Blight, James G.
BLIGHT, James G.
PERSONAL: Born in Flint, MI; married; wife's name, janet M. Lang (an adjunct associate professor). Education: University of Michigan, B.S. (double major in psychology and philosophy), 1970; University of New Hampshire, M.A. (cognitive psychology), 1973, Ph.D., 1974; Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government, M.A. (security and international affairs), 1984.
CAREER: Grand Valley State University, assistant professor of psychology and history of science, 1974-80; Harvard University, Andrew W. Mellon faculty fellow, National Endowment for the Humanities research fellow, lecturer at John F. Kennedy School of Government, 1984-90; Brown University, Watson Institute for International Studies, research fellow at Center for Foreign Policy Development, 1990-95, research professor of international relations, 1995—. Worker at Buick car factory; minor-league baseball pitcher; cofounder and director of Cuban Missile Crisis Project; director of Kennedy School of Government's Project on Avoiding Nuclear War, 1985-90; developer of "critical oral history" method for analyzing major post-World War II foreign policy crises and conflicts; consultant to U.S. and foreign broadcast organizations and to independent filmmakers on documentary films.
Beyond Deterrence or beyond Utopian Ideology?: Thought Experiments for Antinuclear Movements in Crisis, Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University (Cambridge, MA), 1986.
(With David A. Welch) On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis, foreword by McGeorge Bundy, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 1989, 2nd edition, Noonday Press (New York, NY), 1990.
(With others) Superpowers and Regional Conflict in a Post-Cold War World: The Caribbean Basin and Southern Africa, Institute for International Studies, Brown University (Providence, RI), 1990.
The Shattered Crystal Ball: Fear and Learning in the Cuban Missile Crisis, foreword by Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Rowman & Littlefield (Lanham, MD), 1990.
(Editor, with Thomas G. Weiss) The Suffering Grass: Superpowers and Regional Conflict in Southern Africa and the Caribbean, Lynne Rienner Pub. (Boulder, CO), 1992.
(Editor, with Bruce J. Allyn and David A. Welch) Back to the Brink: Proceedings of the Moscow Conference on the Cuban Missile Crisis, January 27-28, 1989, foreword by Georgy Shakhnazarov, Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, University Press of America (Lanham, MD), 1992.
(With Bruce J. Allyn and David A. Welch, with the assistance of David Lewis) Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse, foreword by Jorge I. Domínguez, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1993, revised edition for fortieth anniversary of crisis, Rowman & Littlefield (Lanham, MD), 2002.
(Editor, with David A. Welch) Intelligence and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Frank Cass (Portland, OR), 1998.
(Editor, with Peter Kornbluh) Politics of Illusion: The Bay of Pigs Invasion Reexamined, Lynne Rienner Pub. (Boulder, CO), 1998.
(With Robert S. McNamara and Robert K. Brigham) Argument without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy, Public Affairs (New York, NY), 1999.
(With Robert S. McNamara) Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the Twenty-first Century, Public Affairs (New York, NY), 2001.
(With Philip Brenner) Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba's Struggle with the Superpowers after the Missile Crisis, Rowman & Littlefield (Lanham, MD), 2002.
Contributor of articles to journals, including American Psychologist.
SIDELIGHTS: Professor and international security expert James G. Blight began his career as a cognitive psychologist, but a decade later had begun research on prevention of a nuclear holocaust in a world of increasing proliferation of nuclear weapons. His research, conducted with his wife and collaborator, Professor janet Lang, led him to study the closest scenario to a nuclear war: the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. He has since become an expert on the subject.
Blight and Lang in 1987 initiated a new form of researching modern history. Called "critical oral history," it involves conferences at which former world leaders who were involved in major conflicts or crises come together to discuss their experiences, along with historians, political scientists, and archivists who have studied the event through official documents. Using this approach, studies have been done on the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Vietnam War, and the collapse of U.S.-Soviet détente during the Carter-Brezhnev period. Danny Postel, in an article for Chronicle of Higher Education, quoted Blight as saying the process yields "a more accurate picture of the past than would be possible if we relied on recollection or scholarship alone."
The first book to appear out of critical oral-history conferences was On the Brink. Former members of the Kennedy administration, and their Soviet counterparts, came together to discuss the Cuban missile crisis. The book includes edited transcripts of conferences on the crisis as well as interviews with those who were unable to attend. In the New York Times Book Review, Michael R. Beschloss wrote that the authors emphasize "the 'nuclear learning' of the past half-century" and "note how much abler Kennedy and Khrushchev were at managing the missile crisis than averting it; they speculate that, having borne the responsibility of preventing nuclear war, the two leaders might have changed American-Soviet history for the better had they remained in power longer." John Brosnahan, in Booklist, commented that the details revealed during the conferences vividly demonstrated "just how near the atomic peril appeared" and how leaders might avoid a repeat in the future. R. J. Griffiths, of Choice, found the book to be "a significant contribution" to our understanding of the crisis. Robert G. Hazo, in a review for the Chicago Tribune, commented that the book places "the complexity of the event alongside the relative lack of sophistication of some of the major players."
In The Shattered Crystal Ball Blight examines the Cuban missile crisis from a psychological point of view, criticizing traditional schools of thought. He explores the effect of "nuclear fear" on American and Soviet leaders: why it led to a peaceful, rather than catastrophic, outcome and how it might change future use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. James J. Wirtz, in Political Science Quarterly, commented, "Staring into the nuclear abyss concentrated the minds of policy makers … thus leading to initiatives that cannot be explained by theories based on rational or irrational psychology." Paula M. Fleming, in a review for the Journal of Politics, praised the book as "absorbing, short, beautifully written." Gaddis Smith, in Foreign Affairs, called it "original and important" because it explains how the fear of killing millions urged leaders to act prudently. E. A. Duff, in a review for Choice, found the book "superb" and "elegantly written."
Blight coedited The Suffering Grass, a comparative study project of the Watson Institute whose title is based on the African proverb "When elephants make war or love, it is the grass that suffers." The six essays examine U.S. and Soviet involvement in conflicts in southern Africa and the Caribbean during the Cold War and how the less-developed nations suffered during this period. William R. Thompson, writing in the American Political Science Review, expressed concern about the comparison between the two regions, stating that power and hegemony within each are quite different. He concluded that regional differences "tend to get in the way of theoretically guided comparison" and that although readers will learn something about conflict in each region they will learn less "about how regional systems resolve conflict or manage to survive with or without the intrusions of external powers." In Choice, M. A. Morris called the book "original" and the contribution of the editors "polished."
Cuba on the Brink, published in 1993 and revised in 2002 for the fortieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, makes public the transcript of the fifth critical oral history conference on the crisis, held in 1992 in Havana. It also contains letters between Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev, commentary, and a short history of Cuban-American relations. The fifth conference focused on Cuban-Soviet relations and Cuba's role in the 1962 crisis. The most shocking revelation to come out of the conference was a former Soviet general's testimony that the Soviet Union had provided its ground forces in Cuba with nuclear warheads for their Luna missiles and that Khrushchev had given Soviet commanders the authority to use them if the United States invaded Cuba. The book also gives details on Castro's plea to initiate a preemptive nuclear strike on the United States at the height of the crisis. In a review for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Richard Ned Lebow commended the authors for their diligence in obtaining the release of important documents from Havana and Moscow. He concluded, "Anyone interested in the missile crisis will want to read this book." Kenneth Maxwell, of Foreign Affairs, called the book "essential reading for any serious student of international affairs." Gilbert Taylor, of Booklist, pointed out that the book's revelations "frightfully demonstrate" that U.S., Soviet, and Cuban leaders were ignorant of one another's intentions during the crisis. A Publishers Weekly contributor remarked that the book sheds "important new light" on the Cuban aspect and on what U.S. intelligence did not know about Soviet intentions.
Blight coedited Intelligence and the Cuban Missile Crisis, a series of six essays about U.S., Cuban, and Soviet intelligence communities and their relationship to government policymakers during the missile crisis. Although he found the book lacking in information about Soviet and Cuban intelligence, Zenen E. Santana Delgado, in International Affairs, felt the editors achieved "a well-built argument in favour of a greater interaction between the intelligence community and the decision-makers."
Blight also coedited Politics of Illusion, the transcript of a critical oral history conference on the Bay of Pigs invasion (1960-61), held in Georgia in mid-1996. The book also contains a chronology of the events and newly declassified U.S. government documents. Robert A. Divine, in Political Science Quarterly, stated that he found critical oral history a flawed method in this case because Castro did not attend the conference, because the scholars all shared the same political perspective, and because they tended to defer to the most highly respected among them. However, he praised the book's "fascinating insights into the internal Cuban resistance." A contributor to NACLA Report on the Americas commended the editors on "a masterful job of moderating the discussion and presenting the material," saying it made for "fascinating and riveting reading." Antoni Kapcia, in the Journal of Latin American Studies, defined the book's value as a "record of memories and revisions" and as therapy for those involved in the Bay of Pigs, but he expressed doubt about its value as historiography. Domingo Amuchastegui, in the Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, called the book "an excellent contribution" from the perspectives of the defeat of U.S. foreign policy and Cuban resistance and the victory of Castro and its implications for U.S.-Cuban relations. Kenneth Maxwell, of Foreign Affairs, found the book a "fascinating retrospective" on the invasion and surrounding illusion.
In Argument without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy Blight and his coauthors—including former U.S. defense secretary Robert S. McNamara—turn their attention to the Vietnam War. A series of seven critical oral history meetings on the war were held between 1995 and 1998; the book is a transcript of and commentary on those meetings. Jonathan Mirsky, in the New York Review of Books, commented on McNamara's repeated self-reproach for his role in the war, saying it should have come while the war was going on, when it could have made a difference. Mirsky also wrote that the so-called missed signals and U.S. lack of knowledge about Vietnamese history are "irritating to read," since information was available but not taken seriously by the government. Sayuri Shimizu, in the Journal of American History, wrote, "The candid confessions and admissions, interspersed with well-meaning but meaningless recriminations, go a long way in illuminating, belatedly, the limited vision of leaders and strategists on both sides." Jack F. Matlock, Jr. of the New York Times Book Review remarked that the book's lessons and conclusions "are well reasoned and highly relevant to decisions being made today." Philip Zelikow, in Foreign Affairs, thought McNamara's "redemptive mission" took over the book and said it "introduces a whole new raft" of misunderstandings. A Publishers Weekly contributor found it "full of revelations both fascinating and appalling."
Blight and McNamara again collaborated on Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the Twenty-first Century, in which Blight's long-held interest in nuclear disarmament is discussed, along with two imperatives for American leaders of the twenty-first century: that they avoid the bloody wars of the twentieth century and that the nation act only multilaterally and not use its economic, political, or military power unilaterally except to defend itself in an attack. The book's title is based on former president Woodrow Wilson's failed vision that power should yield to morality, and war to the voice of public opinion. James Chace, in the New York Times Book Review, called the book "a courageous attempt to tackle the most crucial issues of our time." G. John Ikenberry in Foreign Affairs found it a "passionate call for a new world order" that will surely spark debate. Anthony James Joes, in Parameters, thought the book characterized by "self-inflation and conceptual confusion" and that it focuses only on cold war issues, without consideration of terrorist states or biological weapons. Walter C. Uhler, in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, also noted the lack of discussion about terrorism, but he commended the authors' "timely and much needed critique of unilateralism." A contributor to Publishers Weekly observed: "Deftly written and cogently argued, this is one of the best recent books on foreign policy."
In Sad and Luminous Days Blight and coauthor Philip Brenner return to the Cuban missile crisis on the fortieth anniversary of the event. The title is taken from a letter from Che Guevara to Castro, in 1965. The book makes public an important speech Castro delivered to his leaders in 1968 and explores ways in which the United States should deal with weaker adversaries in the future. Ed Goedeken, of Library Journal, wrote that the book "will provide an important counterpoint to the stream of simplistic books" sure to be written about the crisis on its anniversary.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Political Science Review, December, 1993, William R. Thompson, review of The Suffering Grass: Superpowers and Regional Conflict in Southern Africa and the Caribbean, p. 1063.
American Psychologist, April, 1988, M. Brewster Smith, "Psychology and War Avoidance: On Blight's Blighted View," pp. 325-326.
Booklist, April 1, 1989, John Brosnahan, review of On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis, p. 1342; October 15, 1993, Gilbert Taylor, review of Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse, p. 414; June 1, 2001, Mary Carroll, review of Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the Twenty-first Century, p. 1806.
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July-August, 1994, Richard Ned Lebow, review of Cuba on the Brink, p. 55; November-December, 2001, Walter C. Uhler, review of Wilson's Ghost, p. 70.
Business Week, July 16, 2001, "How Should a Superpower Behave?," p. 22.
Choice, October, 1989, R. J. Griffiths, review of On the Brink, p. 386; January, 1991, E. A. Duff, review of The Shattered Crystal Ball: Fear and Learning in the Cuban Missile Crisis, p. 850; July-August, 1992, M. A. Morris, review of The Suffering Grass, pp. 1754-1755; November, 1999, J. P. Dunn, review of Argument without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy, p. 616.
Chronicle of Higher Education, October 18, 2002, Danny Postel, "Revisiting the Brink: The Architect of 'Critical Oral History' Sheds New Light on the Cold War," pp. A16-18.
Foreign Affairs, 1990, Gaddis Smith, review of The Shattered Crystal Ball, p. 193; March-April, 1994, Kenneth Maxwell, review of Cuba on the Brink, p. 159; May-June, 1998, Kenneth Maxwell, review of Politics of Illusion: The Bay of Pigs Invasion Reexamined, p. 146; November-December, 1999, Philip Zelikow, review of Argument without End, p. 139; September-October, 2001, G. John Ikenberry, review of Wilson's Ghost.
International Affairs, July, 1999, Zenen E. Santana Delgado, review of Intelligence and the Cuban Missile Crisis, pp. 666-667.
Journal of American History, December, 2001, Sayuri Shimizu, review of Argument without End, pp. 1163-1164.
Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, summer, 1998, Domingo Amuchastegui, review of Politics of Illusion, p. 156.
Journal of Latin American Studies, February, 1999, Antoni Kapcia, review of Politics of Illusion, p. 217.
Journal of Politics, November, 1992, Paula M. Fleming, review of The Shattered Crystal Ball, pp. 1234-1236.
Latin-American Research Review, spring, 1996, W. Marvin Will, review of The Suffering Grass, p. 212; summer, 2000, Helen Delpar, review of Politics of Illusion, p. 155.
Library Journal, July, 2001, Thomas A. Karel, review of Wilson's Ghost, p. 110; October 15, 2002, Ed Goedeken, review of Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba's Struggle with the Superpowers after the Missile Crisis, p. 83.
NACLA Report on the Americas, March-April, 1999, review of Politics of Illusion, p. 58.
New York Review of Books, May 25, 2000, Jonathan Mirsky, review of Argument without End, pp. 54-63.
New York Times Book Review, April 23, 1989, Michael R. Beschloss, "Waiting for the Other Guy to Blink," p. 7; August 8, 1999, Jack F. Matlock, Jr., "Why Were We in Vietnam?," pp. 11-12; July 29, 2001, James Chace, "The Future Is a Foreign Country," p. 12.
Parameters, autumn, 2002, Anthony James Joes, review of Wilson's Ghost, p. 145.
Ploughshares Monitor, December, 2001, review of Wilson's Ghost, p. 7.
Political Science Quarterly, fall, 1991, James J. Wirtz, review of The Shattered Crystal Ball, pp. 545-546; spring, 1999, Robert A. Divine, review of Politics of Illusion, p. 154.
Publishers Weekly, September 27, 1993, review of Cuba on the Brink, p. 53; April 26, 1999, review of Argument without End, p. 62; May 28, 2001, review of Wilson's Ghost, p. 70.
Reason, November, 2001, Ted Galen Carpenter, "Woodrow Wilson, R.I.P.," p. 55.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), March 12, 1989, Robert G. Hazo, "Almost at War: The Sobering Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis," p. 3.
American University News,http://domino.american.edu/ (September 16, 2002), Kathryn Schroeder, review of Sad and Luminous Days.
Brown Alumni Magazine Online,http://www.brownalumnimagazine.com/ (November/December, 1997), Norman Boucher, "Thinking like the Enemy."
Pugwash Online,http://www.pugwash.org/ (June, 2001), review of Wilson's Ghost.
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (July 19, 1999), Zachary Karabell, "The Never-Ending War."
Watson Institute for International Studies Web site,http://www.watsoninstitute.org/ (May 27, 2003), reviews of Intelligence and the Cuban Missile Crisis and Cuba on the Brink.*