Q: When Byrd made it to the Pole was it splashed to the world by radio right
away? What happened? How big of news?|
LR: When Byrd got to the Pole he radioed back that he was flying over the
North Pole and that was radioed then from Spitsbergen back to the United
States. And it was a very big deal. It had only been less than 20 years
since Peary had supposedly trekked to the Pole. It was still almost an
unattainable objective, and Byrd had done it, and he had done it along with
Floyd Bennett in this little spit kit of an airplane. Yeah, so baling wire and
glue and so on. That was the public perception of it. Now the plane in fact
was quite, was quite sturdy for its time, but that was the public perception,
ah, two heroic young Americans flying to the Pole. And this was, this was
flashed not only to, to the United States it was flashed to the world. For
example, Byrd was, was quite enthusiastically received in England when he came
back from Spitsbergen, and he came back through England and then back to the
United States. There was a genuine outpouring of gratitude, of admiration for
what he had done, and it was it was unstinting.
Q: Why did Byrd get a huge reception and a ticker tape parade when he
returned to the States. This whole issue about Americans needing Byrd's type
of hero at this point.
LR: Well, you have to understand something. The 1920s belonged to Dick Byrd.
The 1920s were Byrd's decade, of greatest achievement and of greatest
adulation. And basically what Dick Byrd appealed to were two strains in
American thought and in the American psyche. One was the notion that we have
to have a frontier. Americans were almost panicked by the end of the
frontier back in the 1890s which was, of course, in living memory for many,
many Americans. And from the 1890s really on to today, we're constantly
looking for new frontiers. It's part of the American heritage. The other
thing that Americans are afraid of is growing old. They don't want the nation
to grow old. They don't want it to become as corrupt as Europe supposedly is,
and so on. That's a very strong theme in American history. So what someone
like Byrd and later Lindbergh did was they appealed to these two driving
demands in the American nature. One for new frontiers to conquer, to conquer
nature, to conquer space itself. And the second thing was to be forever
youthful. And old men did not go out and fly the North Atlantic or fly to the
North Pole. So the third, and then there's a third element. And that element
was the fact that western civilization got very, very old as a result of the
great war. If there's one theme that comes out of the great war, it's the
murder of youth. And what people were looking for in the '20s, not only in the
United States, but in Europe too, and this reflects Byrd's very enthusiastic
reception, first in England after his North Pole flight and then in Paris,
after he flew to the North Atlantic, what they were looking was the fact that
youth hadn't been murdered, that promise hadn't disappeared as a result of the
great war. And this is what heroes like Byrd and Lindbergh and Roald Almundsen
and so forth, this is what they gave people.
The ticker tape parade becomes an absolute standard in the United States in
the 1920s. This is really where it really begins in a major way. It's
interesting that the ticker tape parade really has died out in this country.
We really haven't had it since the astronauts. And this is what Byrd
represented to people.
Q: But there was a sense that he was still a hero even though he had
crashes. The public believes he can do no wrong?
LR: I think the public feels that he's a very intrepid explorer, but remember
what else is happening at this time. And this is not well known. After
Lindbergh in the summer of 1927, everybody tried to fly to Paris. And about 30
people went down in the effort from not even getting off much more than ten
feet off the ground to disappearing over the Atlantic. Byrd made it and he
survived. This was the point Byrd is a survivor. And this means a very great
deal to the public. He can fail in the small things, but he's a survivor, he's
not killed and he's up to try it again. He's up to try it again. After all,
what's he going to do. Almost immediately after he comes back from the
transAtlantic flight he announces that he's going to go down to Antarctica and
make an attempt to fly to the South Pole. So he keeps this momentum of
movement and of action and of achievement going. And in the late '20s Dick
Byrd had a reputation almost equal to that of Lindbergh, if not equal to that
of Lindbergh as the intrepid industrial age hero.
Q: When you go to the North Pole why can't he fail when he goes to the North
LR: Well, he can't fail for a variety of reasons. In the first place, he is
comparatively an unknown. Nobody knows who he is. Other people do, and the
Navy knows. And he is able to ingratiate himself with a number of backers, and
they are willing to support him. But, as a public hero, he's not known at all.
He is in deep debt to private financial interests. He has signed book
contracts and radio contracts. I think he's already signed some up for a
lecture tour. He can't fail. One can imagine him coming back and trying to
get on the lecture trail with how I failed trying to fly to the North Pole.
Dick Byrd was a risk taker all his life. And none moreso than at the
beginning. He really stuck his neck out. He was out on a very long limb. And
if he hadn't been able to complete the North Polar flight in ways that
generally satisfied the public at the time that he had in fact reached the
North Pole, then he would have been just another has been. Aman deep in debt.
The family would have had to come in and bail him out. Harry would probably
have found a job for him somewhere, and he would have been an interesting
footnote, if even that, in the history of polar aviation
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