Why It’s So Hard To Visit The North Pole

6-year-old Claire asks: Why haven’t you gone to the North Pole? Then you could see Santa.

Claire, you ask an excellent question. While the North Pole is high on the list of countries I want to visit, visiting the North Pole isn’t easy. In fact, it is probably the hardest country in the world to visit, even more, difficult than visiting North Korea.

In addition to the logistical difficulties of getting to the North Pole, traveling there with a US Passport has a whole set of unique problems. To understand why it is so difficult, especially for Americans to travel to the North Pole, you have to understand the history of Polar/American relations.

19th Century
For the most part, US relations with the North Pole in the 19th Century could be considered informal. As Santa began his policy of delivering presents to good boys and girls all over the world, the United States’ lax border controls and open immigration made it easy for Santa to enter and travel within the US without raising too many eyebrows. In fact, most American homes in the 19th Century didn’t object to Santa entering the United States as he wasn’t Irish.

The North Pole was viewed by the great European powers during this time as something along the lines of the Kingdom of Tonga. They were happy to trade with the Pole, but otherwise, it was forgotten. Expeditions led by many countries during this period attempted to reach the North Pole, but none succeeded. This includes the ill-fated expedition sent by Pope Leo XIII in 1887 which attempted to make contact with the ruler of the North Pole, Santa Claus.

Early 20th Century
The first breakthrough in US/Polar relations occurred in 1909 when US Naval Officer Robert Peary reached the North Pole. He was sent on a secret mission by President Theodore Roosevelt to open up diplomatic relations with Santa. It was believed that Peary carried a letter by the president seeking to formalize the US/North Pole boundary north of Alaska as well as setting formal terms for Santa’s annual Christmas visit.

The record of the first meeting was sealed by President Taft upon Peary’s return to Washington and are not scheduled to be opened until the year 2059. While the actual records of the meeting haven’t been released, certain results were obvious: there was no formal recognition of the North Pole by the United States and there was no agreement as to the border of the United States and the North Pole.

Despite the discovery of non-reindeer powered flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903, Peary’s trip to the North Pole and subsequent expeditions for decades to come had to be done overland.

(It should be noted that the British were also seeking to engage in a dialog with Santa regarding Polar claims to northern Ellesmere Island in Canada during this time. As far as historians can tell, they were unsuccessful.)

With the onset of WWI, both sides of the conflict made appeals to Santa to join their side. King George V of England made a famous appeal to Santa Claus on December 17, 1915, before a session of parliament:

To his Majesty Santa Claus, King of the North Pole, I beseech you to find common cause with the civilized nations of Europe. The Kaiser and his generals have violated the neutrality of Belgium. They have unleashed weapons of war unseen by man since the creation of Adam. The only right and honorable course of action would be to find common cause with Britain and her allies and place the Kaiser and his subjects on the naughty list!

Santa kept the North Pole neutral throughout the war but did send a delegation of helpers to the League of Nations summit. It was the first recorded time where Santa’s helpers appeared in any formal capacity below the Arctic circle. The North Pole ultimately, however, joined with the US and did not join the League of Nations.

During the interwar period of 1918-1939, US/Polar relations remained informal but friendly. During this period Santa demonstrated his knowledge of the new mass media by teaming with Coca-Cola to create the world’s first propaganda campaign designed to create a cult of personality around a world leader. The techniques developed by Santa would later be used by Hitler, Stalin and Kim Jong Il.

Santa also created a secret network to better document the naughty/nice list. Until this time the list was mostly on the honor system, which lead to many errors. This system of secret information was also imitated by many world leaders later in the 20th Century.

World War II

The greatest change in US/Polar relations came with the onset of the Second World War. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Christmas address to the nation called on Santa:

..to give neither presents to the Axis powers, nor coal which could be used in their war efforts.

Despite calls from Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, Santa continued his annual Christmas trips to both Axis and Allied countries throughout the war.

This was done despite great danger to himself. On December 24, 1944, Santa’s sleigh was hit by anti-aircraft fire while delivering presents to children near a ball bearing factory in Dresden. Despite losing the left runner on his sleigh, he managed to complete all his 1944 deliveries.

The North Pole Ambassador to the Netherlands
The North Pole Ambassador to the Netherlands

It should be noted that historians have not found any evidence that Hitler or other high ranking members of the German Wehrmacht ever received presents from 1923 onward. William Shirer, the author of the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, noted that nowhere in the records of the Nazi government was there any evidence at all of any deliveries, even of coal, to Nazi leaders during the war. This has lead him to reassess Santa’s involvement in the war as one of “biased neutrality”. This is despite a secret SS project to develop irresistible milk and cookies which bring Santa to Germany’s side of the war. It was well known that Roosevelt received at least one cigarette extender as a gift in 1942 and Churchill was believed to have found a box of Cuban cigars under his tree every year.

Some conspiracy theorists have attributed Adolf Hitler’s antisemitism and subsequent rise to power to having been put on the naughty list in 1914. He received coal when he really wanted a set of paints and an easel. This is considered by most Clausologists as being highly impossible as Hitler once referred to Santa during a Christmas rally in Nuremberg as “the perfect Aryan”.

Cold War
Following WWII, Santa found himself attacked by both sides of the Cold War.

In the United States, Sen. Joseph McCarthy accused Santa of being a communist before the House Unamerican Affairs Committee. On December 3, 1953, he said:

I have in my hands’ evidence that Santa Claus, leader of the North Pole, is an agent provocateur of the Soviet Union and committed Bolshevik. Comrade Claus has followed a slavish devotion to the principals of Marxism by his annual distribution of gifts which have been totally unearned by the children of the world. One need only look at his red suit to know where is true loyalties lie.

Ironically, just two weeks later, in a session of the Soviet Politburo, Joseph Stalin said:

Make no mistake, this Claus is no friend of Socialism! He has in his employment thousands of elves, who slave night and day without pay. His “gifts” are nothing more than bribes given children so they will become endeared to capitalist toy makers. He determines naughty and nice, not on party loyalty, but on bourgeoisie morals. Claus should be considered by international socialists an enemy of the worker!

In the 1960’s relations with the US thawed. The Tannenbaum Treaty was signed 1960 by President Eisenhower and Mrs. Claus, which was the first official understanding of any sort between the United States and the North Pole. The treaty set for official guidelines for the annual Christmas visit as well as providing a hotline from the White House to Santa’s Workshop.

The treaty also addressed concerns by Air Force officials about Santa’s sleigh being incorrectly identified as a Soviet ICBM. The groundwork laid down by the Tannenbaum Treaty eventually lead to the annual tracking of Santa by NORAD.

By 1971, relations had warmed enough for President Nixon to make the first-ever visit by a sitting US President to the North Pole. Having been an annual naughty lister, Nixon’s visit surprised the world including Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. (This is where the phrase “Only Nixon could visit Santa” comes from.) The Soviets, seeing US diplomatic efforts in China and the North Pole, feared an Arctic encirclement.

In a little-known event, the Soviet Union almost went to war with the North Pole in 1973. Soviet winter forces were amassed above the Arctic Circle for a potential invasion of the Pole in what was known as “Operation Red Christmas Star”. However, the Christmas 1973 gifts of coal to Watergate burglars G. Gordan Liddy, E. Howard Hunt and John Dean quickly eroded US/Polar relations which caused Brezhnev to call off the invasion.

Fall of Communism
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, the North Pole ceased being an Arctic bargaining chip to be used by the superpowers. This ushered in the greatest period of expansion in North Pole history and a series of diplomatic confrontations with the United States.

The first flap with the US concerned the melting of the polar ice caps. Santa was one of the first signatories of the Kyoto Protocol. The failure of the US to sign the treaty lead to Santa giving coal to the last three US Presidents (Clinton, Bush, and Obama). In 2005, Santa hired the Rand Corporation to draft a paper outlining possible options if there should be a total melting of the North Pole. Options include creating an entirely virtual North Pole with all toy creation outsourced to factories around the world, to buying entire islands in Papua New Guinea.

Furthermore, after 9-11 the US placed sanctions on the North Pole for failing to cease gift delivery to Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Having already placed all known terrorists on the naughty list, Santa didn’t feel there was any justification to punish good boys and girls in countries labeled the “Axis of Evil”. The US also demanded access to the naughty list which was refused by Santa. The Secretary of State then threatened to put the North Pole on the list of states that sponsor terrorism but backed down in the face of pressure from children. In retaliation, the North Pole severely limited travel by Americans in 2006.

This finally gets me to why I haven’t visited the North Pole yet…..

Sales of old Soviet nuclear icebreakers and global warming induced melting of the polar ice cap lead to a dramatic increase of visitors to the North Pole. Despite being one of the larger countries in the world by area, the North Pole has a very small population and doesn’t have the means to host the thousands of visitors which were coming annually. In 2007 the North Pole implemented draconian policies to limit the number of tourists beyond the restrictions in place for Americans. Only 1,500 are allowed per year, and only 10% of those are allocated to Americans. Visa costs are now $50,000 (payment is also accepted in Euros, Yen and Candy Cane).

Not only is a North Pole visa ridiculously expensive, but the paperwork required to get a visa is extremely complicated. Here are the requirements as spelled out on the North Pole’s Ministry of Tourism website:

  • All visitors must be of good standing on the nice list for a period of 5 years prior to their visit.
  • All visa submissions must be made between Thanksgiving and December 23 at an official North Pole consular office and presented on the lap of Santa’s helper.
  • Visa applicants cannot have visited any area where Mad Reindeer Disease has been present for a period of 6-months prior to visiting.
  • Visa applicants which have been rejected better not pout, cry or shout or they shall be removed for future visa consideration.

An altercation with a taxi driver in Manila who ripped me off in 2008 has put me on the naughty list that year, so I’m not eligible to even apply for a visa until next year.

Claire, I hope that explains why I haven’t been to the North Pole yet. I also hope you learned something about the history of Santa and why things are the way they are today.

I hope to visit the North Pole someday and when I do it will be the proudest stamp in my passport!