CIGI Chair in Foreign Policy Development, Professor at BSIA
Balsillie School of International Affairs
Office: BSIA 313
James G. Blight earned one of his graduate degrees at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, the others at the University of New Hampshire. During the 1980s, Jim was a researcher and administrator at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School, where he began his study of events in the recent history of U.S. foreign policy. The Kennedy School was the right place to be, at the right time, to meet the right people to direct and focus his work. During his residency at Harvard, for example, his most influential teachers included Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Graham Allison, Richard Neustadt, Thomas C. Schelling and Ernest R. May.
James Blight is best known for having created, refined, and applied an innovative research method called critical oral history (COH). The method involves three kinds of knowledge, which merge simultaneously in carefully choreographed, but often highly creative conferences. They are: (1) memories of former high-level decision-makers, (2) declassified documentation from the governments of all the involved countries, and (3) scholarly analysis. Jim and his collaborator, janet Lang (a research professor at BSIA), have been the principal organizers of more than two-dozen COH conferences on several continents on a wide range of events in recent U.S. foreign policy. These include the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion; the 1962 Cuban missile crisis; the U.S. war in Vietnam (1961-1968); the collapse of U.S.-Soviet détente culminating in the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the Western response; the U.S. role in the Iran-Iraq War; and the close brush with war between the U.S. and Iran in 1996, over an attack on U.S. Air Force personnel at Khobar Towers, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
The method evolved in the context of a systematic reexamination of the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, involving the most senior living decision-makers from the U.S., Russia and Cuba. Beginning at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (1984-1989), then at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies (1990-2009), they co-organized six COH conferences on the crisis, in the U.S., Russia, Antigua and Cuba. These COH meetings, and subsequent publications based on the meetings, are widely credited with fundamentally altering our view of the crisis, which is revealed to have been more dangerous than was believed at the time, and during the quarter century following the crisis.
Jim, and janet, have on many occasions served as advisers to filmmakers and television producers involved with films and/or programs on historical events they have investigated, especially the Cuban missile crisis and the U.S. war in Vietnam. In 2001, their involvement in film assumed added intensity, as they became the principal advisers to the filmmaker, Errol Morris, and his subject, the former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, a project that produced Morris’ Academy Award winning 2004 film, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara. The following year, 2005, Jim and janet became co-producers of what became the multiple award winning 2008 feature documentary film, Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived, directed by Koji Masutani.
In 2011, one year after their move from the Watson Institute to the Balsillie School, Jim and janet recruited Koji Masutani to the school to conceive, manage and implement a transmedia project on the Cuban missile crisis. Masutani, now the digital scholar in residence at the Balsillie School, has subsequently teamed with Jim and janet to develop what is believed to be the first major transmedia (or multiple platform) project that marries a deeply scholarly enterprise to the full range of digital and social media, in an effort to reach “digital natives” who prefer to learn from a number of integrated modes. The transmedia project is anchored by Jim and janet’s book, The Armageddon Letters, but goes far beyond the printed word: in podcasts; blogs (by “special arrangement,” the bloggers are John F. Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro); highly produced short films (both live-action and animated); and graphic narratives based on episodes in the Cuban missile crisis. The project also makes extensive use of social media to facilitate the spread of the various messages conveyed in The Armageddon Letters, especially the lessons janet and Jim draw from the crisis for the conduct of foreign policy in the 21st century.
For more about Jim, janet and their transmedia work, see the following:
- The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy/Khrushchev/Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis (September, with janet Lang, 2012)
- Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1979-1988 (with janet Lang, Hossein Banai, Malcolm Byrne, and John Tirman, 2012)
- Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived (with janet Lang and David Welch, 2009)
- The Fog of War: Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara (with janet Lang, 2005)