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Robert C. North, expert in quantitative analysis and international conflict, dies
Robert C. North, professor emeritus of political science, died July 15 in Menlo Park, Calif., following a stroke. The Woodside resident was 87.
The influential political scientist was best known for introducing quantitative techniques to the study of international relations. Using computers -- including the Borroughs 220 and IBM 7090 in the early days -- to analyze variables such as population, technology and resources, he applied scientific methods to determine attitudes and perceptions as they relate to state and organizational behavior. North's first major research project, a quantitative analysis of the content of diplomatic exchanges between England, Germany and Russia before World War I to understand what brought about the war, has become foundational for generations of political scientists, colleagues said. This work culminated in a 1963 book, Content Analysis.
"In every respect, Bob North was a major figure -- a major researcher in a major field for a long period of time," Paul Sniderman, the Fairleigh S. Dickinson, Jr. Professor in Public Policy and current chair of the Political Science Department, said. He praised in particular North's 1975 book, Nations in Conflict, co-authored by Nazli Choucri, and his 1992 book, The Challenge of Japan Before World War II and After, co-authored by Choucri and Susumu Yamakage.
Richard A. Brody, professor emeritus of political science, said North's work, which focused on the causes of international crises, remains relevant. "The sorts of processes that lead to backing off or non-war and the other processes that eventuate in war are still at work now," he said. He added that governments that pay attention to North's work can decrease the likelihood that war occurs.
North's scholarship was most recently recognized by the Université de Genève in Switzerland, which in 1998 awarded him the Prix Mondial Nessim Habif for advancements in the field of international relations. In 1998, he also was honored as the year's Distinguished Scholar by the International Studies Association, of which he was president in 1974. In 1993, he received the American Political Science Association's Lifetime Achievement Award for his work's "originality, penetration and concern for making the world a safer place without the politics of coercion."
North was also a celebrated literary author. His novel, Revolt in San Marcos, about an uprising in a fictitious Latin American country, won the 1948 Wallace Stegner Prize and the 1949 Commonwealth Club Gold Medal. He was a published author by the age of 11, when G. P. Putnam printed his accounts of adventures in Northern Ontario with his father as part of a boys' adventure series. North's observations of the customs, hunting methods and movements of the Ojibway Indians later became material for Canadian anthropologists, who prized them as among the few extant first-person writings about the tribe.
Born Nov. 17, 1914, in Walton, N.Y., North graduated in 1936 from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., with a degree in language and literature. He served as an English and history teacher at a preparatory school in Connecticut before joining the Army in World War II. Rising to the rank of captain, North earned seven battle stars for his service from 1942 to 1946. He came to Stanford directly after his military service for graduate work in international relations and political science. As a research associate at the Hoover Institution in 1953, he sparked controversy with his study Moscow and Chinese Communists. Arguing that China became a communist nation because of honest American errors in judgment and failures by Chinese nationalists, North spoke out against the McCarthy-era witch-hunt and blunt proscription of unorthodox thought. He became a faculty member of the Political Science Department in 1958 and retired in 1984.
At Stanford, North left a lasting stamp on the character and caliber of the Political Science Department, according to his colleagues. "He was a major force in reshaping the department. It was a pretty lousy department until the late 1950s," Heinz Eulau, the William Bennett Munro Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, said. Under North's influence, Eulau said, political science at Stanford became a serious discipline, producing well-respected research and attracting top-notch students and faculty. He served as a beloved mentor to and frequent collaborator with generations of doctoral students, including Choucri and Ole Holsti.
North also impressed Brody when he began at Stanford as a junior faculty member. "Intellectually, he was very open," Brody said. "There was nothing ideological or closed about him. He searched for the truth, wherever it took him. I admired that. He was a good role model for me."
One of North's major duties at Stanford was leading the interdisciplinary international conflict studies program, which began in 1958. Its study of how tensions become wars and how wars can be defused became particularly relevant during the Cuban missile crisis. "History suggests that even two hostile nations can learn to control their conflicts. We want to find out more about the ways in which such conflicts can be limited and handled peacefully," North once explained.
North had a very personal commitment to peace, according to family and friends. "Bob had seen war firsthand in the Philippines in World War II as he was fighting with the guerrilla forces against the Japanese. Peace was not an abstract issue for him," Brody said. That commitment guided not only his academic interests but also his interaction with other people, said Gabriel Almond, professor emeritus of political science and a longtime friend of North. "He was an utterly gentle man whom I've never seen angry. In every encounter, he was the kind of man who would contribute to resolving conflict."
North remained a lively intellectual until the end of his life. "He would still call me up to talk about a new book he just read," Almond said. At the time of his death, North was working on a second novel based on his experience in World War II. In researching this book, North even had contacted a veteran from the Japanese army over the Internet, Almond said.
North is survived by his wife, Dorothy, of Woodside; four children; 11 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Contributions in his memory may be made to the Robert C. North Scholarship Fund, Attn: Alice Marocco, Union College, 807 Union St., Schenectady, NY 12308. At the family's request, no memorial service was held.
By Jia-Rui Chong