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Wright, Quincy (1890-1970)

Quincy Wright

Man’s history has long been a story of struggle against suffering and death. This struggle began when hunger and illness were no longer accepted as irresistible and foreordained by fate—when men began to act against them. Today millions of men and women in medical work and medical research carry on this struggle against death. But today war is a greater threat to human life than famine or disease. And in the entire world only a few hundred or thousand men and women are engaged in serious professional research on what causes war and on how war could be abolished.

Nothing less than this—the understanding of war and the possible ways to its abolition—is on the agenda of our time.

War, to be abolished, must be understood. To be understood, it must be studied. No one man worked with more sustained care, compassion, and level-headedness on the study of war, its causes, and its possible prevention than Quincy Wright. He did so for nearly half a century, not only as a defender of man’s survival, but as a scientist. He valued accuracy, facts, and truth more than any more appealing or preferred conclusions; and in his great book, A Study of War, he gathered, together with his collaborators, a larger body of relevant facts, insights, and far-ranging questions about war than anyone else has done.

Quincy Wright did more than pile up information about war. He developed a basic theory of war. Summarized and in drastically oversimplified form, it might be called in effect a four-factor model of the origins of war. Put most simply, his four factors are (1) technology, particularly as it applies to military matters; (2) law, particularly as it pertains to war and its initiation; (3) social organization, particularly in regard to such general purpose political units as tribes, nations, empires, and international organizations; and (4) the distribution of opinions and attitudes concerning basic values. These four factors correspond to the technological, legal, sociopolitical, and biological-psychological-cultural levels of human life, respectively. At each level, conflict is likely, and violent conflict becomes probable whenever there is an overloading or breakdown of the mechanisms of arrangements that have controlled the interplay of actions and actors at any level and that previously have preserved some nonviolent balance or equilibrium.

Quincy and Louise

Quincy and Louise Wright in New Delhi, c. 1958.

Violence and war, according to Quincy Wright, are probable and natural whenever adequate adjustments or controls on one or more of these levels are lacking. Peace, as he saw it, is “an equilibrium among many forces.” It is unlikely to come about by itself. It must be organized in order to bring it about, to maintain it thereafter, and to restore it after it has broken down.

Whenever there is a major change at any level—culture and values, political and social institutions, laws, or technology—the old adjustment and control mechanisms become strained and may break down. Any major psychological and cultural, or major social and political, or legal, or technological change in the world thus increases the risk of war, unless it is balanced by compensatory political, legal, cultural, and psychological adjustments. Peace thus requires ever new efforts, new arrangements, and often new institutions to preserve the peace or to restore it after its partial or worldwide breakdown.

The decades since 1942, the first appearance of A Study of War, have seen unparalleled changes sweep the world. These have been changes at all levels—in demography, in technology, in law, in cultures and values, and in social systems and in politics—and, consequently, the basic risk of war is now greater than ever. It follows that we must increase our efforts to create international organizations and practices capable of reducing this mounting risk of war to very low proportions.

Wright’s conception of these factors was such that the changes in each are conceived of as, in principle. measurable. Technological change can be measured by statistical data about the explosive power of bombs, about the speed and range of delivery systems, and about the total energy supply of the national economies behind each military establishment. Changes in attitudes and values held by the masses of the populations, and in the possibly different values held by the elites of political decision-makers, may be measured by means of public opinion data and by the content analysis of major newspapers or by policy statements. Changes in the number and size of states of various types and in the number, scope, and observance of international laws, treaties, and organizations could all, in principle, likewise be noted. From such data, inferences could be drawn to estimate the speed and scope of processes increasing or decreasing the likelihood of uncontrolled large-scale conflicts and hence the size and power of the forces making for war or peace. These forces are seen as working behind and beneath the health or illness and the wisdom or folly of individual statesmen, leaders, or commanders. The decisions of such individuals still count for much in Quincy Wright’s view of the world, but they must govern—either against or with—the current of large events made up of the changes of large systems and the changing values and actions of hundreds of millions of people. In the present age of dangerous transition, the problems before statesmen and peoples are in some ways similar to the difficult adjustments that European peoples had to make in the great transitions of the fifth and the fifteenth centuries, each of which, as Wright reminded us, was made successfully.

As a pragmatically oriented thinker, Quincy Wright sought more to be empirically comprehensive than to be mathematically elegant. At this stage of social science, his broad factors are not completely operational. They represent large categories and aspects of society and politics. Once we try to specify quantitative variables within each of these broad factors, their number soon becomes large and their analysis difficult. Much work is to be done here, but it will be aided and illuminated by Wright’s grand conception. Details of this conception, applied to the historic past, as well as to the present and future, fill hundreds of pages of A Study of War. They still furnish suggestions for research for years to come. Indeed, seeing the world in this manner, Quincy Wright necessarily became one of the chief pioneers of modern peace research. In due time, more explicit, detailed, and sophisticated models will doubtlessly follow upon his pathbreaking effort, but they will bear a debt to the work he did.

Quincy and Sewall

Quincy Wright, left, and his brother Sewall with a portrait of their father, Phillip Green Wright.

But this book offers more than a fundamental education. It was and is a pathfinder in matters of substance; and its substantive concerns have been carried forward since the time of its first appearance in 1942. Quincy Wright himself did this by editing a volume on The World Community in 1948 and by writing his important text on The Study of International Relations in 1955, which marked a significant advance in the use of quantitative data in a larger framework of analysis (Wright, 1948, 1955). His work on the study of conflict has been the pioneer for such later work as the continuing research by many scholars.

His chapter in A Study of War on the balance of power showed the way in which a balance-of-power system may gradually turn into an international or supranational community.

Until now, to the best of my knowledge, the Nobel Peace Prize has never been given to a social scientist. In contrast to the policy of other Nobel Prize committees, in other fields, the Norwegian Parliament has awarded mankind’s highest honor for contributions to peace only to men of political action or to other persons engaged in popular persuasion.

Recipients of the prize thus have usually been statesmen of national governments or international organizations or else writers, educators, or natural scientists trying to influence popular attitudes. In regard to the social sciences, the pursuit of more knowledge about peace thus far has gone unnoticed and unhonored at the highest level. On the day on which this changes, on the day when the crucial role of knowledge and of social science in the search for peace will be more fully appreciated than it has been in the past—mankind may well remember the pioneering contributions of Quincy Wright’s A Study of War.

— By Karl Deutsch, from The Journal of Conflict Resolution (Volume XIV, Number 4, 1970).


The following letter, published in The Journal of Conflict Resolution, urged that Quincy Wright be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize:

Dr. August Schou
General Secretary
Nobel Peace Prize Committee
Norwegian Nobel Institute

Dear Dr. Schou:

I am writing you as the chairman of the committee now being formed in order to nominate Professor Quincy Wright for the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1970. During the last 30 years, Professor Quincy Wright has done more than any other scholar to promote the cause of peace by means of fundamental research in political science, international law, and the social sciences. More than any other living scholar, he may be considered the founder of systematic research for peace. The Peace Research Institutes now developing in many countries represent later stages in a trend to the start of which Wright made a decisive contribution.

Quincy Wright’s most important scholarly contribution is his monumental work, A Study of War, first published in 1942, and re-published (revised and with a new chapter) in 1965 by The University of Chicago Press. This book represents the most serious and sustained research effort undertaken thus far, to bring together the knowledge of social scientists, historians, and students of politics on the causes of war, and on possible ways to abolish war as a social institution.

In his field of political science. Quincy Wright has been a leader of international stature. For many years Professor at the University of Chicago, he was President of the American Association of University Professors, 1944-46, of the American Political Science Association, 1949-50; of the International Political Science Association, 1950-51: and of the American Society of International Law, 1955-56.

Throughout his life, Quincy Wright has taken the side of peace in the political decisions of his time, even where this implied disagreement with the current foreign policies of his country. In the 1920’s he opposed the prevailing American policies of political isolation and favored United States membership in the League of Nations. In the 1930’s he opposed Nazi and Japanese aggression, supported the Spanish Republic, and favored United States collaboration for collective security against fascism. Unlike some of his colleagues, Quincy Wright was an antifacist before it became fashionable to be one. During and after World War II, he supported the United Nations, and opposed the growing rigidity of the foreign policies of the United States and the Soviet Union during the years of the “cold war.” He was from the outset an active opponent of the United States war in Vietnam, challenging its supposed legal basis as well as its asserted morality, justice, or political rationality. On all these issues, whether his views prevailed or not, his public stand and personal commitment have earned weight with many. Like Ralph Bunche and Martin Luther King, Quincy Wright has helped to change the mood of his epoch and country. It was Quincy Wright’s quiet work, together with that of many other scholars, which helped prepare the intellectual and moral climate in which opposition to the war in Vietnam—and to any war like it—is gradually becoming the majority view of the American people.

Our nomination of Quincy Wright also raises a question of principle. To be abolished, war, like cancer, must be understood in its causes. Thus far, Nobel Prizes for Peace have been given to statesmen and to public figures, appealing to public opinion in ways promoting peace, often in connection with specific political issues. It is good and right that such efforts were honored by your prize. But should not the cognitive side—the creation of knowledge relevant to the fostering of peace—also be honored from time to time by your Peace Prize?

In combating illness, the Nobel Prize for Medicine rewards the creation of new knowledge and the making of new discoveries, far above any concern for their application. The promoting of peace, the will and skill to apply whatever useful knowledge we have is certainly important, but is the discovery and creation of such relevant knowledge not equally important?

Your committee could exercise leadership and give a positive answer to these questions by awarding the Nobel Prize for Peace to Quincy Wright, who has contributed both to the knowledge for peace and to the willingness of many students and readers to act on this knowledge.

In so doing, you would honor not only an outstanding individual but all those who are trying to serve peace through working in the social sciences.

Yours respectfully,
Karl W. Deutsch, President
American Political Science Association

List of Sponsors

  • Kenneth Boulding, University of Colorado; President, International Peace Research Association
  • Karl W. Deutsch, Harvard University; President, American Political Science Association
  • Carl J. Friedrich, Harvard University; President, International Political Science Association
  • Ernst B. Haas, University of California, Berkeley
  • Walter Isard, University of Pennsylvania; Executive Secretary, Peace Research Society (International)
  • Majid Khadduri, Johns Hopkins University
  • Daniel Katz, University of Michigan
  • Robert E. Lane, Yale University; President-elect. American Political Science Association
  • Harold D. Lasswell, Yale Law School; President, American Political Science Association, 1955-56
  • Albert Lepawski, University of California, Berkeley
  • Anatol Rapoport, Technical University, Lingby, Denmark; and University of Michigan
  • Bert E. A. Roling, Polemologisch Institut, Netherlands; Secretary-General, International Peace Research Association
  • J. David Singer, University of Michigan; Chairman, Nominating Committee, American Political Science Association
  • Kenneth W. Thompson, Vice-president, The Rockefeller Foundation
  • Oscar Schachter, Director, UNITAR; President, American Society of International Law

The nomination failed. Nevertheless, the contribution of Quincy Wright lives on as a deathless expression of his invigorating Unitarian faith in life.



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