»

«But», he continues later, «I wasn’t embittered by such experiences, for Nana had taught me to fight without rancor. She taught all of us to stand up for our rights, to suffer no indignity, but to harbor no bitterness toward anyone, as this would only warp our personalities. Deeply religious, she instilled in us a sense of personal pride strong enough to sustain all external shocks, but she also taught us understanding and tolerance.»2

It was a valuable heritage that Nana bequeathed to Bunche, one which was to help him enormously throughout his life. He, in turn, has tried to pass it on to his own children. He says:

«In rearing my children I have passed on the philosophy that Nana taught me as a youngster… The right to be treated as an equal by all other men, she said, is man’s birthright. Never permit anyone to treat you otherwise. Who, indeed, is a better American, a better protector of the American heritage, than he who demands the fullest measure of respect for those cardinal principles on which our society is reared? Nana told us that there would be many and great obstacles in our paths and that this was the way of life. But only weaklings give up in the face of obstacles. Be honest and frank with yourself and the world at all times, she said. Never compromise what you know to be the right. Never pick a fight, but never run from one if your principles are at stake. Go out into the world with your head high, and keep it high at all times.»3

Step out into the world with your head high, fight for what is right, but show understanding and tolerance for others – what valuable advice for a young man to take with him when he leaves his childhood home! These words were deeply engraved in the mind of Ralph Bunche and fortified him for the challenges that lay ahead.

As I have already mentioned, Bunche took up the study of racial and colonial problems early in his career. In a book published in 1936, under the title A World View of Race, he exposed all the unscientific nonsense promulgated about races, nonsense which has become a convenient and dangerous weapon in the hands of unscrupulous politicians and statesmen, as we know from Hitler’s Germany. He also analyzed French and British colonial policies which, however different they may be, have not allowed the natives an opportunity to develop their potential. He sees the racial problem as part and parcel of the much greater problem of the class war, the war between those who have and those who have not. This may rightly be called an oversimplification, and in later books he broadens his view of man and society, but we still find him returning time and time again to the opinion that the disparity between the standard of living in prosperous countries and that in underdeveloped countries is a source of unrest and a potential threat to peace.

In an essay he wrote in 1947, Human Relations in a Modern World, he outlines the problems of our time. He contrasts man as a free individual with man as a member of a group. «In my opinion», he writes, «there is nothing in man’s nature which makes it impossible for him to live in peace with his fellowmen. Most of us, I believe, would be quite tractable if the pressures exerted by groups or by society would give us the chance. But relations between people are never governed by individuals, for the individual is to a great extent a product of the group to which he belongs and is subordinated to the group in all important questions. The individual in the mass is but a reflection of this group. And so the relations between groups and countries constitute one of the most critical problems of our time.»

And he says: «We can achieve understanding and brotherhood between men only when the peoples of different nations feel that what unites them is a common goal which must be quickly attained.» Bunche himself has a strong faith in man: «I am firmly convinced that ordinary men everywhere are ready to accept the ideals inherent in understanding and brotherhood among men, if only they are given the chance. But before this can happen, men must be sure that they will not become victims of unstable economic conditions, they must not be forced to take part in ruthless and harmful competition in order to survive, and they must be free from the constant threat of being obliterated in a future war. But it is more important still that men be able to shape their ideals free from the influence of petty and narrow-minded men who still in many countries exploit these ideals to further their own ends… But an indolent, complacent, and uninformed people can never feel secure or free.»

One can say: This is a faith, a belief. But who can do man’s work in life without faith? In Bunche this faith is coupled with a profound knowledge of men and of their conditions of life, both of which he clearly demonstrated as a mediator in Palestine.

Until 1948 Bunche’s activities had been confined to scientific and administrative work. However, when on May 20, 1948, Folke Bernadotte4 was appointed by the United Nations as mediator in the Palestine conflict, Bunche became his closest collaborator. The two men worked together until Bernadotte’s assassination on September 17 of the same year. Bunche was then named as his successor by the UN and continued the work of mediation in Palestine until August of 1949.

The two men who met in 1948 to undertake this common task could hardly have been more unlike. On the one hand, Folke Bernadotte, grandson of King Oscar II of Sweden and nephew of Sweden’s reigning monarch5, steeped in all the traditions of a royal family; on the other, Bunche, whose grandmother had been born in slavery, who had been brought up in poverty, who was an entirely self-made man.

Folke Bernadotte was scantily informed on the Palestine conflict. «My knowledge of the situation in Palestine was very superficial», he confessed. He had not worked with international problems until the latter part of the war, when he succeeded in negotiating the release of Danish and Norwegian prisoners from German prison and concentration camps. Bunche, head of the Trusteeship Department of the United Nations, had back of him an education and training directed precisely at recognizing and understanding the problems raised by international disputes.

Yet the two men had one thing in common: they both believed in their mission. Bunche at one time speaks of the qualities mediators should possess: «They should be biased against war and for peace. They should have a bias which would lead them to believe in the essential goodness of their fellowman and that no problem of human relations is insoluble. They should be biased against suspicion, intolerance, hate, religious and racial bigotry.»6

Both men were well endowed with such qualities, and indeed they had to be richly endowed to have hope of accomplishing the difficult task which confronted them in Palestine.

The Palestine problem had occupied the United Nations for a long time. It would take too much time to go into the background of the dispute, whose origins date back to the end of the First World War. In 1948 matters had reached the stage of a proposal put forward in the United Nations for a solution embodying the creation of a Jewish state. But this suggestion met determined resistance, and the whole of 1948 had been a year of constant skirmishes, if not of open war.

When the British mandate over Palestine came to an end on May 15, 1948, there was actually open war already between the Arab States and the Jews. The Truce Commission which was sent to Palestine in April was unable t o make any headway, and it was in these circumstances that the United Nations on May 20 appointed Bernadotte as a mediator whose first task was to secure a truce.

Bernadotte and Bunche arrived in Palestine on May 28 and succeeded in obtaining a four-week truce, lasting from June 11 until July 9. This was a first step forward. But on July 11 hostilities broke out again, and on the sixteenth the Security Council ordered a cease-fire and an extension of the truce from July 18. This order came after Bernadotte had personally laid the case before the Security Council. It is noteworthy that this was the first time that the Security Council had given such an order.

Then came Bernadotte’s assassination on September 17 and, as already mentioned, the Security Council appointed Bunche to succeed him as mediator.

The initial cease-fire had been difficult to secure, and there can be no doubt that its swift arrangement was possible only through the personal efforts of Bernadotte and Bunche. The latter comments7: «This truce was a one-man feat. Count Bernadotte was a man of great urbanity and indefatigable energy. He was a true internationalist at heart and was devoted to the cause of peace. He was fearless. In a remarkably short period, he had won the respect and confidence of both Arabs and Jews.»

The truce which began on July 18 was broken again in the middle of October. It was then that Bunche took the daring step of proposing to the Security Council that it should order a cease-fire to allow both parties to try to reach agreement on an armistice as a preliminary to a final settlement of the relations between Palestine and the Arab States. His proposal was approved by the Security Council on the sixteenth of November.

The proposal was, as I have said, a daring one, for an armistice is more than a cease-fire; an armistice, in the accepted meaning of the word, is in effect a preliminary to peace. But it turned out that Bunche had judged the situation correctly. And so began the negotiations between the Arab States and Palestine, negotiations which dragged on for eleven months, making the greatest demands on the mediator. Bunche has himself described the difficulties in the Colgate Lectures in Human Relations, 1949: suspicion on both sides, with neither wanting to meet the other. The Arabs did not want to sit at the same table with the Jews; so he was compelled to negotiate separately with each side, constantly having to clear away the mutual mistrust. It must be borne in mind that this was not mediation between two parties but between Palestine on the one hand and seven Arab States on the other, and that agreements had to be concluded separately with each of the seven.

By exercising infinite patience, Bunche finally succeeded in persuading all parties to accept an armistice. When asked how he managed it, he gave the following reply:

«Like every Negro in America, I’ve been buffeted about a great deal. I’ve suffered many disillusioning experiences. Inevitably, I’ve become allergic to prejudice. On the other hand, from my earliest years I was taught the virtues of tolerance; militancy in fighting for rights – but not bitterness. And as a social scientist I’ve always cultivated a coolness of temper, an attitude of objectivity when dealing with human sensitivities and irrationalities, which has always proved invaluable – never more so than in the Palestine negotiations. Success there was dependent upon maintaining complete objectivity.

Throughout the endless weeks of negotiations I was bolstered by an unfailing sense of optimism. Somehow, I knew we had to succeed. I am an incurable optimist, as a matter offact.»8

In these words he describes himself: the childhood heritage, the knowledge and experience acquired later in life – both factors going to make up the personality, the man who succeeded in getting both parties to lay down their arms. The outcome was a victory for the ideas of the United Nations, it is true, but as is nearly always the case, it was one individual’s efforts that made victory possible.

It is just over a year since Ralph Bunche completed his work of mediation. Today we are all confronted by even greater challenges than before. The future looks dark. But it is precisely in times like these that we must not lose heart; on the contrary, we must put our faith and all our strength in the fight against war.

Ralph Bunche, you have said yourself that you are an incurable optimist. You said that you were convinced that the mediation in Palestine would be successful.

You have a long day’s work ahead of you. May you succeed in bringing victory to the ideals of peace, the foundation upon which we must build the future of mankind.

* The ceremony on December 10, 1950, in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo was not only the usual one of commemorating the death of Alfred Nobel in 1896 and of presenting the Peace Prize for 1950, but also one of marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Nobel Foundation and fifty years of awarding the Nobel Prizes. In an opening address, Mr. Gustav Natvig Pedersen, vice-chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee and at this time president of the Norwegian Parliament paid tribute to the occasion and reviewed the history of the Peace Prize – touching on the Committees awarding it, the Nobel Institute and its directors, and the various categories of prizewinners. The address was followed by Mr. Jahn’s speech and his presentation of the 1950 prize to Mr. Bunche, who responded with a brief speech of acceptance. The translation of Mr. Jahn’s speech is based on the Norwegian text in Les Prix Nobel en 1950, which also carries a French translation.

1. Gunnar Myrdal (1898- ), Swedish sociologist and economist, conducted the study (1938-1942), which was sponsored by the Carnegie corporation and which was the basis for Myrdal’s book An American Dilemma (1944).

2. Bunche, «What America Means to Me», p. 123.

3. Ibid., p. 126.

4. Count Folke Bernadotte (1895-1948), Swedish humanitarian, president of the Swedish Red Cross. For a biographical account, see Ralph Hewins, Count Folke Bernadotte: His Life and Work (London: Hutchinson, 1950).

5. Oscar II (1829-1907), king of Sweden (1872-1907). Sweden’s reigning monarch was Gustavus V (1858-1950), king of Sweden (1907-1950)

6. Bunche, «United Nations Intervention in Palestine», p. 13 of the address delivered at Colgate University, May 20, 1949, in Colgate Lectures in Human Relations, 1949.

7. Ibid., p. 4.

8. «What America Means to Me», np. Cit., p. 125.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1926-1950, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1950

To cite this section
MLA style: Award ceremony speech. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2024. Sun. 14 Jul 2024. <>

Back to top Back To Top Takes users back to the top of the page

Nobel Prizes and laureates

Eleven laureates were awarded a Nobel Prize in 2023, for achievements that have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind. Their work and discoveries range from effective mRNA vaccines and attosecond physics to fighting against the oppression of women.

See them all presented here.

Explore prizes and laureates

Look for popular awards and laureates in different fields, and discover the history of the Nobel Prize.