The Scientist of Peace

The global village remains in great jeopardy.
– Professor J. David Singer
  1. Chapter 1 Accident at Sea

    On December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, J. David Singer turned 16 in Brooklyn, New York. He was hot to be a Navy fighter pilot, but you had to be 17 to sign up. So one year later, on December 7, 1942, he walked into his U.S. Navy recruiting station.

    That was how the man who would become perhaps the leading proponent of peace studies in American academe — a “90-percent pacifist” who would battle his superiors at Michigan to make his voice heard — went to war.

    As a thinker, Singer was a creature of World War II and the perilous cold war with the Soviet Union that followed. Brilliant and combative, he became a pioneer in a new, scientific way of studying war, believing a way to lasting peace might be found if only humankind truly understood how war and peace are made.

    He never abandoned that belief. The question that would bedevil him was: Even if academic analysts gained that understanding, would people in power pay attention?

    * * *

    On the day Singer enlisted in the navy, he had been as keen for glory as any American youngster. Half a century later, as a veteran peace researcher, he recalled all the powerful incentives for a teenager to get into uniform: “There’s a bad joke in our business: ‘Men like war, and girls like men who like war.’ And certainly, in America in 1941, that was so close to the truth!”

    But he also had a cool head. He watched the training class of pilots ahead of his and noticed a high number dying in fiery crashes. “I thought that wasn’t so smart,” he recalled much later. He figured he could do his duty just as patriotically in naval gunnery, and he got himself transferred.

    His training, including a B.A. at Duke (where he played tight end for the football team), lasted so long that the war was over by the time he was assigned to a ship. It was the U.S.S. Missouri, where Japanese leaders signed the documents of surrender in 1945. He spent many months on peacetime patrol around the world. He was planning a career in the Navy. Then his faith in the military met its first major challenge.

    On December 13, 1946, the Missouri was accidentally hit by a starshell fired in target practice in the North Atlantic. Fires broke out. Singer was officer of the deck. The ship was in turbulent waters. A surgeon performing a delicate operation on an injured man — Singer’s own chief petty officer — asked Singer to set a smoother course to make the procedure safer. He did so.

    The captain spotted the change and asked: “Singer, what are you doing?”

    Singer explained.

    “You wouldn’t do that in wartime, would you?” the captain said.

    Singer said: “Captain, I don’t think you know the war is over.”

    The captain ordered the ship back on its original course, and the chief petty officer died. The next day Singer told the captain he’d like to leave active duty as soon as possible, and the captain said he’d be glad to make that happen.

  2. Chapter 2 Good Guys and Bad Guys

    Out of the Navy, though still on reserve, Singer studied news of the dawning cold war with the Soviet Union. “It became very clear to me that American policy was no more sensible than Russian policy,” he told an interviewer years later. “And that led me to think that we needed to strengthen the United Nations, and we needed to make the superpowers behave better.”

    About this time, Singer handwrote “the rules by which I shall live and the objectives for which I will strive.” After “examining all pertinent facts” to determine “the rightness of a belief or idea,” he vowed that “in politics and social situations, although recognizing that many neither recognize nor desire the right thing, I shall nevertheless strive for that right thing.”

    As he worked on a master’s degree at New York University, he became active in peace organizations, including the movement to promote world federalism — a kind of super-U.N. — which he regarded as the most realistic and responsible of all anti-war efforts, an opinion shared by thinkers ranging from Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to Winston Churchill.

    Then, as an instructor in political science at Vassar College, he met a major behavioral psychologist named Otto Klineberg, who told Singer the future of social analysis lay in statistics. He should tool up in the methods of gathering and studying of hard data.

    He followed that advice, both at NYU, where he got his Ph.D., and at Harvard, where he did more training. After another Navy hitch during the Korean war, he landed a position as an instructor in political science at Michigan.

    Here he would butt up against another captain who asked what the hell he was thinking.

    * * *

    Singer’s dissertation had put him in the lead among a small band of academics who were determined to counter the work of academic Cold Warriors with “peace research.” At Michigan these contrarians were starting a quixotic project called the Center for Research on Conflict Resolution, which would soon publish a new Journal of Conflict Resolution. It was one of the factors that made U-M attractive to Singer, and he quickly joined in.

    In Ann Arbor he remained active in peace organizations. But he was the precise opposite of the feather-headed, sandal-wearing peacenik of conservative lore and legend. The featherheads, he said, were the people who made claims about war and peace without hard data. He contended that most political scientists proclaimed grand theories about international conflict with nothing more concrete to support their ideas than convenient anecdotes and conventional wisdom.

    He intended to collect data to test those claims the way a biochemist examines cells to test theories about cancer. And he was fearless about challenging thinkers with far more time in the academic trenches — and tenure.

    All this put him in head-to-head conflict at Michigan with heavyweight political scientists who were less interested in “resolving” the U.S.’s epochal conflict with the Soviets than in winning it. One of these was the formidable chair of political science, James Kerr Pollack, whose service included advising the Roosevelt and Truman administrations on German politics.

    Pollack and other veterans in Political Science took a dim view indeed of Singer’s emerging work.

    As Singer put it, Pollack’s message to the conflict-resolvers was: “You don’t need to do any research on this, comrades. It’s very simple. It’s the good guys and the bad guys, and it’s us against the Russians. So what kind of research are you doing? You fellows must be subversive.”

    More than once, Singer said, Pollack took him aside and said: “You’ve got to decide: Are you a political scientist or a peace researcher?” Singer would say he was both. Pollack would frown.

    One time Singer was invited to speak to the Ann Arbor Women’s City Club about the testing of nuclear weapons. He looked out at his audience, observed a number of pregnant listeners, and described the health effects of the atmospheric effluvium from atomic testing.

    This got back to James Pollack, who again pulled Singer aside and said: “What the hell do you know about nuclear weapons?” Quite a lot, in fact, Singer said.

    At the end of two years, his contract was not renewed.

    So he took a visiting post at the Naval War College. He got in trouble there, too. A Cold Warrior historian and speechwriter for Richard Nixon called Singer “the spokesman for the surrender lobby.”

    But with a new political science chair in place at U-M, and opposition to the war in Vietnam beginning to stir, he was brought back to Ann Arbor. He was publishing articles like crazy, and soon he was granted tenure.

    He was gathering the data he would need — a mountain range of data — to make arguments about which factors really did and didn’t push countries into war.

    He called it the Correlates of War Project. He wouldn’t claim to find the exact causes of any given war, or to say which brewing tensions would inevitably lead directly to conflict. Instead, like a meteorologist discussing the likelihood of hurricanes over time, he intended to show which theories about war were like a fisherman’s hunch and which could stand the test of cold, clear, statistical analysis.

    The Correlates of War Project would be dedicated, as a colleague of Singer’s put it later, “to the systematic accumulation of scientific knowledge about military conflict in order to end it.”

    If he could prove how to avoid war, Singer figured — not to mention how to avoid nuclear catastrophe — surely people in power would pay attention.

    • Professor J. David Singer.
      Professor J. David Singer.
      Image: Bentley Historical Library
  3. Chapter 3 The Correlates of War

    With colleagues and student aides, he began in 1963 to gather and sort myriad micro-facts of history. They studied every significant armed conflict since the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s. They vacuumed up statistics on economies, military spending, weapons, politics, geography, social and ethnic characteristics — millions of bytes of raw data. Then they began to feed them into computers.

    Early on, Singer saw two patterns: “One, that most wars were not intended; that wars were basically stumbled and drifted into in pursuit of other objectives. Second, that the consequences of war were considerably more catastrophic than I originally understood… That affected my moral attitude toward war and strengthened my conviction that I needed to start this project.”

    Using the new data, he and his colleagues began to publish scholarly papers and books that would pile up by the score.

    * * *

    Singer looked for targets in the self-styled “realist” school of foreign policy. Think Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft arguing that calculations of national interest and the balance of power — not morals and idealism — should govern the decisions of nation-states.

    For example: Throughout the Cold War and beyond, realists advanced the “Munich analogy.” This is the idea that if Great Britain and France had stopped Adolf Hitler’s aggression against Czechoslovakia in 1938 — instead of caving in to Hitler’s demands, as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain did at a meeting with Hitler in Munich — then World War II could have been avoided.

    The Munich analogy was invoked, for example, in the fall of 1990 as the U.S. prepared to throw Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. Initiating Project Desert Shield, precursor to Desert Storm, President George H.W. Bush declared: “The history of this century shows clearly that rewarding aggression encourages more aggression.”

    In an interview at the time, Singer read Bush’s words aloud and said: “That’s crap. I’ve got findings that say that’s all wrong.”

    Using Correlates of War data, here’s how Singer applied the scientific method to the Munich analogy:

    Theory: Unchecked aggression leads to more aggression.

    Hypothesis: If an aggressor nation is allowed to win a war, then it or other aggressor nations will soon initiate new wars.

    The data: From 1815 to 1965, there were 50 interstate wars. In 34 cases, the aggressor won the war. In those 34 instances, a new war followed in 35 percent of the cases. But in the 16 cases where the aggressor lost the war, a new war followed in 56 percent of the cases.

    Singer’s conclusion: “It comes alarmingly close to suggesting that peace is best preserved by permitting the initiator to be successful in its aggressive behavior!”

    Here’s another postulate he put to the test:

    Theory: Peace requires strength.

    Hypothesis: If peace requires strength, then five-year periods in which a nation is strong are likely to be followed by periods of peace for that nation, and five-year periods of weakness are likely to be followed by war.

    The data: For all major-power nations from 1816 to 1965, there were 178 “major-power half-decades.” (That’s like the concept of a man-hour.) Peaceful periods followed 52 half-decades when the major power in question was stronger than average. But peaceful periods followed 126 half-decades when the major power in question was weaker than average.

    Singer’s conclusion: “The greater a nation’s military capabilities at any given time, the greater its likelihood of being involved in war within five years.”

    Those were critiques of the Cold Warriors. But Singer was often equally skeptical of progressive analyses of war and peace.

    He was dubious of the idea that democratic nations are less likely to make war than authoritarian nations. That was “heartwarming and persuasive for those of us who have grown up believing that free citizens do not make war,” he said, but the data suggested otherwise.

    “You read the thermometer; you read the blood pressure; you measure the conditions instead of saying, ‘These are evil guys and they’re out to dominate the world… If you look at the 100 years or so since the Napoleonic period, it’s very hard to spot the good guys and the bad guys. They’re all bad guys. It’s a matter of degrees of badness.”

    Findings from the Correlates of War set a flame to one page of conventional wisdom after another.

    But he had not foreseen just how durable conventional wisdom could be.

    The greater a nation’s military capabilities at any given time, the greater its likelihood of being involved in war within five years.
    – J. David Singer
  4. Chapter 4 The Critics

    At one level Singer was the classic ivory-tower academic, fighting in obscure academic journals over problems of theory and method that no one but his fellow specialists could ever understand.

    But at a deeper level he was desperate to make an impact on world affairs. He said all that academic warfare would be wasted if academics talked only to each other. They had to put their analyses out where powerful actors could use them “to address the major problems confronting the global village.”

    And yet he could not get people in power to pay attention. He testified before a congressional committee or two. The U.N. set up an office to look at data like the Correlates of War. But there was no breakthrough to being taken seriously by decision-makers.

    When he would try, they would tell him that comparing any two wars, let alone more than a thousand, was like comparing apples and oranges.

    Yes, he replied, each war was distinct. But if one is trying to generalize about fruit, it was perfectly logical to compare apples and oranges.

    Singer and his colleagues also battled the problem that faces anyone who argues with numbers instead of stories.

    Melvin Small, a Michigan-trained historian who joined the Correlates of War Project at the start and continued to work on it as a faculty member at Wayne State University, once conceded that “the project’s articles and books are not compelling literature as, for example, [is] Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.”

    Still, Small said, “the handful of well-known anecdotes cited by amateur and professional historians,” mostly about major wars and famous episodes, were no substitute for systematic analysis of all wars.

    The critics’ key objection was this: What good was history when a crisis was just beginning?

    “The policy guy says: ‘I don’t care what happened in 82 percent of the cases since Napoleon,'” Singer said. “‘I need to know what’s going to happen next week. Isn’t it possible that your historical regularities aren’t going to [apply] next time?’

    “And I have to say, ‘Of course, it’s very possible.'” But predictions based on actual evidence, he said, would be far stronger than predictions based on flimsy anecdotes and impressions.

    He said politicians state factual propositions every day — which nation is stronger than another; which event is more or less likely to occur next — without realizing these are statistical statements.

    “I don’t think it’s ethically legitimate,” he once said, “for people to say, ‘Well, we use the methods [of political analysis] that are most appropriate.’ They use the methods with which they happen to be familiar, and if those methods are inadequate — tough. That’s their attitude.”

    He said most statistical assumptions by decision-makers amounted to this: “All Indians walk in single file. I know, because the one I saw did.”

    But surely, aren’t some wars simply inevitable?

    Singer doubted it. Every year, in his various classes on international conflict and war, he would hear at least one student ask that question, and “I will always say: I conclude no war in the last few centuries was inevitable. Every war, international or domestic, was avoidable — which is why I’ve always had strong regard for the peace studies folks and the conflict resolution folks.”

    No one would call him humble about the quality of his research or the truth of his findings. But he was only too aware of his field’s failure to influence policy-makers. It took so long to do good science. Policy-makers doubted that committed pacifists could do objective science.

    “We have won the epistemological battle,” he told an interviewer, “but we have not won the applicability struggle by a long shot.”

    I don’t think it’s ethically legitimate for people to say, ‘Well, we use the methods [of political analysis] that are most appropriate.’ They use the methods with which they happen to be familiar, and if those methods are inadequate — tough.
    – J. David Singer
  5. Chapter 5 “Towers of Indifference”

    As president of the International Studies Association in 1985, Singer urged his colleagues to embrace “the responsibilities of competence.” They knew important things that people in power didn’t, and “it is time for us to pay more attention to the needs of our societies than to the short-run consideration of bureaucratic and personal interests.”

    “Much is at stake, our talents are many, but so little has been done. Worse yet, so little has been attempted. World-affairs specialists in most countries lead a rather privileged existence, largely insulated from danger, oppression, poverty and boredom.” It was long past time to shed that safety and make their ideas count in the “great game” between nations.

    He had been called a modern Don Quixote, he admitted, but “those are not windmills out there. They are, rather, towers of indifference, ignorance and incompetence, and if we have not helped to erect them, we have done much too little to bring them down. Until we do, the global village remains in great jeopardy.”

    * * *

    In 2001 Singer transferred the Correlates of War Project to Penn State University. (It would later be hosted by the University of Illinois and the University of California at Davis. It continues today.) He retired in 2002.

    In the fall of 2009 he was hurt in a car accident. He died in the hospital three months later at the age of 84.

    In 2013, the political scientist David Geller reviewed all Singer’s studies of nuclear deterrence and arms control and concluded that he had been not just a prophet, but an accurate one.

    “A series of … commitments by the United States and other nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states have moved the system of states toward the goals he envisioned. It is also true that a great distance remains to be traversed before Singer’s dream of a world without weapons of mass destruction. If J. David Singer were here today, discussing both his early prescriptions and the developments of the last 50 years, I think we might hear him say that ‘the progress has been moderately successful.'”


    Sources included Singer’s collection of professional and personal papers at the Bentley Historical Library; J. David Singer, Advancing Peace Research; Models, Methods and Progress in World Politics; “The Responsibilities of Competence in the Global Village,” International Studies Quarterly, 1985; Melvin Small, “History and the Correlates of War Project,” unpublished manuscript in the Singer papers;  James D. Morrow, et al, “J. David Singer,” Political Science and Politics, July 2010; Meredith Reid Sarkees, “J. David Singer and the Democratic Peace” and Daniel S. Geller, “J. David Singer on Deterrence, Arms Control, and Disarmament,” in International Studies Review, June 2013. Especially helpful was a long interview conducted with Singer by the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Parts of the story first appeared in an article by the author, “Equations of War and Peace,” Detroit News, 12/17/1990.


    • Singer in later years.
      Singer in later years.