The University Record, October 25, 1999

Flint roots lay foundation for foreign policy scholar

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of profiles of U-M alumni who have made significant and lasting contributions through their research, scholarship and creative activity. Expanded versions of these articles are available on the U-M research web at

By Lee Katterman
Office of the Vice President for Research

As a student in the late 1960s at what was known then as the Flint College of the University of Michigan, James Blight often wore factory clothes to classes. “I worked in the Buick Plant the entire time I attended the U-M-Flint,” recalls Blight.

The experiences and knowledge he gained being raised and educated in Flint, says Blight, were crucial to his eventual success as an analyst of foreign policy. Today, Blight is a senior research fellow and professor of international relations at the Thomas J. Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.

In 1970, Blight graduated with a double major in psychology and philosophy. Thanks to encouragement from his academic adviser, psychology professor Alfred Raphelson, Blight was accepted into the graduate program in psychology at the University of New Hampshire.

Although the thought of graduate school was foreign to Blight, he said his professors had done well in preparing him. He earned a Master’s degree in cognitive psychology in 1973 and a Ph.D. in the history of behavioral science in 1974, both from the University of New Hampshire.

Blight then accepted a position as an assistant professor of psychology and history of science at Grand Valley State University. He remained on the Grand Valley faculty until 1980, when he became first an Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Fellow, and then a National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellow at Harvard University.

By this point, Blight’s career was taking a new direction, and he enrolled in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard to earn his second Master’s degree, this time focusing on Security and International Affairs. After he received the degree in 1984, Blight remained there as a lecturer. In 1986, Blight and Joseph Nye, Dean of the Kennedy School of Government, founded the Cuban Missile Crisis Project. Blight directed this Project as well as the Project on Avoiding Nuclear War.

In 1990, Blight became a research fellow at the Center for Foreign Policy Development in the Thomas J. Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown. There, Blight developed a new method for analyzing major post-World War II U.S. foreign policy crises and conflicts that tapped both his early background in cognitive psychology and his more recent policy studies.

This method—critical oral history—combines an analysis of official documents that bear on decisions related to international crises with memories of officials involved in official decision-making roles. Blight has applied this method to produce insights about the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bay of Pigs invasion, the collapse of détente in the Carter-Brezhnev period and the Vietnam War.

Blight’s latest book, Argumment Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy, is based on a series of meetings held over a four-year period at which architects of U.S. foreign policy during the Vietnam era.

Last spring, Blight returned to Flint to deliver the commencement address. Reflecting on his background growing up in Flint and attending the U-M-Flint, he is quite certain that his education here gives him some distinct advantages over many of his colleagues who graduated from Ivy League schools.

He and his Flint schoolmates were interested in just about everything, never backed down from hard work, and already knew how to cope when things didn’t go as planned and some quick adaptation was called for. “Only someone from Flint,” says Blight, “would try to arrange for McNamara and his Vietnamese counterparts to talk about and, in essence, write a book together about the Vietnam War.”

Today, James Blight continues his research on international security, nuclear weapons and nuclear crises, and the psychology and recent history of U.S. foreign policy at Brown University’s Watson Institute.