James Blight

CIGI Chair


James BlightJames 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. 


  • A.B. Psychology, History and Philosophy, University of Michigan, 1970
  • M.A. Cognitive Psychology, University of New Hampshire, 1973
  • PhD History of Behavioural Sciences, University of New Hampshire, 1974
  • M.P.A. International Security and Defense Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 1984

Research and teaching interests

  • U.S. foreign policy
  • Cold War Crises and Conflicts
  • Conflict Prevention
  • The Method of Critical Oral History
  • Empathy in International Affairs and International Security

Courses taught

  • GGVOV 638 Managing Nuclear Risk

Recent publications

  • The Armageddon letters: Kennedy/Khrushchev/Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis (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)

Additional information

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.

Personal website

University of Waterloo
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