Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan, his father was a barber, his mother an amateur musician. They moved to Los Angeles when he was a child to improve his parents' health. His parents died soon after, and he was raised by his grandmother, who looked "white" but was an active member of the black community. Bunche was a brilliant student, the valedictorian of his graduating class at Jefferson High School. Bunche attended the Vermont Avenue (the original) campus of UCLA, graduating in 1927. With the assistance of money raised in his community and a scholarship from Harvard University, he studied for a master's degree and ultimately a doctorate in political science, the latter while teaching at Howard University.
Bunche spent time during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency) before joining the State Department. Seconded to the United Nations in 1946, he began his role mediating in Palestine in 1947, at the risk of his life, and concluded in 1949. He returned a hero, receiving many honorary doctorates and then the Peace Prize.
He continued to work for the United Nations, mediating in other strife-torn regions including The Congo, Yemen, Kashmir, and Cyprus, eventually rising to the position of undersecretary-general in 1968.