Morton A. Kaplan, renowned political scientist, international relations scholar (1921–2017)

October 9, 2017 (last updated on November 21, 2019)

Morton A. Kaplan, distinguished service professor emeritus of political science and former chair of the Committee on International Relations, passed away on Tuesday, September 26, at the age of 96. 

Kaplan joined the University of Chicago’s Department of Political Science in 1956. During the 1950s and 1960s, he was one of the foremost international relations scholars in the world and a central figure in the development of systems theory. His most prominent contribution was detailed in his 1957 book, System and Process in International Politics, in which he introduced a scientific framework for studying international systems, an approach that challenged existing methodologies at the time. 

System and Process was the first major book that tried to offer a theory of international relations built around abstract models designed to help readers think methodically about different ways that the international system might be organized,” said John Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. “Morton emphasized that one could understand a great deal about how states interact with each other by looking at the structure or architecture of the international system itself.”

Kaplan’s work presaged the growing interest among social and political scientists to apply formal models and quantitative methods to the study of international relations; he theorized that one could understand a great deal about how states interact with one another by looking at the structure or architecture of the international system itself.

In addition to his seminal work on systems theory, he communicated prolifically on numerous topics in political science, writing or editing 30 books and over 100 articles, including: Science, Language and the Human Condition; The Political Foundations of International Law; The Rationale for NATO; Justice, Human Nature, and Political Obligation; and The Soviet Union and the Challenge of the Future. He was also active in a number of professional groups, including as president of the Professors World Peace Academy International, as a member of the editorial advisory board of the Washington Times, as the editor of the magazine World & I, and as a consultant for the National Endowment for the Humanities, among myriad other positions and memberships he held throughout his career and well into his retirement. 

Prior to joining the University of Chicago, Kaplan graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Temple University in 1943 and then served in the United States Army from 1943–1946. He earned his PhD from Columbia University in 1951. Between 1951 and 1956, he was a political science instructor at The Ohio State University, an assistant professor of political science at Haverford College, and a staff member at the Brookings Institution.

He retired from the university in 1991, but his influence remains evident today, as almost every contemporary international relations scholar has been won over to his view that the study of world politics should be a scientific enterprise. His contributions to the field are celebrated annually by the Morton A. Kaplan Prize, which recognizes the best Master’s paper by a recently graduated Honors student from the Division’s Committee on International Relations. To date, 23 students have been awarded the prize named in his honor.

Kaplan is survived by his son, Anthony Mondon. A memorial service will be held at a later date.