Wage Peace, Not War
When it comes to strife, why does history keep repeating itself? Two UNH alums have devised an ingenious way to help policymakers

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James Blight and Janet Lang
Perry Smith

James Blight '73G, '74G and Janet Lang '74G, '77G first met Robert McNamara in 1984 in Big Sky, Mont., at a conference on nuclear weapons.

"The conference was a boondoggle," recalls Blight, who rarely minces words. A new fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Blight was the most junior scholar in the room, and he was disturbed at the direction of the discussion. He raised his hand and said, "I hear all this discussion about targeting and equipment and all this. One thing is missing. In a crisis, it's people who are deciding when to make a decision whether or not to push that button. The psychology of how those people feel in that crisis is not going to change with equipment."

His point was politely acknowledged, and conversation quickly returned to tonnage, deterrence and kill-potential. After all, many of the scholars present had helped write the 1983 best-seller Living with Nuclear Weapons. Blight was not one of them. Neither was McNamara.

The former U.S. Secretary of Defense and architect of the Vietnam War sought out Blight and Lang during the next break. "McNamara leads us down a corridor and pushes us into a stairwell," says Lang. "And he says to Jim, 'That's exactly the right point. You are absolutely on target. You pursue that.'"

That pursuit would lead Blight and Lang, working closely with McNamara, to create a radical new way to examine pivotal events of the last 50 years, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War and the Iran-Iraq War. One of their colleagues would call it "a genuinely novel invention in historical methodology." Blight and Lang would call it critical oral history.

Robert McNamara
EARLY DAYS: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, left, during a visit to South Vietnam in July 1965. James Blight '73G, '74G and Janet Lang '74G, '77G worked closely with McNamara on the Oscar-winning movie "The Fog of War."

Lang and Blight are sitting in a coffee shop not far from their home in Milton, Mass. Big fans of The Boss, they are wearing identical black Bruce Springsteen concert tour T-shirts. They are equally engaging, intense and lanky, although Blight, at 6 feet, 3 inches, towers over Lang and usually everyone else in the room. In a nod to their respective heights, Lang has adopted a lowercase "j" for her first name ever since they team-taught psychology and referred to themselves as "Big J" and "Little j."

Their mutual admiration after more than 30 years of marriage is almost palpable--"an old-fashioned love," says John Limber, emeritus associate professor of psychology, who was Lang's graduate school adviser at UNH. "The way they are with each other in public is not seen very often among academics."

"Of all the places we've been--Michigan, Harvard, Brown--we feel most deeply about UNH," says Blight, who first spotted Lang sitting on the Dimond Library steps. "If we drive up to Durham and I walk by Conant Hall and the library, I get all weak because it all happened there."

It nearly didn't. Neither had planned to go to graduate school. In fact, Lang, who grew up in East Boston, claims she didn't even know graduate school existed until she was at Boston State College studying mathematics with a double major in psychology. And Blight, initially an English major, dropped out of college after his sophomore year to pitch for a minor-league affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. He eventually graduated from the University of Michigan in his hometown of Flint with an interdisciplinary degree in history, philosophy and psychology. Serendipitously, both met influential psychology professors who encouraged them to apply to UNH's graduate psychology program.

For more than four hours, over several coffees and one Italian dinner, they share stories with unflagging energy and good humor. They are as candid about their lives as they are about their work: the rare and incurable blood cancer (Waldenstroem's macroglobulinemia) Lang has been fighting for more than 10 years, their vow never to travel without each other, their concern for a friend who has just been arrested in Tehran, their deep affection for Robert McNamara.

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