Presidential candidate and former CIA agent Will Hurd tells the story of how, when he was stationed in Afghanistan, a visiting congressman asked what the difference was between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
The lack of basic understanding from an elected official prompted Hurd to win a seat representing Texas in the House of Representatives. It was also a display of ignorance that would likely have appalled Dr. Albert E. Burke.
Once a Cheshire resident and Yale University professor, Burke was a public academic who dedicated his career to promoting a greater understanding of the world outside of the United States. Burke’s name may not be well-known today but what he had to say on topics ranging from resource conservation to human rights and the power of scientific knowledge remains relevant today.
Burke, born in 1919 as Albert Burkenblit, was the son of Russian immigrants. His parents, Samuel and Helen, shortened his last name early on in his life. Samuel was a structural engineer who worked as an architect and engineer for the Allen & Garcia Company in Chicago building industrial sites and bridges.
Far from pursuing a career in media, Burke earned his bachelor’s and Masters from UCLA in Earth sciences, then completed his graduate work at Harvard University in 1951.
He would go on to be a professor at Yale, where he met his wife, Ruth, a research scientist at the school, and would go on to be the director of Graduate Studies in Conservation and Resource Use.
But it would be his career in television that set him apart.
While 2023 television watchers have their choice of literally hundreds of channels from which to choose, back in 1960, most Americans were watching either CBS or NBC, and a great many of them would have seen one of Burke’s programs. Although many broadcasts have been lost, some of his lectures are still available via YouTube.
His first show, “This is Your World,” aired in 1951 on Connecticut local station WNHC in New Haven. He then began a long relationship with NBC, hosting such shows as "Geography for Decision", "Survival", and eventually the show that would become best known, "A Way of Thinking.”
Wearing a suit and tie, Burke strode through a book-lined room or paused in front of a screen that showed images of historic figures or newsreels. He delivered passionate lectures rooted in history that addressed the most important events of the day, such as the communist regimes in Cuba and China, the United States’ ever-growing involvement in Southeast Asia, or the relationship between food scarcity and politics.
“You, with full stomachs must make the effort to understand the needs and wants of people with empty stomachs. You, with warm homes must know the problems of people with no homes. You, with healthy bodies must know the problems of people with sick ones. Why? Because today your freedom is indivisible from the problems of hunger, health, and housing. The opportunity to enjoy freedom will end for you unless it exists for the poor of the world,” Burke warned.
Television critic Jack Gould, writing for The New York Times in November, 1960, called Burke “an exciting new voice — provocative, sensible and challenging.” Through his television work Burke reached an estimated audience of millions of Americans and he became something of a celebrity. He lectured at colleges across the country, appeared on the programs of Jack Paar, Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin and chatted with President John F. Kennedy, who reportedly visited Burke at his home on Bethany Mountain Road in Cheshire.
Other political figures, such as Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey and Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire, also shared an admiration for Burke. Proxmire even entered the full text of Burke’s “A Way of Thinking” program from May 7, 1961, into the Congressional Record, calling the broadcast “one of the finest expositions I have seen of the importance at this stage of history of a more honestly and fully informed American public.”
In that broadcast, Burke criticized both the Eisenhower and the Kennedy administrations for selective presentations of facts. He opposed excessive government secrecy, McCarthyism, and other forms of censorship and groupthink. “Americans, running one of the most complicated technical societies in history, are not being given information they need to keep it running,” he said.
Although often critical of his country, Burke was a patriotic figure who praised American invention and tolerance for differences in ideas and beliefs. Burke put emphasis on the special role American democracy had in history, and was clearly concerned for how precious it was.
“(T)he story of our success should be told and retold, so that young people today will understand Americanism, and the American creed. The separate backgrounds, the diverse faiths and beliefs have turned out to be our greatest strength—not at all a weakness. The different ways that Poles, Germans, Irish, Italian, Russians, and Chinese thought and acted were forged into a way of life that has made us the wealthiest and most powerful people on earth,” Burke said. “America was made great by men and women who risked their lives, their money, and their labor. Today the children of those brave ones are being pressured by small, frightened minds to become security conscious instead of risk conscious.”
Burke argued that fear of communism led to ignorance of communism, a mental isolation from the world’s problems that contributed to the problem of communist control over much of the world. He wanted Americans to respect and understand the “special history” of their nation, without neglecting the rest of the world’s history.
Because of Burke’s educational background, he maintained a fascination with the strategic importance of minerals. “The point is that in today's world, as never before in history, whoever controls the world's mineral resources can control the world. That point becomes significant in light of the fact that none of the western powers has, inside its own territories, the minerals and metals it needs to be strong in war or peace,” Burke cautioned.
Burke repeatedly turned viewers’ attention to places in the “third world.” In a 1963 episode of his program “Probe,” Burke concluded, “All of the answers to our problems with Indonesia could have been solved very easily had they (Dutch authorities) recognized the change that was coming in 1940. The most important of those changes was that you cannot treat any group of human beings as your inferiors and get away with it.”
Much of Burke’s work concerned the fragile state of democracy, and the impossibility of freedom where environmental health is neglected and basic needs are unmet. But for a land of plenty, like the United States, Burke was adamant on the role of knowledge. Without the power of “facts,” Burke explained, Americans could not be “prepared.”
“’Fact’ and ‘prepared’: two very important words, because they stress the most important fact of all in today's kind of world—the fact that the future belongs to whoever prepares for it best,” he said.
“Freedom was not a gift. Earlier Americans worked hard for it,” Burke pointed out, insisting on the responsibility of individual citizens to keep themselves informed. He summoned that freedom as he railed against the culture of intolerance that pervaded the Cold War era.
“In our time, there is as great a need as there ever was for brave men who know that it takes more than lip service to our traditions in Memorial Day and Veterans' Day speeches to make us what the last line of our national anthem says we are: ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave,’” he stated.
“The problem has never been ‘creeping socialism’ in our American government. It has always been creeping irresponsibility among too many Americans,” Burke lectured, but did not let the ordinary citizen off the hook. “Can this nation survive its housewives, its cab drivers, its business executives, its laborers, and the rest who are uninformed and free to go on being uninformed about the kind of world they live in…?” he asked.
Burke moved back west later in his career, teaching at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, living in Cody, Wyoming, and dying in The Dalles, Oregon, in 1999. Throughout his life, Burke lived in several parts of the world, including Russia, China, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Latin America. But he will always hold a special place in the history of Cheshire.