Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Exploring a Secret Land: The Literary and Technological Legacies of Richard E. Byrd

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Exploring a Secret Land: The Literary and Technological Legacies of Richard E. Byrd

Article excerpt

FAME is not only fleeting; in a democracy it is particularly cruel. The heroes of one generation are almost invariably reduced to rubble in the next. Historians have long known that reputations of public men and women are usually lowest ten to twenty years after their deaths. "We are always in a zone of imperfect visibility so far as the history just over our shoulder is concerned," Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., observed in 1957. "It is as if we were in the hollow of the historical wave; not until we reach the crest of the next one can we look back and estimate properly what went on before."1

Few reputations suffered more in the hollow of the historical wave than did that of Richard Evelyn Byrd. Between 1971 and 1979, fourteen to twenty-two years after his death, three influential polar historians bitterly attacked him. Drawing on the memories and prejudices of stubborn anonymous foes of the "Admiral of the Antarctic," Richard Montague, Dennis Rawlins, and Finn Ronne (himself a noted South Polar pioneer) portrayed Byrd as a cold, aloof, rabidly ambitious, manipulative, cowardly, and deceitful individual, a self-aggrandizing braggart who successfully covered up serious character weaknesses and exploited the Ballyhoo Years of the 1920s to earn undeserved praise as a great adventurer.2

Byrd first gained international notoriety in 1926, when he claimed to have flown to the North Pole from Spitsbergen, Norway. Critics immediately scoffed that this was impossible; the man had not been in the air long enough, and his plane had been crippled by a leaky engine. Forced to respond, deeply in debt, and uncomfortably aware that some had labeled his expedition a stunt "to sell magazines and radios," Byrd, in the words of Dennis Rawlins, "deliberately doctored" his flight record, brazenly aided by the National Geographic Society, the navy, and family allies in Congress.3 Subsequent efforts by partisans to demonstrate that favorable winds had allowed Byrd to be in the air long enough to reach his destination were either ignored or discounted.4

Later, in Antarctica, "Byrd pulled off a cloddishly blatant fake discovery of a territory found by others" and "exaggerat[ed] the size of the claim" so much that even his strongest supporters were embarrassed.5 Critics also charged that Byrd encouraged riotous drinking among his wintering-over party on at least one Antarctic expedition and returned from his first South Polar flight boisterously drunk.6

Byrd boasted that he was an intrepid flier, but detractors claimed that he engaged in "prayer filled mental battle with his near petrifying fear of dangerous flights."7 Far from being a rugged explorer, he was an effete snob who refused Ronne's offers of ski and trail instruction. As a "Virginia gentleman" Byrd was "unaccustomed to doing things for himself" in the harsh Antarctic environment, where every man's contribution was essential. According to one anonymous "observer," Byrd was an ineffectual individual who "would starve to death camped in the middle of a grocery story."8 Jealous colleagues portrayed Byrd as an unstable, divisive commander who callously manipulated subordinates, taking them for long polar walks one at a time, during which he urged them to spy on their fellows and root out all signs of dissent. He demanded and admittedly gave total loyalty but was ruthless in striking down those whom he believed, rightly or wrongly, had betrayed him.9

There is some truth in these assertions, but it is a limited truth. Byrd's belittlers often had agendas of their own, and some writers have apparently been more interested in telling good stories than in getting them right. For example, it has been argued for years that Bernt Balchen became Byrd's harshest critic because of Byrd's jealousy of him as a leading polar explorer.10 When preparing a 1980 study of Operation Highjump, this author was told by several sources that Balchen claimed that Byrd never reached the North Pole during his 1926 flight but turned back far from the objective in a sort of "panic. …

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