A professor’s war for peace

On thin ice

On a sunny December morning in 1921, 10-year-old Anatol Rapoport walked gingerly along the Zbruch River in Soviet Ukraine carrying his brand new pair of ice skates. He stayed close to a fence to hide his movements and peered carefully through a gap toward the Polish border. After nine days of waiting, he had found his moment.

“Looking through the gap I saw a crowd of kids skating beneath a dam, apparently with no military patrolling,” he would later write in a memoir. “I could easily skate across, blend in with the kids and escape to freedom on the Polish side.”

He started out thinking, “The ice holds near the shore, otherwise the kids wouldn’t be skating there. Will it hold in the middle of the stream? Should I go slowly or as fast as I can?”

Suddenly he heard a shout.

“Out of nowhere, a Red Army soldier looking down from atop the dam was shouting and waving at me,” Rapoport recounted. “As I hesitated, he aimed his rifle at my head. I turned around and skated back as fast I could to the Russian side.”

The boy’s destination was Satanov, a town thought to be named for the devil. Days later, with the help of a smuggler, Rapoport and his father returned to the river. This time they escaped across the Zbruch to freedom.

History repeats

A relaxed-looking Rapoport in Chicago, 1924.

A relaxed-looking Rapoport in Chicago, 1924. (Image courtesy of Anthony Rapoport.)

Though he was Russian, Rapoport had much in common with the millions of modern-day Ukrainians now fleeing their besieged homeland for safe harbor in Eastern Europe. He was not eager to leave his birthplace in what is today’s Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine. But the nation was ravaged by warring Red and White armies after civil war broke out in late 1917. Russian Jews may have been free to live anywhere in their homeland, attend public school, and work in their chosen profession, but perpetual combat forced Rapoport’s family to flee again and again across Ukraine, Crimea, and the Caucasus.

With troops battling in their neighborhoods, invading their homes, and bivouacking in their backyards, Rapoport’s parents were perpetually on high alert. Only when he and his father reunited with his mother, in Poland, were they finally free to head for the U.S. They settled in Chicago in 1922. After graduating high school, Rapoport took prize money from a piano competition and traveled to the Vienna Hochschule für Musik. He toured for four years as a concert pianist in Europe, America, and Mexico, and then took a doctorate in mathematics at the University of Chicago.

It’s likely the future scholar’s childhood proximity to so much war sparked his lifelong interest in the science of human conflict. By the time he joined the Michigan faculty in 1955, he was well on his way to becoming a renowned mathematical psychologist, semanticist, game theorist, and peace researcher, known for his significant contributions to the field of game theory, negotiation, and conflict resolution. He would go on to be a founding member of the U-M Mental Health Research Institute.

Tit for tat

Rapoport, 1933

Rapoport in 1933. (Image courtesy of Anthony Rapoport.)

Throughout his career, Rapoport demonstrated an unusual capacity to meld mathematical modeling with human behavior. In many ways, his work foreshadowed today’s focus on integrating neuroscience with “Big Data” to understand neural function and the biological roots of behavior.

“In models that offer strategies within games mirroring competitive, socially interdependent scenarios, Rapoport did not have mechanistic role-players in mind, but real people,” writes Shirli Kopelman in Tit for Tat and Beyond: The Legendary Work of Anatol Rapoport. Kopelman is a negotiations expert and Michigan Ross professor of management and organizations. “The legacy and thinking of Anatol Rapoport continue to resonate and reverberate today whenever we conduct rigorous scholarship toward transforming conflict into peaceful harmony, whether among people or nations.”

In 1965, Rapoport co-authored Prisoner’s Dilemma: A Study in Conflict and Cooperation, a deceptively simple concept that demonstrates how people are motivated to trust or distrust their partners, to keep faith or to betray, to be guided by joint or selfish interests, and so on. Rapoport also is known for introducing the “Tit for Tat” strategy in game theory, which posits that a person is more successful if they cooperate with another person in competitive environments.

When considering strategy and conscience, according to Rapoport, there is an essential incompatibility, Kopelman writes: “Studying game theory is not just a game. While Rapoport focused on simple ideas and strategies to promote cooperation in game models, his paramount aspiration was to advance world peace.”

Not just a game

Not surprisingly, Rapoport was active in anti-war demonstrations during his years on the Michigan campus. As a Michigan Daily reporter I covered the world’s first campus teach-in in March 1965. Rapoport was a key speaker at the all-night event, focused on the case against the Vietnam War.

In 1969, he spoke on the Michigan Diag during the Vietnam War Moratorium Day: “What is at stake is whether, centuries after the divine right of kings was exposed as a superstition, absolute power of life and power over every man, woman, and child on this planet will continue to be wielded by a few individuals.”

Rapoport left Ann Arbor in 1970 for the University of Toronto where he was cross-appointed in mathematics and psychology, and later created a Peace and Conflict Studies Program. There, he and his wife, Gwen, an inspiring pioneer in the co-op movement, continued their work as abolitionists dedicated to killing the institution of war. As in Ann Arbor, the couple’s living room often served as a salon for gifted musicians.

When he was 91, Rapoport wrote Skating On Thin Ice, a memoir for younger readers, in which he recounted his turbulent youth. He wrote multiple books published by the University of Michigan Press, authored more than 300 articles, won computer tournaments, received the Lenz International Peace Research Prize, and held guest professorships from Vienna to Hiroshima.

With the help of his mentor, semanticist S.I. Hayakawa (he wrote the foreword to Rapoport’s first book Science and the Goals of Man), Rapoport served as an editor of ETC: The Review of General Semantics. He also became a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and co-founded the Society for General Systems Research.

At the time of Rapoport’s passing in 2007, Leonard Johnson, Commandant of the National Defence College at Kingston, Ontario, Canada, said: “Suffocation of the institution of war is no longer a fantasy of fiction or an impossible dream. It’s no exaggeration to say that the future of humankind depends on it. The path to peace with security is open. Let hope be Anatol’s legacy to humankind.”

The potential of our humanity

A concert ad

Rapoport’s careerer as a touring pianist was cut short by World War II. (Image courtesy of Anthony Rapoport.)

Although his own career as a touring concert pianist in Europe was cut short by the rise of Nazism, Rapoport’s passion for the classics remained central to his life. His two sons, Anthony and Alexander, both perform, compose, and teach music. His daughter, Anya, is a U-M alumna and veterinarian.

Remembering Rapoport, Anthony says, “My father had an enormous influence on me, emotionally, intellectually, politically, and morally, but playing music together was in some ways the most profound experience we shared. From the extreme simplicity of a two-by-two game to the enormous complexity and subtlety of great music, it’s the transcendence of the personal that allows us to realize the potential of our humanity.”

Anthony hopes modern-day world leaders will look to his father’s contributions to the field of negotiation as they seek resolution in Ukraine.

“If you and the other player can switch from individual to collective reasoning, you both are going to have a better outcome,” he says. “Game theory can’t tell you what to do in a real-world situation, but it can give you insight, to get beyond the kind of thinking that obscures underlying issues. Conventional strategic thought, like ideology, can obscure the nature of decisions that can lead to war.”

(Lead image of Rapoport in 1921, courtesy of Anthony Rapoport.)


  1. Suzette Heller - 2011

    This is a fascinating article. The influence and footprint that all of us are capable of leaving on this earth is just astounding, to me. #GoBlue


  2. Chrissy Cleary - 1980, 1993

    Peace…will we ever achieve it? Power and greed are destroying us. We are one world, one human race, one love! Music saves us in moments!


  3. Paul Sponseller - 1976, 1980

    Very moving. It is a rare thinker whose work can live on so influentially. It is more poignant that it was inspired and developed by intense personal challenge. Makes me want to read more of his work.


    • Sushil Birla - 1997

      The article motivated me too to read more of him, especially about his ideas on conflict resolution.


    • Steve Haddad - 1985

      Agree, Paul! An amazing story of courage and conviction on so many levels, I hope his legacy is never lost to both the University and the World.


  4. Mike Jefferson - 1979

    I wonder what this true liberal would think of the illiberal, anti-free-speech, totalitarianism which has taken over UofM and centers of “higher learning” across this country?


  5. Sushil Birla - 1997

    What an inspiring story!
    What a versatile mind!
    I had never connected math with solutions for human conflict.
    Music to my ears.


  6. Tom Eisenbeiser - 88

    I happened to hear him give a lecture years ago and his comments and shared thinking left a lasting impression on me. I was just talking about him the other day with my undergraduate daughter, remarking on his brilliance


  7. Steven Schwartz - 1969,1972

    I remember…the teach-ins, studying his game theory and the profound effect he had on me and Michigan.
    Another very nice piece of writing and reminiscences. Thank you Roger.


  8. Ilene Tyler - 1970

    Storytelling is so powerful. Thanks for sharing this one, Roger!


  9. Walton Brown Foster - 1977, 1982

    What a great intellectual and personal legacy! I continue to use his concepts in my courses on conflict and security.


  10. James Laramy - 1972

    In the academic year 1968-1969 I lived in Alice Lloyd Hall. Some time that winter, Professor Rapoport came to the dorm to give piano recital. We were surprised and impressed when this famous professor turned out to be a VERY accomplished pianist. He responded modestly, almost shyly, to considerable applause. He seemed pleased at the opportunity to play for us. It was a memorable afternoon.


  11. Roger Rapoport - 1968

    Thanks to all of you who have so graciously responded to Anatol Rapoport’s story. James Sparling has graciously created an audio recording of this story for those who may want to hear it. Link: rogerrapoport.com/latest-writings/anatolrapoport


    • Prof.David E. Meyer - 1966; 1969

      Not mentioned in the present article, but also of great interest:

      Soon after the Mental Health Research Institute had been established, Prof. Rapoport, took charge of care for the great mathematician and game theorist, John Forbes Nash — who introduced the absolutely crucial game theory concept of a “Nash Equilibrium” — but who came to suffer from delusional paranoid schizophrenia during the 1960s (cf. ‘A Beautiful Mind’). Reportedly, for a period of time, Prof. Rapoport brought Nash to the MHRI on occasion, where Nash could be seen and heard wondering the halls…

      Also, of note, the Nash Equilibrium for the one-play Prisoners Dilemma is essentially the worst solution for playing it: not nearly so ‘good’ as the Pareto-optimal solution. It’s thus quite interesting as well that Prof. Rapoport would provide Nash with safe harbor for a period of time after Nash had become mentally ill…

      Congratulations on your wonderful article in honor of Prof. Rapoport !


      • Roger Rapoport - '68

        Thank you so much for this fascinating story. You may be interested to know that I, Tony Rapoport and Professor Koppelman will be appearing on an upcoming Making Michigan series focused on the history of the University of Michigan. It is presented by Professor Gary Krenz in collaboration with the Bentley Library. Here is a link and I will update on the timing of this event https://bentley.umich.edu/news-events/making-michigan-series/


  12. Bonnie Dailey - 1970

    What an amazing life. How lucky we were to have had such a brilliant mind focused on these issues. It’s a gift!


  13. Edward Schneider

    I was new on Campus. I started my graduate studies Feb 1967 in Political Science. And then Detroit was burning. I went to a Teach-In on Race. Professor Rapoport was the featured speaker. He told us that race was just a social construct and we should see it as such. He opened my eyes to a new way of looking at the world. I never forgot his words.


  14. Gerry Ahronheim - 1962, 1966

    Thanks for this backstory of a remarkable member of the UM faculty and community, truly fleshing out what were only 2-dimensional impressions.


  15. Frederick Suppe - 1964 (MA), 1967 (PhD)

    Anatol was on my Philosophy of Science dissertation committee. I used to enjoy bouncing seemingly crazy ideas past him. He would exclaim, “Of course!” then run to the blackboard in his office and try to work out the crazy idea.

    When I sent him my dissertation (from India, where I was on-loan to USAID as a U of M Philosophy Instructor), he wrote me a 10 or so page letter back. It began with the blunt statement that he approved of my dissertation as it stood. Then he went on for many pages of “things to think further on before publishing.” The letter concluded with a reiteration that he approved my dissertation as it stood and wanted no revisions before the defence. (I barely spoke at my defence. Abraham Kaplan would raise an objection to something I had written, then Anatol would jump up and rebut it before I could respond.) I learned a lot about dissertation direction from him.


  16. Jeff Davis - 1982

    Such a timely article. Thank you Roger and U-M.


  17. Roger Rapoport - '68

    The Making Michigan series from the Bentley Library is sponsoring a special event on the life and work of Anatol Rapoport September 29 at 7 p.m. with Professor Shirl Koppelman, Anthony Rapoport and myself. This event is at the Detroit Observatory, 1398 East Ann Street, Ann Arbor/ The entrance is on Observatory Street. Here is a link to an article published in Michigan Today by Dr. Koppelman, Anthony Rapoport and Markus Schwaninger. https://michigantoday.umich.edu/2022/05/20/how-to-win-without-winning/


  18. Roger Rapoport - ‘68

    Here is a link to the special Bentley Library event on the life and work of Anatol Rapoport this Thursday September 29 at 7 p.m. This Ann Arbor event is at the Detroit Observatory 1398 East Ann Street.


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