Ralph K. White, 100; Studied War Psychology

Ralph White wrote about the Arab- Israeli conflict and nuclear warfare.
Ralph White wrote about the Arab- Israeli conflict and nuclear warfare. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 12, 2008

Ralph K. White, 100, a psychologist, professor and government official who studied the psychological causes of war, died Dec. 25 at his home at the Broadmead retirement community in Cockeysville, Md. He had a stroke.

Dr. White was among the first people to analyze how underlying psychological causes and misunderstandings can lead nations to engage in warfare. He was perhaps best known for his theory distinguishing between empathy and sympathy for one's adversaries.

"Empathy is the great corrective for all forms of war-promoting misperception," he wrote in his 1984 book "Fearful Warriors: A Psychological Profile of U.S.-Soviet Relations."

"It means simply understanding the thoughts and feelings of others. It is distinguished from sympathy, which is defined as feeling with others -- as being in agreement with them. Empathy with opponents is therefore psychologically possible even when a conflict is so intense that sympathy is out of the question. We are not talking about warmth or approval, and certainly not about agreeing with, or siding with, but only about realistic understanding."

In a 2001 article in World Policy Journal, former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara called Dr. White "the foremost advocate of realistic empathy in foreign affairs."

Dr. White developed many of his ideas during a 17-year career as a federal official. He first worked from 1947 to 1950 with the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, then part of the Central Intelligence Agency, evaluating the psychological implications of Voice of America broadcasts overseas.

He later did similar work with the State Department. From 1954 to 1964, he was chief of the Soviet bloc division of the U.S. Information Agency. He was a professor at George Washington University from 1964 to 1973 and continued teaching as an emeritus professor until 1980.

Dr. White was born in Detroit and was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. He received a doctorate in psychology from Stanford University in 1937. He taught at Wesleyan, Stanford, Ohio State University and Cornell University before coming to Washington in 1947.

He wrote scores of professional papers in his field from 1931 to 2004 and was the author or editor of four books: "Autocracy and Democracy: An Experimental Inquiry" (1960); "Nobody Wanted War: Misperception in Vietnam and Other Wars" (1968); "Fearful Warriors"; and "Psychology and the Prevention of Nuclear War" (1986).

In praising "Fearful Warriors," former U.S. senator J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), the longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, "It will be a tragedy if we do not recognize the validity of his thesis in time to avoid further escalation of the arms race."

Dr. White wrote a 1977 article on the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Journal of Social Issues that was distributed to State Department offices around the world. He was president of the Psychologists for Social Responsibility, the International Society of Political Psychology and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.

He received the Kurt Lewin Memorial Award of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues in 1969 and the Nevitt Sanford Award of the International Society of Political Psychology in 1986.

He lived in Washington and later Bethesda from 1947 to 1985.

His marriage to Eleanor Lack White ended in divorce. Their daughter, Dorothy White, died in 1985.

His second wife, Elizabeth Herzog White, died in 1972. His third wife, Elisabeth Barton White, died in 1993.

Survivors include a son from his first marriage, Stephen K. White of Easton, Pa.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company