Helping Peace Happen

November/December 2002

Reading time min

Helping Peace Happen

News Service

In July 1944, a 30-year-old air-ground liaison officer pushed north with his U.S. Army division toward the tip of the island of Saipan, fighting through the remnants of a small but tenacious Japanese opposition force. In the final days of the battle, as the Americans closed in, the young lieutenant watched in horror as thousands of Japanese civilians threw themselves from the cliffs at Marpi Point, preferring death to surrender. It was then that Robert North vowed to spend his life working for peace.

An educator, author and researcher whose work fundamentally altered theories of cooperation and conflict between nations, North, a Stanford professor emeritus of political science, died July 15 in Menlo Park of a stroke. He was 87.

Born in 1914 in Walton, N.Y., North attended Union College in nearby Schenectady. He taught English and history at a Connecticut prep school before enlisting in the Army in 1942. He rose to the rank of captain, received seven battle stars, including one for the battle of Saipan, and was offered a Purple Heart. He turned it down. “He felt his injuries were too insignificant,” says his wife, Dorothy.

While awaiting transport home from the war, North applied to several graduate programs, remarking that he would choose the first one to accept him. Thus began his Stanford career.

North studied international relations and political science, and worked as an Asian specialist at the Hoover Institution. In the 1950s, he spoke out against McCarthy-era political orthodoxy and argued that mistakes by U.S. policymakers contributed to the rise of Chinese communism. Such theories annoyed Herbert Hoover, who once referred to North as “a constant splinter in my mind.” North joined the faculty in 1958 and taught until his retirement in 1984.

When North began his career, many political scientists believed that conflict was the natural state of international relations. North asserted that war was the aberration, and that the language used in nation-to-nation exchanges—colored by each party’s desired political outcomes—produced misunderstanding and conflict. This led to North’s development of “content analysis”—the title of his groundbreaking book—which allows researchers to apply social-psychological insights to the study of foreign-policy decision making.

By using quantitative techniques—North was an early adopter of computers for number crunching—he showed how variables such as natural resources and population pressures influence diplomatic exchanges. His theories changed how political scientists thought about international relations, and his analyses of historical conflicts like World War I and the Cuban missile crisis became standard texts for generations of scholars.

“He was extraordinarily receptive to new ideas,” says former student Ole Holsti, ’54, PhD ’62, professor of political science at Duke University. “He was the kindest of men—a gentle giant in the field who never stooped to some of the less attractive types of behavior sometimes found in academia.”

In addition to his wife of 25 years, North is survived by three daughters, Woesha Hampson, ’69, Mary McNeil, ’73, JD ’78, and Renya (Kris) Ramirez, MA ’99, PhD ’99; his son, Robin; 11 grandchildren, including Colin Hampson, ’91, MA ’91, JD ’94, Chandra Hampson, ’92, and Tasha McNeil, ’96; and six great-grandchildren. A daughter, Trynka Adachi, and his first wife, Woesha Cloud North, MA ’72, predeceased him.

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.