Jim Blight and janet Lang uncover the JFK we don't know

Thursday, November 21, 2013

John F. Kennedy’s steely backbone for waging peace

Waterloo-Balsillie School historians say JFK angered his hawkish advisers and resisted going to war at least six times during the Cold War.

John F. Kennedy
Although President Kennedy was frail from Addison’s disease and suffered chronic back pain, he had “the metaphorical spine to drive his hawkish advisers up the wall,” write James Blight and janet Lang in their forthcoming book:  JFK's Backbone: Defeating the Hawks and Waging Peace in a Dangerous World.

“He resisted them, he frustrated them, and he angered them,” write Blight and Lang. “He asked hard questions and took nothing on faith.”

Their research shows that a cautious Kennedy resisted taking the US to war, sometimes on a daily basis, during the dangerous East-West Cold War. “The Jack Kennedy that has emerged from our own research and that of others over the past quarter-century is very far from your parents’ or grandparents’ JFK. Our image of John F. Kennedy has been transformed in fundamental ways.”

Kennedy’s black swan logic

The two historians contend the Vietnam War would not have happened if Kennedy had lived. They attribute ‘black swan logic’ to his legacy, which recognizes unknown factors as critical in crisis decision-making. They say his skeptical caution averted potentially disastrous consequences of six major war-threat periods in his brief time in office.

The Waterloo historians, who share a background in cognitive psychology, are co-authors of more than a dozen books on JFK’s foreign policy. They pioneered a research method known as “critical oral history,” which seeks to answer core questions about the individual player’s thoughts, feelings and motivations during major political crises, such as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Based in the Balsillie School of International Affairs(BSIA) and Waterloo’s Department of History since 2010, professors Lang and Blight also use digital media to communicate their research findings. Blight, who is the CIGI chair in foreign policy development, and Lang, who is a research professor at BSIA, have partnered with graphic and media artists to produce The Armageddon Letters.

Blight and Lang were principal advisors for the 2004 Academy Award winning film, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara. They also wrote a book based on the film.

They co-produced the multiple award-winning documentary, Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived. The film is directed by Koji Masutani, BSIA’s digital artist in residence.

Blight and Lang will also be speaking on campus at the event "You Don't Know Jack" as part of the History Speaker Series 2013-2014.

This story was originally published in Waterloo Stories.