“Book Review: Against the Tide” by S.M. O’Connor  

Rear Admiral David Oliver, U.S.N. (Retired), has written Against the Tide: Rickover’s Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy to help leaders and aspiring leaders glean lessons from the life story of one of the most important naval officers in American history.   Widely regarded as the Father of the Nuclear Navy, Admiral Hyman Rickover was an early proponent of nuclear marine propulsion; began to work with the Atomic Energy Commission’s Division of Reactor Development in 1949; oversaw the development of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, which was the first water pressurized nuclear reactor used in a commercial power plant; became the first Director of the Nuclear Reactors Division of the Bureau of Ships, a post which he held from 1949 to 1982; played a key role in the design and construction of the first nuclear-powered vessel, the submarine U.S.S. Nautilus; personally trained the commanding officers of most nuclear submarines until 1981; selected officers and senior enlisted men who underwent nuclear training; developed the training program for nuclear officers; and was an advocate of raising American educational standards, especially with regard to math and science.

Hyman George Rickover (1900-1986) is often called a “late bloomer.”  Captain Rickover was a former submarine officer who chose to switch to an engineering officer track before the outbreak of the Second Great World War and went nowhere near the front lines during that conflict.  In 1946, he faced retirement in 1951, but within a few years he became an expert on nuclear power, and was able to parlay this knowledge into a key leadership role in the design, construction, and usage of nuclear power plants aboard both submarines and surface ships, as well as the training programs for the officers and crewmen who operated them at sea.  Rickover had made himself indispensable to the U.S. Navy.  He held a flag rank – meaning he had the right to fly his command flag from a ship – for nearly thirty years from 1953 to 1982 and retired with the rank of Full Admiral (also known as a Four-Star Admiral).

Against the Tide counterbalances two critical Rickover biographies written by Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen: Rickover – Controversy and Genius: A Biography, which Simon & Schuster published in 1982, while Admiral Rickover was still alive, and Rickover: Father of the Nuclear Navy, published by Potomac Books in 2007.   In Admiral Oliver’s assessment, Admiral Rickover was a deep thinker who could anticipate future obstacles and ways to overcome them.[1] Rickover had no inclination to befriend his subordinates (to their disappointment) and often did not share more information with them than he felt they needed to accomplish tasks he assigned them.[2]  At the same time, he had a physically smaller stature and a higher-pitched voice than people expect in a military leader, he was not a gambler, and he was loathe to do anything to make people question his fidelity to his wife, so neither in terms of his physical presence nor in terms of his public persona did he amount to the typical profile of a high-ranking naval officer of his era, and thus he depended upon the men he chose to become nuclear submarine commanders to represent the nuclear submarine fleet within the larger U.S. Navy and ever larger U.S. Department of Defense.[3]   

Consequently, he chose men to command who had both the acuity to command nuclear-powered submarines and the magnetism one expected of such men.[4]  Yet he did not recruit officers who commanded diesel submarines during the Second Great World War, many of whom had demonstrable personal valor because he seemed to feel the very boldness that allowed them to sink enemy vessels in comparatively fragile diesel submarines made them too impetuous to be entrusted with command of nuclear-powered vessels, a decision that caused much resentment.[5]

How is Oliver qualified to write this book about Rickover?   Rear Admiral David Oliver graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1963 and served in the U.S. Navy for thirty-two years, both aboard diesel-electric submarines and nuclear submarines.  It was in the latter capacity that he came into Admiral Rickover’s orbit.  He commanded a nuclear submarine, served as Chief of Staff for the Seventh Fleet, and knew Admiral Rickover personally.  Later, under the Bill Clinton Administration, he served as Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics.  Still later, under the George W. Bush Administration, he was Director of Management and Budget for the Coalition Forces in Iraq during the Second American-Iraqi War.  Subsequently, he went into the private sector, where he became an executive with defense contractors.  By turns, he was an executive at Northrup Grumman and Westinghouse and Chief Executive Officer of EADS, North America Defense Company, Inc., which is a defense contractor subsidiary of the Airbus Group, Inc., the American arm of the Dutch-based pan-European aerospace company Airbus, S.E.

Admiral Oliver uses anecdotes from his personal experience with Admiral Rickover or other officers shared with him to make points about Rickover that made him an effective leader worthy of emulation.  Oliver devotes a few paragraphs at the end of each chapter to make explicit the leadership lessons he wants readers to draw from the anecdotes about Rickover that Oliver shared in that chapter.   Examples include Rickover’s high standard for personal accountability in himself and others, promoting an organizational culture focused on safety (specifically the safe operation of nuclear power plants), surmounting the difficulties of establishing that new organizational culture, and Rickover being mature enough to accept criticism of himself and his advisors.  In a few chapters, Oliver invites readers to ask themselves questions such as should Rickover have graciously made way for a younger man to oversee “Navy nuclear safety” instead of retiring at eighty-two?

To whom will this book appeal?  Military officers and cadets (especially naval officers and cadets, particularly those of the U.S. Navy), but also administrators in the civilian departments of the U.S. Government and state and local governments; and, outside of government, business executives and directors of museums, libraries, and charitable organizations; current and former submariners of any rank; current and former officers and crewmen who serve or served aboard nuclear-powered aircraft carriers; and military history buffs.





Against the Tide: Rickover’s Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy





Oliver, Dave





Naval Institute Press


Publication Year





Publication City  


Annapolis, Maryland


List Price  





Image (43)Figure 1 Caption: Jen Mabe designed the dust jacket of Against the Tide.  On the cover, we Admiral Hyman Rickover and crewmembers of the U.S.S. Barb (SSN 596) standing on her sail’s  fairwater planes. The photograph is from the U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive.




[1] Dave Oliver, Against the Tide: Rickover’s Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press (2014), p. 19

[2] Oliver, pages 17 and 19

[3] Oliver, pages 6, 11, 12, 27-30

[4] Oliver, p. 12

[5] Oliver, pages 9 and 10


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