“Who was Admiral Hyman Rickover?” by S.M. O’Connor

Widely regarded as the Father of the Nuclear Navy, Admiral Hyman George Rickover (1900-1986) was a technocrat who 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.  He served simultaneously as chief of the nuclear power division within the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Ships and headed the naval nuclear reactors branch of the Atomic Energy Commission.[1]  Often called a “late bloomer,” Captain Rickover was a former submarine officer who had chosen 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).

His partisans sometimes argue Rickover was the first Jewish graduate of the United States Naval Academy or the first Jewish admiral.[2]  There were few precedents for his extraordinary career, but neither was true.  The physicist Albert A. Michelson (1852-1931) not only graduated from the U.S. Navy Academy – having received a special appointment as a midshipman from President Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) – but was a faculty member and at the age of twenty-eight became the first person to measure the speed of light before he resigned his commission in 1892 to join the faculty of The University of Chicago.[3] Uriah Phillips Levy, who is best known for his opposition to the use of flogging as a punishment, reached the rank of commodore in 1860.[4]

Born in Makow, Poland,[5] which was then part of the Russian Empire, to Jewish parents in 1900, Hyman George Rickover emigrated with them to the U.S.A. when he was five years old, and settled in New York City, according to most accounts.[6]  Two years later, his family moved to Chicago, where his father found work as a tailor.[7]  Note that according to The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, he accompanied his parents to Chicago in 1906.[8]

In Rickover – Controversy and Genius: A Biography, Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen state that Hyman Rickover’s parents were Abraham (born Eliachako) and Rachel (born Ruchal).[9]  Note that according to Polmar and Allen, school records indicate Hyman Rickover was born on August 24, 1898; and according to naval records he was born on January 27, 1900.[10]  They further state Abraham Rickover related in a 1958 Chicago Sun-Times interview that he departed Makow in 1899, arrived in New York City, and by 1903 had saved up enough money to retrieve his family.[11]  A Time Magazine account based on interviews with multiple family members relayed that Abraham Rickover arrived in New York City in 1904 and in 1906 sent for Ruchal; Fanny, who was then eight-years-old; and Hyman, who was then six.[12]  In Chicago, the family lived not on or near Maxwell Street but at 3243 West Grenshaw Street in the Lawndale neighborhood,[13] and he attended Lawson Elementary School.[14]

In September of 1914, he enrolled at John Marshall High School.[15]  His grades suffered because he had to work as a Western Union telegram messenger to contribute to the family income and he failed two classes, so he compensated with two summer school classes.[16]  By the first semester of his senior year, his grades had dramatically improved with four “A” grades, one “B+,” and one “C.”[17]  Shortly after the nuclear submarine U.S.S. John Marshall launched in July of 1961, the U.S. Navy sent John Marshall High School a model of the sub, which went on display in the trophy case with athletic trophies.[18]

An excellent student, he received an appointment as a midshipman to the U.S. Naval Academy and graduated in 1922.[19]  Rickover received the appointment thanks to Congressman Adolph Sabath (1866-1952), a Jewish immigrant (like the Rickovers) and a Democrat whose congressional district included Lawndale.[20]  [Later, Rickover would enjoy the patronage of another Jewish congressman who represented Chicago, Sidney R. Yates (1999-2000), another Democrat.[21]]  After he studied for two weeks at a preparatory school to take the entrance examination for the U.S. Naval Academy – Polmar and Allen speculate it was the U.S. Naval Academy Preparatory School known as Bobby’s War College because it was founded by U.S. Naval Academy Robert Lincoln Werntz (Class of 1884) – he concluded he would be better off shutting himself up at his boarding house and cramming for the test by himself for two months.[22]  At Bobby’s War College, students prepaid $300, found lodgings in Annapolis, and studied old entrance exams the U.S. Naval Academy had used within the past ten years for four hours per day Mondays through Fridays.[23]  The questions changed every year, but covered the same topics: (American English) spelling, grammar, and punctuation; geography; (American) history; and three types of mathematics: basic arithmetic, algebra, and geometry.[24]  After he received the endorsement of his congressman and passed the entrance exam, Rickover would have needed to pass a physical exam.[25]

Before he could start taking classes, a fever caused him to check himself into the sick bay, where he was diagnosed with diphtheria, which was potentially a fatal illness.[26]  Consequently, he was quarantined in the old Maine Barracks, whereas the other midshipmen slept in Bancroft Hall.[27]  Eventually, he would move into Bancroft Hall, but he was unhappy for much of his time at the Naval Academy.[28]  With an income of just $2 per month, he had no money to date.[29]  He had difficulty making friends and he was a frequent target for hazing.[30]  For example, he received demerits for smoking although he was not a smoker.[31]  In this social environment, he often retreated to his dorm room to study in private.[32]

Rickover was one of 539 graduates in the Class of 1922, all of whom received their diplomas from Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt III (1887-1944).[33]  Many of his classmates resigned because the U.S.A. was in the First Great World War (1914-1918) when they entered the U.S. Naval Academy but the postwar U.S. Navy was shrinking by the time they graduated.[34]  Out of the 539 graduates, 390 received commissions as Ensigns in the U.S. Navy and another twenty-four were commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the U.S. Marine Corps.[35] Another eight commissioners were withheld pending the outcome of physical examinations.[36]  The other graduates resigned.[37]

Rickover’s first assignment was aboard the destroyer La Vallette, on which he became Engineering Officer on June 21, 1923; and his second was aboard the battleship Nevada as the Electrical Officer.[38]  Subsequently, he studied to receive a M.S. degree in electrical engineering at Columbia University, where he also met his future wife, Ruth Masters, in 1928-29.[39]  When he was finished with his studies, he briefly worked at the General Electric Company’s factory at Schenectady, New York, so he would be familiar with the latest technology.[40]

In the 1930s, after he graduated from Columbia University, he volunteered to serve aboard submarines.[41]  [Back then, it was necessary to serve aboard a surface ship before one could serve in the air arm or submarine arm so all naval officers and servicemen were grounded in the same experience.[42]]  After six months of submarine training, he served aboard two submarines: the S-9 and S-48.[43]  In June of 1931, he received a promotion to Executive Officer (X.O.) and navigator of the submarine S-48.[44]  While the S-48 was moored, he once saved the life of an inebriated submariner who had fallen off the deck by jumping overboard and keeping the fellow’s head above the surface until they received more help.[45]

Lt. Rickover courted Ruth by correspondence.[46]  They wed on October 8, 1931 at Litchfield, Connecticut.[47]   The officiant was the Reverend William J. Brewster, an Episcopalian priest.[48]  Note that according to Rear Admiral Dave Oliver, who had served under Admiral Rickover, Hyman and Ruth wed after she had earned her Ph.D. from the Sarbonne,[49] but according to Polmar and Allen she received her doctorate in 1932.[50]  They had a long honeymoon in Panama, but it was frequently interrupted because he would have to leave on short cruises aboard the S-48.[51]   He converted to Christianity and became an Episcopalian like her.[52]  [Later, he would distribute her unattributed monographs on international law and other subjects amongst all nuclear submarines.[53]  Together, they had one son.[54]  After her death in 1972 at the age of sixty-nine, he wed Eleonore A. Bednowicz, the U.S. Navy nurse who had cared for him the first time he suffered a heart attack.[55]]  During this period in the 1930s, he and Ruth lived in a town near the submarine base at New London, Connecticut.[56]

After he was relived as X.O. of the S-48 on June 2, 1933, he joined the Office of the Inspector of Naval Material in Philadelphia.[57]  During this period, he took additional correspondence courses from the Naval War College.[58]  He read the book Peacemaking 1919 by the British diplomat Harold Nicholson (1886-1968), later Sir Harold Nicholson, and its depiction of the Treaty of Versailles being negotiated by insiders horrified him.[59]  Lt. Rickover began to contribute to the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings in 1934, and his first essay, “International Law and the Submarine” reflected his interest in submarines and warfare and his wife’s interest in international law.[60]

Passed over for command of a submarine, he was instead assigned aboard another battleship.[61]  Finally, he received command of the minesweeper Finch off the coast of what was then the Republic of China.[62]  Promoted to Lieutenant Commander on July 1, 1937, he received this command on July 17, 1937 and he was relieved of command on October 5, 1937.[63]

He requested that his career path shift from that of a line officer who could serve aboard and command any ship to that of an engineering officer.[64]  In 1937, his request was granted.[65]  His first assignment as an engineering officer was at the Subic Bay Repair Facility (Cavite Navy Yard) in what was then the Commonwealth of the Philippines.[66]   He arrived there on November 1, 1937.[67]  After a year there and an Asian vacation, he and his family went to Washington, D.C., where he reported for duty in 1939.[68]  In August of 1939, he reported to the Bureau of Engineering (which became the Bureau of Ships) in Washington, D.C.[69]  No warfighter, he spent the Second Great World War “not…within echo distance of the sound of guns.”[70]  Robert Masters Rickover was born on October 11, 1940.[71]  Lt. Commander Rickover spent the majority of the conflict as head of the Electrical Section of the Bureau of Ships.[72]  By war’s end, he had been promoted to captain and faced forced retirement within a few years.

Early in 1945, he headed a special study team at the supply center in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.[73]  In July, he became commander of a ship-repair facility on the island of Okinawa.[74]  At year’s end, he became inspector general of the 19th Fleet, based in San Francisco.[75]  As such, he supervised the mothballing of warships.[76]

Captain Rickover received the Legion of Merit for duty as Head of the Electrical Section of the Bureau of Ships from January of 1841 to October 15, 1945.[77]  He became an Honorary Commander of the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for assistance to the Royal Navy while Head of the Electrical Section of the Bureau of Ships.[78]  Rickover received the Letter of Commendation (with Commendation Ribbon) for duty at repair base on Okinawa from July 20, 1945 to November 26, 1945.[79]

His life changed because in 1946 he was one of a group of five officer and three civilians the U.S. Navy sent to Oakridge, Tennessee.[80]  The plan had been to build a nuclear power plant suitable for installation aboard a surface warship, but Captain Rickover took charge of the group and seized the opportunity to outmaneuver opposition within the U.S. Navy and the seat of federal government to build the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine.[81]  With the personal support from Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, he had Electric Boat Company build the U.S.S. Nautilus (SSN-571), which launched in September of 1954.[82]  Within a few years, one-fifth of the U.S. Navy’s budget was devoted to the construction of thirty more such nuclear-powered submarines and the operation of a further sixty.[83]

Congress and the public learnt that at least theoretically it would be possible to install nuclear power plants on ships to generate electricity and provide propulsion power in December of 1945 when physicist Ross Gunn (1897-1966) of the Naval Research Laboratory testified before Senator Brien McMahon’s Special Committee on Atomic Energy.[84]  On March 29, 1946, the physicist and science writer Dr. Philip H. Abelson (1913-2004) completed hi study, “Atomic Energy Submarine.”[85]

In May of 1946, Captain Rickover received an assignment to the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge Tennessee, and he arrived at Oak Ridge in June.[86]  Captain Rickover addressed the Submarine Officers’ Conference in November of 1946.[87]  Later, Captain Rickover received the Oak Leaf Cluster (with Commendation Ribbon) for duty with Manhattan District at Oak Ridge from July 4, 1946 to December 31, 1946.[88]

In September of 1947, Captain Rickover received an appointment to the Bureau of Ships on the staff of Vice Admiral Earle W. Mills.[89]  On January 9, 1947, the Submarine Officers’ Conference recommended that the U.S. Navy create a major nuclear propulsion program.[90]  The next day, Fleet Admiral Chester William Nimitz, Senior (1885-1966), Chief of Operations, approved the recommendation the next day.[91]  On August 19, 1947, the physicist Dr. Edward Teller (1908-2003) endorsed Captain Rickover’s proposal for a program to use nuclear reactors for submarine propulsion.[92]  On December 5, 1947, Admiral Nimitz formally recommended that the U.S. Navy develop a nuclear-propulsion program to the Secretary of the Navy.[93]  In April of 1948, Admiral Mills, Chief of Bureau of Ships, criticized the Atomic Energy Commission for what he saw as lack of progress in the development of nuclear reactors for the propulsion of warships.[94]  A few months later, on August 4, 1948, Admiral Mills established the Nuclear Power Branch of the Bureau of Ships under Rickover.[95]  In February of 1949, Captain Rickover additionally received an appointment to the Division of Reactor Development within the Atomic Energy Commission.[96]  Captain Rickover manipulated Senator Brien McMahon of Connecticut, the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, into making him director of the Atomic Energy Commission’s bureau that dealt with nuclear power plants on naval vessels.[97]  Rickover made remarkable progress when one considers that his patron, Vice Admiral Mills, retired in 1949.[98]  He also had to contend with enemies at all levels of the U.S. Navy.[99]

A false step on the way to the eventual construction of the U.S.S. Enterprise (CVN-65), the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, led to Rickover’s construction of the first nuclear power plant for civilian purposes.[100]   There were American admirals and captains who wanted in the wake of the Second Great World War wanted the U.S. Navy to acquire super aircraft carriers like the Shinano built during the war by the Japanese Imperial Navy.  Admiral Louis Denfeld (1891-1971), who had been a naval aviator and aircraft carrier commander before he replace Nimitz as Chief of Operations (in 1947), had supported the construction of the U.S.S. United States, which was to be the first American super aircraft carrier, but a few days after the keel was laid in April of 1949, it was cancelled and Denfield was forced to resign.[101]  The U.S. Air Force (which had only broken off from the U.S. Army in 1947) vied with the U.S. Navy for resources in the postwar years.  President Truman chose to focus on the use of Air Force bombers armed with nuclear bombs as the primary means of defense and deterrence.  Active-duty and retired admirals and captains objected in the so-called “Revolt of the Admirals,”[102] which played out in the Pentagon, in Congress, and the press.[103]  Admiral Forrest P. Sherman (1896-1951), who succeeded Denfeld as Chief of Naval Operations, also supported the construction of super aircraft carriers, and was able to point to the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953) as justification because the North Koreans (backed by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China) overran airfields in South Korea and airfields in American-occupied Japan were too far away from the Korean Peninsula to allow for effective air support (with the technology of that era).[104]

To this end, Admiral Sherman wrote the Chief of Bureau of Ships, “I believe that the time has come to explore the feasibility of constructing a large carrier with an atomic power plant to determine time factors, cost factors and characteristics.”[105]  Rickover had the A.E.C. labs at Argonne National Laboratory (then located in Chicago before it moved to DuPage County); and Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna, New York; as well as Oak Ridge to undertake feasibility studies.[106]  Rickover lost the backing of Sherman when he died prematurely in July of 1951, and at that point many senior naval aviators wanted the construction of aircraft carriers of any type.[107]  [The first American super aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Forrestal (CV-59), which launched in 1954, was steam-powered rather than nuclear-powered.]  Furthermore, President Eisenhower’s advisor on nuclear energy, Rear Admiral Lewis L. Strauss (1896-1974), a U.S. Navy reservist and former A.E.C. commissioner (and future A.E.C. Chairman) advised the National Security Council on March 31, 1953 that the U.S. Government could save $200,000,000 with the elimination of an Air Force nuclear aircraft and the Navy’s nuclear-powered super aircraft carrier.[108]

This was at a time when the Korean War was coming to an end and President Eisenhower wanted to sharply reduce Defense Department spending, which be believed had gotten out of control.[109]  The U.S. Department of Defense[110] thereupon proposed the postponement of the nuclear-powered super aircraft carrier, but Eisenhower and Strauss wanted the proposal scrapped altogether.[111]  A.E.C. Chairman Gordon Dean (1905-1958) objected this would bring to an end the A.E.C.’s plans to build a nuclear power plant for civilian use, so Eisenhower permitted the A.E.C. and Rickover to adapt the plan for a large naval vessel nuclear power plant into a plan to develop a prototype civilian nuclear power plant.[112]  Dean had Rickover supervise the construction of this power plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania.[113]

Prompted by Rickover and his allies in Congress, Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson (1890-1961), who was an engineer himself, wrote the A.E.C. in mid-1954 to state that based on the progress made in the past fourteen months, “it is now timely and highly desirable from the military standpoint to undertake active development of a practical working prototype of a reactor … for a propulsion of large ships.”[114]  The A.E.C. concurred and assigned development of the nuclear reactor suitable for installation on a large vessel to Westinghouse’s Bettis laboratory while it continued to work on the civilian reactor at Shippingport, Pennsylvania.[115]  Oversight went to the Naval Reactors Branch of the A.E.C.[116]

Meanwhile, in January of 1950, Captain Rickover had discussed construction of the Nautilus with the Electric Boat Company.[117]  Every navy that has ever christened a submarine Nautilus has done so as a nod to the submarine of that same name in Jules Verne’s hugely influential 19th Century science fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, published in 1870; and its sequel, Mysterious Island, published in 1874.[118]  On August 20, 1951, the U.S. Navy placed the order for the Nautilus with the Electric Boat Company.[119] [In 1952, Electric Boat Company reorganized as General Dynamics after it acquired Canadair (a warplane manufacturer) from the Canadian Government and thereby expanded into warplane production, and now the Electric Boat Company is a subsidiary of General Dynamics.] On June 14, 1952, President Truman laid the keel for the Nautilus.[120]

Admiral Oliver succinctly explained in Against the Tide: Rickover’s Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy, how Rickover kept down the costs of building the Nautilus, the prototypical nuclear-powered submarine. “Rickover fueled President Eisenhower’s parsimonious predilection by building his first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus, from used parts: a diesel submarine already under construction, liquid-holding tanks from a bankrupt New Jersey dairy, emergency diesel engines salvaged from a minesweeper that had spent the last few years sunk on the bottom of a river, and a refurbished engine room appropriated from a pre-World War II destroyer.  He was thus able to build the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine for less than $70 million.”[121]

Meanwhile, in July of 1951, the selection board passed over Captain Rickover for promotion to Rear Admiral.[122]  A year later, in July of 1952, the selection board passed over Captain Rickover for a second time.[123]  Consequently, he faced retirement in mid-1953.[124] At a time when Hyman Rickover needed a promotion to Rear Admiral or face mandatory retirement, Clay Blair, Jr. wrote an authorized biography: The Atomic Submarine and Admiral Rickover.[125]  Rickover’s secretary typed the manuscript, which Admiral Rickover reviewed.[126]  Holt published the book in 1954.  Blair assured Rickover received favorable publicity in Time and Life, while his friend Lloyd Norman did the same at the Chicago Tribune and later Newsweek.[127]

On March 30, 1953, the Nautilus nuclear reactor prototype in Arco, Idaho went critical.[128]  On July 1, 1953, the selection committee finally tapped Captain Rickover for promotion to Rear Admiral.[129]  In October of 1953, Rear Admiral Rickover received authority over the Shippingport, Pennsylvania nuclear power reactor program.[130]  Rear Admiral Rickover was the subject of a Time Magazine cover news story for the January 11, 1954 issue.[131]  On January 21, 1954, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower (1896-1979) christened the Nautilus and the submarine launched.[132]  On January 15, 1955, the Nautilus was underway with nuclear power for the first time.[133]  On April 25, 1955, President Eisenhower announced a nuclear-powered merchant ship would be built separately from the U.S. Navy’s nuclear propulsion program.[134]

Rear Admiral Rickover received the Gold Star in lieu of Second Legion of Merit for services as Chief of the A.E.C.’s Naval Reactors Branch of the Division of Reactor Development, and Director of the Nuclear Power Division at the Bureau of Ships from March of 1949 to July of 1952.[135]

In 1957, Genoa, Italy bestowed the Christopher Columbus International Communications Prize on Rear Admiral Rickover.[136]  Later that year, on December 2, 1957, the Shippingport reactor went critical.[137]

On August 3, 1958, the Nautilus reached the North Pole.[138]  That month, Rear Admiral Rickover was not invited to the White House ceremony that honored the Nautilus, but did represent President Eisenhower at New York ceremonies.[139]

On August 19, 1958, the U.S.S. Triton (SSRN-586), the first submarine with two nuclear reactors, launched.[140]  This was the second American submarine and fifth warship named after the Greek sea god Triton.  In 1960, the Triton would circumnavigate the world in eighty-four days following the route of Ferdinand Magellan.

On October 24, 1958, Rear Admiral Rickover received a promotion to Vice Admiral.[141]  In April of 1959, Vice Admiral Rickover received the Congressional Gold Medal for achievement in atomic energy.[142]

On June 9, 1959, the George Washington (SSBN-598), the first Polaris missile submarine, launched.[143]  This was the third American warship named after General George Washington (1732-1799), the first President of the United States of America.

In July of 1959, Vice Admiral Rickover accompanied Vice President (and future President) Richard Milhouse Nixon (1913-1994) to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.).[144]  On July 14, 1959, the first nuclear-powered surface warship, the U.S.S. Long Beach, a guided missile cruiser, launched.[145]  Captain (later Admiral) Eugene Parks Wilkinson (1918-2013), who had been the first Commanding Officer of the Nautilus, was also the first Commanding Officer of the Long Beach.   Seven days later, on July 21, 1959, the nuclear-powered merchant ship Savannah launched.[146]

The first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Enterprise, launched on September 24, 1960.[147]  The Enterprise was the longest naval vessel ever built.  She was the eighth American warship to bear that name.  The construction of the Enterprise was the culmination of plans and efforts that had begun about a decade and half earlier.  Parts of Top Gun (1986) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) were set aboard the Enterprise.   Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991) named the starship Enterprise (NC-1701) in Star Trek (1966-1969) after the real U.S.S. Enterprise.

Vice Admiral Rickover received the Distinguished Service Medal for being in charge of Naval Nuclear Propulsion from January 17, 1955 to January 17, 1961.[148]   In 1963, Hanson W. Baldwin (1903-1991), military correspondent for The New York Times, and a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy (Class of 1924) wrote a story in 1963 about Congressman Charles S. Gubser’s resolution to recognize “the true fathers of the nuclear submarine program,” Doctors Gunn and Abelson, which Rickover’s allies in the Navy and Congress saw not so much as a genuine attempt at honoring Gunn and Abelson as a dig at Rickover’s legacy by his enemies in the Navy and the resolution went nowhere.[149]  Vice Admiral Rickover received the Gold Star in lieu of Second Distinguished Service Medal for Naval Nuclear Propulsion program from January of 1961 to January of 1964.[150]

The nuclear-powered submarine fleet suffered two staggering losses in the 1960s.  A nuclear-powered attack submarine, the U.S.S. Thresher (SSN-593), was lost with 129 men on April 10, 1963.[151]  In May of 1968, the U.S.S. Scorpion (SSN-589) was lost with ninety-nine men.[152]

From the Nautilus onward, Rickover was aboard every time a nuclear-powered submarine made her maiden voyage.[153]  During these sea trials, he could adjust machinery and remove men who were unfit for service aboard nuclear-powered submarines.[154]  Admiral Oliver commented, “I believe it was because he understood that those of us who were sailing his ships needed to see Rickover’s personal courage.  He understood about leading from the front.”[155]

Starting with the sea trials of the Nautilus, Rickover started a tradition of writing letters to allies in Congress.[156]  Over time, he expanded the list of recipients to include “all members of Congress and appropriate officials in the executive branch,” as he mentioned in the “Preface” to Eminent Men: Namesakes of the Polaris Fleet.[157]  Initially, he wrote around eighty letters in longhand but as the number of recipients increased to several hundred people, including newspaper columnists and other reporters, he started to use an electric typewriter.[158]

Rickover picked instructors for schools, authorized the curriculum at those schools, visited the schools, and had final approval of the commanders and engineers of nuclear-powered submarines.[159]  He prescribed written and oral tests that both men had to take at his headquarters before they assumed their new roles.[160]  The same men who wrote the textbooks conducted the oral exams.[161]

Admiral Rickover as Education Reformer

      Admiral Rickover’s published works were Education and Freedom, published in 1959; Swiss Schools and Ours: Why Theirs Are Better, published in 1962; and American Education: A National Failure, published in 1963.[162]  It was his desire that the American public school system be reconfigured to focus on science, engineering, and technology, while “a child’s home and church develop in him manners, personality, good character, and devotion to ethical and religious principles.”[163]  This is to say, he was an advocate of S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, and math) education before people bandied about that acronym.  In addition to his books, he also testified about education to the U.S. House Committee on Education gave speeches, and spoke about education to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), while on a visit to the Soviet Union with Nixon.[164]

Rickover was also a critic of John Dewey’s influence on the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s Office of Education.[165]  Due to it, he felt American schoolchildren did not learn “what the Greeks did and the Romans did and what the Church did in the Middle Ages and what was done during and after the Renaissance… We have discarded much of the heritage of Western Civilization.”[166]

“There was a feeling of uneasiness about his criticism,” William Carr, who, at the time, had been Executive Secretary of the National Education Association (N.E.A.), later related to Polmar and Allen.[167]  “He meant well for the Republic.  It was just too bad we had to be his target.  We were lobbing back hand grenades against his heavy artillery.  The NEA did not declare war on the Admiral.”[168]

Neither did the NEA nor any other educational group openly challenged the issue of a military man stepping outside his area of responsibility and attacking what historically had been a civilian-controlled, locally administered public service–the primary- and elementary-school system.  In the atmosphere of the time, Rickover could speak out with impunity against Communism and its threats to America.  But he was doing more.  He was telling Congress that we could learn something from the Soviet Union’s emphasis on education.  In Congress, at least, Rickover’s criticism began to go off track when he tried to make American society less appealing than Russian society.[169]

According to Polmar and Allen, “Rickover was rarely wrong in his assessment of Congressional moods, but he was wrong this time, and his rare blunder resulted in an even rare event.  A critic of Rickover was summoned before Congress…”[170]  Congressman John E. Fogarty (1913-1967), chairman of the subcommittee that oversaw the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare of the House Appropriations Committee, invited Dr. Lawrence G. Derthick, U.S. Commissioner of Education, to testify before his subcommittee.[171]  Dr. Derthick objected that in the previous two years the Office of Education had sent three missions to the U.S.S.R., had published 141 reports on education in foreign countries, and stated Rickover had received his copies of Soviet school tests from the Office of Education.[172]  Derthick further testified that the Education Ministers of the Soviet Union and Polish People’s Republic had misled Rickover when they indicated their schools had few administrators compared to the American public school system.[173]  Rickover also came away with the misimpression that the Soviets did not have organized sports.[174]

Admiral Rickover wrote Swiss Schools and Ours: Why Theirs Are Better with the help of his wife, Ruth Master Rickover.[175]  In it, he analyzed Swiss curricula from kindergarten through university.[176]  “The Swiss solutions may not be suitable for us,” he noted.  Nevertheless, they show that democracy and federalism can be combined with national standards that preserve and enhance the quality of education.”[177]  The same year Swiss Schools was published, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) allowed Rickover to continue in active service when he should had reached mandatory retirement age.[178]  President Kennedy and his advisors also considered appointing Rickover the new U.S. Commissioner of Education, which would have satisfied U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (1916-2009), who wanted to force Rickover’s retirement.[179]  Rickover would have replaced Sterling M. McMurrin, who resigned in July of 1962, and had opined impact of Rickover “on American education had been very, very good for American education.”[180]  McMurrin was Derthick’s successor.

In American Education, A National Failure: The Problem of Our Schools and What We Can Learn from England, Rickover argued that Congress should establish a “National Standards Committee… composed of men of national stature and eminence [that would] act as an educational watchtower announcing danger when it was approaching.”[181]   This National Standards Committee would “formulate a national scholastic standard… which would make us internationally competitive and would also respond to our specific domestic needs.”[182]

“The Committee would in no way interfere with established institutions now granting diplomas or degrees,” he explained.[183]  Rather, it would set federal standards through examinations.[184]  “I stress again that no one would need to take these examinations; but those who did pass them successfully would obtain national certification—perhaps the notation U.S. National Scholar—stamped on their regular diplomas or degrees.”[185]

The Kennedy Administration dropped the notion of having Rickover replace McMurrin in part because several women objected to his remarks during a question-and-answer session after he gave a speech to the Navy Doctors’ Wives Club luncheon held at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.[186]  There was also the fact that every previous occupant of the post had been an educator.[187]  Ultimately, Kennedy appointed Francis Keppel (1916-1990), Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education.[188]  Keppel had commented Rickover’s proposed standards “would be useful to parents, to schools and everybody else.”[189]

Polmar and Allen seem to argue that because Admiral Rickover approached problems he perceived with the American educational system with an engineer’s mentality, he did not appreciate political and social considerations.  According to them, “Rickover had been advocating national scholastic standards without looking beyond the issue to the political mine field it represented.  Just as he would zealously advocate nuclear-powered ships without seeing the total needs of the Navy, so he did not see in this educational advocacy the beliefs of his traditional political supporters.  Or at least it appeared that he did not see.  His statements on education shed no light on his political beliefs.  He seemed to be looking on educational problems as an engineer would look upon technological problems—no political context was necessary.”[190]

Admiral Rickover’s Final Years

      Vice Admiral Rickover lost his parents in the 1960s.  His father, Abraham, died on November 8, 1960 and his mother, Rachel, died on March 10, 1968.[191]  In July of 1970, the Atomic Energy Commission gave Vice Admiral Rickover the Enrico Fermi Award for “engineering and administrative leadership in the development of nuclear power.”[192]  On May 25, 1972, Ruth Masters Rickover died.[193]  On December 3, 1972, Vice Admiral Rickover received a promotion to Full Admiral.[194]  That same year, the U.S. Government Printing Office published his book Eminent Americans: Namesakes of the Polaris Fleet.  On January 19, 1974, Admiral Rickover wed Eleonore Ann Bednowicz.[195]

On June 9, 1980, Admiral Rickover received the Medal of Freedom.[196]  Two years later, the Center for the Study of Responsive Law published No Holds Barred: The Final Congressional Testimony of Admiral Hyman Rickover.

Image (43)

Figure 1 Caption: Jen Mabe designed the dust jacket of Against the Tide.  On the cover, we see 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] “Rickover, Hyman (George),” in The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography. John S. Bowman, Editor. Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press (1995), p. 610

[2] Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, Rickover – Controversy and Genius: A Biography.  New York: Simon & Schuster (1982), p. 47

[3] Polmar and Allen, p. 48

[4] Polmar and Allen, p. 47

[5] His biographers invariably mention Admiral Rickover was born in Poland, but few specify where in Poland, which is important because the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian crowns had conquered and partitioned the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  An independent Republic of Poland did not emerge until the aftermath of the First Great World War. I give The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography credit for stating he was born in Makow, Russia (now in Poland) but there are six different municipalities in Poland called Maków.  Polmar and Allen specify Maków Mazowiecki.  This is the county seat of Maków County.

See Polmar and Allen, p. 27

[6] Dave Oliver, Against the Tide: Rickover’s Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press (2014), p. 3

See also The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, p. 610

[7] Oliver, p. 3

[8] The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, p. 610

[9] Polmar and Allen, pages 27 and 669

[10] Polmar and Allen, pages 30, 34, 35, 37, 40, and 669

[11] Polmar and Allen, p. 29

[12] Polmar and Allen, p. 29

[13] Polmar and Allen, p. 32

[14] Polmar and Allen, p. 33

[15] Polmar and Allen, p. 34

[16] Polmar and Allen, p. 35

[17] Polmar and Allen, p. 35

[18] Polmar and Allen, p. 36

[19] Oliver, p. 3

See also The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, p. 610

[20] Polmar and Allen, pages 36 and 37

[21] Polmar and Allen, p. 37

[22] Polmar and Allen, pages 38 and 39

[23] Polmar and Allen, p. 38

[24] Polmar and Allen, p. 38

[25] Polmar and Allen, pages 37-39

[26] Polmar and Allen, p. 40

[27] Polmar and Allen, p. 40

[28] Polmar and Allen, p. 42

[29] Ibid

[30] Polmar and Allen, pages 42 and 47

[31] Polmar and Allen, p. 42

[32] Polmar and Allen, pages 41-43

[33] Polmar and Allen, p. 60

The son of President Theodore Roosevelt II (1858-1919), first cousin of Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), and cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), Theodore Roosevelt III is better known as General Theodore Roosevelt who stormed Utah Beach with the 4th Infantry in the Normandy Beach landings on D-Day (June 4, 1944) with which the Allies began the liberation of Nazi-occupied France.

[34] Polmar and Allen, pages 60 and 61

[35] Polmar and Allen, p. 61

[36] Ibid

[37] Ibid

[38] Polmar and Allen, pages 58, 59, 61, 63-69, 71-74, 76, 77, 83, 669, and 670

See also Oliver, p. 3

[39] Polmar and Allen, pages 75, 80, and 670

See also Oliver, pages 3 and 4

[40] Polmar and Allen, p. 75

[41] Oliver, p. 4

[42] Oliver, p. 4

[43] Polmar and Allen, p. 670

See also Oliver, p. 4

[44] Polmar and Allen, p. 80

[45] Polmar and Allen, pages 80 and 670

[46] Polmar and Allen, p. 80

[47] Polmar and Allen, p. 80

See also Oliver, p. 4

[48] Polmar and Allen, p. 80

[49] Oliver, p. 4

[50] Polmar and Allen, pages 80 and 81

[51] Polmar and Allen, p. 81

[52] Oliver, p. 4

[53] Oliver, p. 4

[54] Oliver, p. 4

[55] Oliver, p. 4

[56] Oliver, p. 4

[57] Polmar and Allen, p. 81

[58] Polmar and Allen, p. 81

[59] Polmar and Allen, p. 81

[60] Polmar and Allen, p. 81

[61] Oliver, p. 4

[62] Polmar and Allen, p. 671

See also Oliver, p. 4

[63] Polmar and Allen, pages 670 and 671

[64] Oliver, p. 4

[65] Ibid

[66] Oliver, p. 4

[67] Polmar and Allen, p. 671

[68] Oliver, p. 4

[69] Polmar and Allen, p. 671

[70] Oliver, p. 2

[71] Polmar and Allen, p. 671

[72] Oliver, p. 4

See also The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, p. 610

[73] Polmar and Allen, p. 671

[74] Ibid

[75] Ibid

[76] Ibid

[77] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[78] Ibid

[79] Ibid

[80] Oliver, pages 4 and 5

[81] Oliver, p. 5

[82] Oliver, p. 5

[83] Oliver, p. 5

[84] Polmar and Allen, pages 250 and 251

[85] Polmar and Allen, p. 671

[86] Polmar and Allen, p. 671

[87] Polmar and Allen, p. 671

[88] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[89] Polmar and Allen, p. 671

[90] Polmar and Allen, p. 671

[91] Polmar and Allen, p. 671

[92] Polmar and Allen, p. 671

[93] Polmar and Allen, p. 671

[94] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[95] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[96] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[97] Oliver, pages 17-19

[98] Polmar and Allen, p. 254

[99] Polmar and Allen, p. 254

[100] Polmar and Allen, pages 250-254

[101] Polmar and Allen, p. 251

[102] This is an unfortunate case of hyperbole on the part of the American press.  In any other country, if an event was dubbed the “Revolt of the Admirals” it would mean admirals had actually led an armed revolt against the monarch, president, or prime minister.  Another example is the way the press dubbed Saturday, October 20, 1973 the “Saturday Night Massacre” when President Nixon ordered Attorney-General Elliot Richardson (1920-1999) to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Junior (1912-2004) and Richardson resigned; so Nixon ordered Deputy Attorney-General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox and Ruckelshaus resigned; so Nixon ordered Solicitor-General Robert Bork (1927-2012) to fire Cox and after some hand-wringing Bork complied.  In any another country, if an event in the residence of the head-of-state was called the “Saturday Night Massacre” it would mean that literally multiple people had been murdered there.

[103] Polmar and Allen, p. 251

[104] Polmar and Allen, pages 251 and 252

[105] Polmar and Allen, p. 252

[106] Polmar and Allen, p. 252

[107] Polmar and Allen, p. 253

[108] Polmar and Allen, p. 253

[109] Polmar and Allen, p. 253

[110] At the suggestion of President Truman to consolidate the War Department and Department of the Navy, Congress had passed the National Security Act of 1947, which (a) renamed the War Department the Department of the Army; (b) merged the Department of the Army and the Department of the Navy into the National Security Establishment; (c) turned the Army Air Forces into the Department of the Air Force, which was also part of the National Security Establishment; (d) created the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.); and (e) created the National Security Council.  U.S. Department of Defense.  Thenceforth, the Secretary of the Army, the Secretary of the Navy, and the new Secretary of the Air Force would report to the Secretary of Defense, who reports to the President.  James Forrestal (1892-1949), the last Cabinet-level Secretary of the Navy, became the first Secretary of Defense.

[111] Polmar and Allen, p. 253

[112] Polmar and Allen, p. 254

[113] Polmar and Allen, p, 254

[114] Polmar and Allen, p. 254

[115] Polmar and Allen, p. 254

[116] Polmar and Allen, p. 254

[117] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[118] Polmar, pages 113 and 114

[119] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[120] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[121] Oliver, p. 9

[122] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[123] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[124] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[125] Polmar and Allen, pages 19 and 33

[126] Polmar and Allen, p. 33

[127] Polmar and Allen, pages 516 and 517

[128] Pomar and Allen, p. 672

[129] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[130] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[131] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[132] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[133] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[134] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[135] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[136] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[137] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[138] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[139] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[140] Polmar and Allen, p. 672

[141] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[142] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[143] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[144] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[145] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[146] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[147] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[148] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[149] Polmar and Allen, p. 517

[150] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[151] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[152] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[153] Oliver, p. 31

[154] Oliver, pages 35-38

[155] Oliver, p. 33

[156] Polmar and Allen, p. 516

[157] Polmar and Allen, p. 516

[158] Polmar and Allen, p. 516

[159] Oliver, p. 94

[160] Oliver, p. 94

[161] Oliver, p. 95

[162] Polmar and Allen, pages 585-600

See also The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, p. 610

[163] Polmar and Allen, pages 587 and 588

[164] Pomar and Allen, pages 585 and 586

[165] Polmar and Allen, p. 590

[166] Ibid

[167] Polmar and Allen, p. 589

[168] Ibid

[169] Ibid

[170] Polmar and Allen, p. 590

[171] Polmar and Allen, p. 590

[172] Polmar and Allen, p. 590

[173] Polmar and Allen, p. 591

[174] Polmar and Allen, p. 591

[175] Polmar and Allen, p. 592

[176] Polmar and Allen, p. 594

[177] Ibid

[178] Ibid

[179] Ibid

[180] Polmar and Allen, p. 596

[181] Polmar and Allen, p. 595

[182] Ibid

[183] Ibid

[184] Ibid

[185] Ibid

[186] Polmar and Allen, p. 594

[187] Polmar and Allen, p. 597

[188] Polmar and Allen, p. 597

[189] Polmar and Allen, p. 597

[190] Polmar and Allen, p. 595

[191] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[192] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[193] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[194] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[195] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

[196] Polmar and Allen, p. 673

See also The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, p. 610

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