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Ralph White Gives Gift to SPSSI

by Daniel Perlman, President

Ralph K. White died at his home on Christmas Day, 2007.  He had a stroke.  As part of his will, Ralph bequeathed to SPSSI a gift of $30,000.  In using this resource, SPSSI will seek ways of most effectively fostering objectives we believe Ralph would have endorsed, especially in the area of peace and conflict resolution. 

Born in 1907, Ralph received his PhD from Stanford in 1937.  He then held various academic at Wesleyan, Stanford, Ohio State University and Cornell University before coming to Washington, DC in 1947 to work for the federal government, first with the Foreign Broadcast Information Service and later as Chief Soviet Block Officer in the US Government.  In 1964 he joined the faculty of George Washington University, from which he retired in 1973. 

Ralph was an inspiration to generations of socially conscious psychologists.  His ideas were seminal.  The Lewin, Lippitt and White study, reported in the SPSSI section of the 1939 volume of the Journal of Social Psychology, is one of the greatest classics in the field.  His work on peace psychology was trailblazing.  His discussions of realistic empathy, misperception in international relations, and the role of fear provided new ways of thinking about conflict and its resolution.  These publications influenced psychologists and, at least occasionally, political actors alike.  Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara called Dr. White "the foremost advocate of realistic empathy in foreign affairs."

But his contributions did not stop with writing.  Equally importantly, as Mike Wessells, Mícheál D. Roe and Susan McKay have said, “Ralph has given us a model of how to do scholarship that makes a difference… he modeled how to live as a scholar-practitioner who wove peace into living rather than treating it as an abstraction.”  Part of what he modeled, which resonates with SPSSI’s orientation, was his commitment to multidisciplinary approaches.  He also reminded us of the importance of getting into the media.  At meetings and elsewhere, he spoke with a clear voice, engaging in dialogue with young and old alike and moving others forward. 

Ralph had a long association with SPSSI, perhaps the longest of any member of the Society. He joined in 1937.  In 1937-38 he was a member of a yearbook committee on the psychology of war and peace chaired by Ross Stagner. The Committee produced the 1942 Journal of Social Psychology report entitled “A survey of public opinion on the prevention of war.”  Ralph made seminal contributions to SPSSI-sponsored publications over a 58 year span, 1939 through 1997.  These included early articles in the Journal of Social Psychology, four articles in the Journal of Social Issues (including his monograph length “Misperception and the Vietnam War”), his chapter in Herb Kelman’s International Relations, and his own 1986 SPSSI sponsored book, Psychology and the Prevention of Nuclear War. Ralph was on SPSSI Council from 1966 through 1969.  In all, he was a member for over 70 years.  

SPSSI recognized Ralph’s contributions by bestowing on him its highest honor: the Lewin Award (1969).  At the occasion of Ralph’s Lewin Address, Jerome Frank introduced him.  The citation read in part:

In a field rent by partisanship and suffused with strong emotions, Ralph White has gained widespread influence and respect by virtue of his meticulous, thorough scholarship, the clarity and originality of his thinking, and his ability to maintain his intellectual balance and objectivity while adhering to strong moral convictions.

Members of SPSSI often refer to the three Ps: poverty, prejudice and peace.  For SPSSI members concerned with peace, Ralph was such a key figure.  His concern with peace, dating back at least as far as his undergraduate days at Wesleyan, spanned an even longer time than his SPSSI membership. His participation in SPSSI was a wonderful intersection of his personal commitments and an organization’s goals going in the same direction. 

Besides his involvement in SPSSI, Ralph served as President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and the International Society of Political Psychology. The fourth issue in 2004 of the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence’s (APA Division 48’s) journal, Peace and Conflict, is devoted to Ralph White’s contribution as a pioneering peace psychologist.  It covers aspects of his life plus a series of articles on his ideas.  An intellectually creative person of high integrity, Ralph was a psychologist whose illustrious career mattered and encouraged others of us.  SPSSI is privileged and grateful to have an opportunity to contribute to his legacy.  

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