Retired Ice Lake farmer, current resident of Billings and lifelong activist Ed Burt has, more than anyone else on Manitoulin, been the constant voice for caution on all things nuclear.
Mr. Burt is the subject of a feature interview in this week’s paper, prompted by the 70th anniversaries of the only two atomic bombs that have been used offensively: against Japan, specifically targeting the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and, three days later, the city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 leading to the absolute surrender by Japan 70 years ago last Saturday, on August 15, 1945.
Mr. Burt was profoundly affected as a 16-year old youth by the news of the Bomb and its proven destructive capabilities and the bias that came to him on that instant has informed much of his thinking for the past 70 years.
Much of the time that people of Mr. Burt’s generation have lived through, as well as the experiences of most of the baby boomer generation of the post-war era, corresponded with the Cold War, an undeclared war of ideologies between the U.S. dominated North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republic’s (USSR’s) Warsaw Pact allies.
The abiding concern in the Cold War time (1947, the year by which Russia had imposed its will on and created dependent status for all of eastern Europe until 1991, when the Berlin wall was down and Russia had capitulated to allow free elections in its former servant states) was the Bomb.
During this era, both the United States and some of her allies (Great Britain, France) had nuclear bomb capability and so did the Russian-dominated USSR and, eventually, so did China.
The Americans’ bombing of the two Japanese cities was all the proof that anyone would ever need as to the destructive power these weapons contained and so, for 44 years, nearly a half-century, the world existed in this “balance of power” mentality underscored by the concept of “nuclear deterrent.” That is to say, if one side sets off a nuclear attack against the other, there will be immediate retaliation with the corresponding annihilation of great chunks of our civilization.
The closest we believe we ever came to something like this actually happening, of course, was when the USSR made the unthinkable decision to mount batteries of missile launchers and nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba, its new ally, in 1962, a nearby threat to the United States. The USSR had quietly mounted this array in Cuba, something that was only discovered when an American U2 spy plane produced photographic evidence of rocket launchers and missiles in place and others being constructed.
U.S President John F. Kennedy imposed a naval blockade on Soviet ships believed to be carrying more nuclear weapons to Cuba and the two armed camps reached an eleventh hour agreement: the Soviets would dismantle and take back their Cuban missiles and the U.S. also withdrew its own missile sites from Turkey.
In Mr. Burt’s lifetime, that nearly three-week-long period in October of 1962 was the closest the world came to all out nuclear war and the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were being relived in homes, schools and within families and workplaces all around the world that month. The general threat of nuclear war remained a real one in most people’s minds until Mikhail Gorbachev was elected First Secretary of the USSR’s communist party and, correspondingly, became the president of the USSR where he proved to be the reformer that allowed free and fair elections in his country’s satellite countries and, most symbolically, allowed East Germans to once again pass directly to West Germany, a fact that led quickly to the destruction of the hated Berlin Wall and the “iron curtain” it so physically manifested and the unification of East and West Germany into their old, pre-war state.
We imagine that, following the last president of the USSR’s common sense approach that the east and west no longer have nuclear weapons “pointed” at targets in each other’s territories. Perhaps not. Hopefully not. But these weapons still exist and with that knowledge, there is the implication that they can be used.
Mr. Burt has chosen to apply the lessons of Nagasaki and Hiroshima to anything else associated with nuclear fission, especially nuclear energy because of the so-far difficult to dispose of waste nuclear generators produce in the form of the “spent fuel rods” which will remain toxic for hundreds of years. All of this material is being stored temporarily in water baths while long-term solutions, like burying them in purpose-drilled deep rock enclosures are considered. Currently, the hard Laurentian shield north of nearby Spanish, Elliot Lake and Blind River is being considered and researched for this purpose. From a news perspective, Mr. Burt has always been able to offer an informed opinion on all of these related topics and it is remarkable that his world view was so marked at the moment when he realized the forces that atomic energy, in all of its forms, was capable of unleashing.
Many may believe that the Cold War doctrine of “assured mutual destruction” was a useful force to keep the larger nations away from each other’s throats while they, instead, waged war on each others ideals through proxy conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and (prior to 2001) in Afghanistan, by way of example.
Through all of this, Ed Burt has been steadfastly anti-nuclear in his views on war and, domestically, on nuclear generated electrical energy. These are views he has articulated in interviews with this newspaper, in letters to the editor, at public rallies and through direct and pointed questions asked of candidates seeking provincial and federal office.
He must be admired as an ordinary person with strong ideals that he has sustained for nearly three generations.
It is important to have public idealists like Ed Burt among us for it is from their absolute certainty about the rightness and wrongness of things that we can derive our own nuanced opinions.