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The Rise of Hyman Rickover

Rickover

by Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen
Simon and Schuster, 744 pp., $20.75

Hyman G. Rickover
Hyman G. Rickover; drawing by David Levine

Hyman G. Rickover, immigrant from the Czar’s Russian empire, entered the US Naval Academy while Woodrow Wilson sat in the White House and Allied forces threw back the Germans at the second battle of the Marne. When directed to bring his public career to a close late last year by President Reagan, Hyman Rickover, by then a four-star admiral in his early eighties, was the oldest full-time employee of the federal government and arguably the longest-serving military man in the nation’s history. As a five-star general, Omar Bradley was theoretically on active duty for life, from his graduation from West Point in 1915 until his death in 1981. But Bradley had no real job after completing his term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1953, whereas Rickover was on hyperactive duty from the day he was commissioned an ensign out of Annapolis in 1922 until January 31 of this year, when the final presidential waiver of mandatory retirement age lapsed.

Within the Navy, the record of those sixty years can cause disagreements more intense than those generated by rivalries with the Air Force and the Army, or even with the Russians. Elmo Zumwalt, the one-time chief of naval operations, has said that the US Navy’s enemies were first, the Soviet Union and second, Hyman Rickover. No other naval officer is as well known outside the service as Rickover, which is itself part of the problem. While the in-house arguments about Rickover may touch on the nuclear-powered ships he has designed or the extreme training regimen he has overseen, they are ultimately arguments about tradition and loyalty. For most of the Navy, Rickover and his accomplishments are standing rebukes to values and traditions that are the soul of a naval force. In this view, Rickover’s successes, personal and technical, have come at the expense of the Navy’s overall health.

Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen’s biography is an engrossing store of evidence about Rickover, the part of the Navy he created, and the part he opposed. Polmar is a naval analyst who writes in professional journals and for several years edited the American sections of Jane’s Fighting Ships. Allen is an editor and writer who has worked most often for National Geographic books.

The prodigies of research that lie behind this book far outweigh the irritating aspects of its presentation. Among the latter are the padding and the repetition that make the book unnecessarily long. We learn four times that Rickover’s first wife was peeved because, unlike other Mrs. Admirals, she was never invited to christen a ship. In the background noise of the book there is sometimes the sound of small knives being sharpened for insertion into Rickover’s flesh. For example, there is a belabored analysis of errors in Rickover’s congressional testimony—he said that Winston Churchill had been First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, instead of First Lord of the Admiralty—that detracts, in its pettiness, from the real points the authors want to make.

The book also stands as an illustration of the perils of running one grammatical formulation into the ground. The authors are unduly fond of a portentous verb tense, centered on the word “would,” that might be called the “future past.” The first half of the book is full of constructions such as “Sabath’s successor as the Jewish Congressman, Sidney R. Yates, would help to make Captain Rickover an admiral and would help Admiral Rickover make a nuclear navy.”

With that said, this is nonetheless a skillful biography that explains a complicated subject—the evolution of the modern Navy—through the story of one man. It is timely not only because of Rickover’s retirement but also because so many of the issues it develops will be part of the debate on military spending in this and the next few years.

Rickover is best known outside the Navy as the “father of the atomic submarine.” By the end of World War II, some physicists and naval officials were quietly speculating about the possibility of using atomic power to propel ships. Freed from their reliance on tankers or the need for frequent stops in port, such vessels could cruise endlessly—which would be a particular advantage for submarines. A nuclear-powered submarine would be a “true submersible,” virtually immune from detection and therefore all the deadlier as it stalked other ships.

In 1946, Rickover, then a captain, was dispatched to the Oak Ridge laboratory to learn about nuclear power. Initially he had no clear authority to take charge of a nuclear-propulsion program; at the time, the consensus within the Navy seemed to be that it might take twenty years or more to develop a workable power plant. Yet less than eight years later, on January 21, 1954, Mamie Eisenhower smashed a bottle of champagne across the bow of the first atomic submarine, the Nautilus. In the ceremonies that day, Hyman Rickover was singled out as the man most responsible for bringing the project to its phenomenally successful (and early) completion.

Through the next five years, the Nautilus and the Navy’s Nuclear Reactor Branch (which Rickover commanded) enjoyed success after success. The Nautilus circumnavigated the globe and was the first ship to reach the North Pole. The designs of nuclear submarines were refined and dozens more were built. Between 1959 and 1961, Congress authorized the construction of twenty-four nuclear submarines. On a single day, June 22, 1963, four new nuclear submarines joined the fleet.

In the twenty-eight years between the launching of the Nautilus and his own retirement, Rickover oversaw the growth of a nuclear fleet that has three main components. One consists of “attack” submarines, classified as “SSNs,” designed to stalk and destroy other ships and submarines. About eighty of them have been built, from the original Nautilus to current models of the Los Angeles class. Unlike the Soviet navy, the US has stopped building submarines with diesel-electric motors altogether.

At the same time, constant refinements (many of them introduced by Rickover) have driven the price and size of SSNs up and up. Each vessel of the Los Angeles class costs more than $600 million and even the Reagan administration’s inflated military budget allows for construction of only two or three per year. Because the Soviet Union already has about three times as many attack submarines as the US and is building new ones at a faster rate, some groups inside the Navy have advocated building smaller nuclear-powered submarines or reintroducing diesel-electric propulsion, which, for the same money, would permit construction of three or four times as many submarines as with nuclear power. Rickover was apparently referring to these plans when he asked in his recent congressional testimony, “What is the difference whether we have 100 nuclear submarines or 200? I don’t see what difference it makes. We can sink everything in the oceans with the number we have and so can they.”

Second is the surface fleet—the cruisers and aircraft carriers that have been equipped with nuclear power since the late 1950s. Here the trend and arguments resemble those concerning attack submarines. Since the Enterprise, the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, was launched in 1960, the US has used nuclear power in eight out of ten of its major naval craft. But over those same years, the size of the surface fleet has dwindled, and many officers in the non-Rickover Navy have argued that the only way to build more ships is to make them smaller and give them nonnuclear engines.

Finally there are the “SSBNs”—the submarines that carry missiles armed with nuclear warheads for purposes of deterrence against the Soviet Union. By the end of its crash program of SSBN construction in the 1960s the US had acquired a fleet of forty-one Polaris/Poseidon submarines, which carry sixteen missiles apiece. Although Rickover’s reactors played a part in this project, Vice Admiral William Raborn, who later directed the CIA, was in charge of the overall effort and proved at least as brilliant a manager as Rickover had with the Nautilus. About ten years ago, the Navy decided to begin replacing these submarines with much larger vessels, the Tridents, which would have twenty-four missiles. The first Trident entered the fleet late last year, two and a half years behind schedule.

As Jimmy Carter pointed out in his 1979 State of the Union address, the nuclear warheads on one Poseidon submarine alone would be enough “to destroy every large and medium-sized city in the Soviet Union.” (This statement was greeted with contempt by defense experts because it might appeal to the emotions.) Despite such potential for destruction, the nuclear-missile submarines are generally regarded as a “stabilizing” element in the nuclear balance. Unlike bombers or missiles based in silos, they are for all practical purposes undetectable and therefore they frustrate plans for a Soviet preemptive “first strike” against US nuclear forces. One major objection to the Trident is that it dilutes this advantage; instead of being dispersed among fortyone submarines, the undersea portion of America’s deterrent would be concentrated on perhaps a dozen big Tridents, magnifying the cost if one of the vessels was detected or destroyed. Submarine launched missiles are also thought to be inherently less accurate than missiles launched from land, since the submarine’s location at launch time can never be as precisely determined as that of a fixed missile silo. To some arms-control groups this is an advantage, since it eliminates any chance of using submarine missiles in a first strike. To others it is a fatal weakness, which must be corrected through building other “counter-force” weapons, such as the MX missile. As I have argued elsewhere,1 both groups may be vastly overstating the possibility that any kind of missile, whether launched from sea or land, is accurate enough to permit a sane leader to contemplate a first strike.

As his projects’ successes became more obvious, Rickover claimed a larger share of the credit for himself. “If we had to depend entirely on the Navy, I doubt there would be nuclear-powered ships at sea today,” he told a congressional committee in 1960, clearly referring to himself and his allies outside the Navy as the ones who had pulled the scales from the Navy’s eyes. Polmar and Allen demonstrate that such statements are both true and false. They are true in the sense of timing: Rickover made nuclear propulsion practical far sooner than others thought it could be done. But they are not true in implying that Rickover stood alone against a hostile or indifferent naval bureaucracy. It was precisely because so many other officials saw the potential of nuclear power, the authors say, that Rickover acquired the influential patrons within the Navy that he needed in order to get his projects underway.

But the most intriguing aspect of this story is what happened after the initial successes; from that point, the story concerns naval hardware less than it does human character. For both good and ill, Rickover did two things more effectively than most other men: he survived an environment that grew ever more hostile to his presence, and he created an organization that reflected his view of “morality” and “merit.”

From the beginning, Rickover’s background was different from most of his colleagues’ at the Naval Academy. Many came from a Navy, and even an Annapolis, family tradition. Rickover was a foreign-born Jew, son of a tailor and raised in the Lawndale section of Chicago. He had been born in Russian controlled Poland and had come with his parents to America in 1904, at the age of either four or six. (The authors speculate at length but inconclusively that Rickover might not have been born in 1900, as he claims, but rather in 1898.) He was a diligent student who prepared himself relentlessly for the entrance examinations to Annapolis, surprisingly rigorous in those days. He apparently chose a naval career because it offered him a college education for free.

At the academy, Rickover found himself in a society that was training the Navy’s future leaders, but whose ideal was the affable, “well-rounded” sportsman. Rickover himself was slight, reclusive, and bad at all sports. He was also one of seventeen Jews in a class of nearly nine hundred men. (In the ten years before his admission, a total of thirty-two Jewish students had entered the academy.) Still, according to Polmar and Allen, his naval career followed a basically normal path for almost thirty years. He had a variety of engineering assignments in the Pacific; he briefly commanded a small ship; he spent most of World War II in Washington directing work on electrical systems for the Navy. Despite his involvement in nuclear power after the war, his career was unexceptional until 1951.

In that year, Captain Rickover was considered with other captains for promotion to rear admiral. Two captains from his category of service—Engineering Duty Officers—were selected. Hyman Rickover was not. He had been “passed over,” and he had been given signals that his disappointment would be more than temporary. A year later, he was passed over a second time, which meant that he would be expected to retire from the Navy in 1953.

“When he learned of the first passover, Rickover seems to have made the most momentous decision of his career,” Polmar and Allen say. That decision was to stop playing the game the Navy way, and instead to use bases of power outside the Navy in order to survive on the inside.

Much of the subsequent story of Rickover’s career concerns the creation and the use of those bases. One source of power was purely bureaucratic: since the late 1940s, Rickover had been head not only of the Navy’s Nuclear Reactor Branch but also of the Naval Reactors Branch of the Atomic Energy Commission. In practical terms, these were different names for the same organization, which was under Rickover’s personal control. But the separation gave Rickover “two hats” to wear inside the government. He could speak as a civilian or as a naval officer as each occasion required. He could have the AEC prod the Navy, and then could shape the Navy’s response.

At the same time, Rickover was building a survival system entirely outside the bureaucracy, through his contracts with congressmen and reporters—but especially congressmen. Some of the most delightful material in Polmar and Allen’s book describes Rickover’s manipulation of the Congress, until it became the bulwark he could rely on in his most troubled moments.

His efforts were “manipulation” in the grandest political sense of that term, for he made the legislators want to be on his side. In his handling of the Congress, Rickover chose a different path from that of Washington’s other great bureaucratic survivor, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI. Hoover’s private files were a powerful deterrent, which could make congressmen and presidents terrified of crossing him. Rickover employed a modified version of Lyndon Johnson’s approach. Johnson tried to read the vanities and fears in different men and then adjust his appeal, with fine nuance, to the needs of each man. Rickover, too, seemed to diagnose each man’s hunger and then satisfy it, which often led him in the direction of flattery. When he took inspection cruises on his submarines, he tirelessly wrote letters postmarked “At Sea, North Atlantic” to congressmen who sat on the few crucial committees. Eventually he had a memory typewriter installed to automate this task. Certain types of submarines had traditionally been named after fish. Rickover began naming them after congressmen—thus the fleet includes, along with the Eisenhower and the Nimitz, the USS William H. Bates and the USS Glenard P. Lipscomb.2

Because of his clear language and sharp tongue, Rickover was unfailingly good copy as a witness at congressional hearings, and therefore a godsend to legislators who hoped to have their hearings make the news. So deftly did he lace his flattery of congressmen with tart comments that he did not seem to be flattering at all, only conveying honest respect.

The fruit of this effort, admirably explained in the book, was repeated congressional intervention to protect Rickover from his enemies. Because of congressional insistence, Rickover was repeatedly promoted over the Navy’s objections—he became a rear admiral shortly before the Nautilus was launched and a full admiral in 1973. In 1962, Rickover reached mandatory retirement age; since then, he has required presidential waivers every two years in order to stay on the job. Congressional support for Rickover repeatedly forced each president’s hand—until this year.

Some who have survived in the government nearly as long as Rickover have had no mission beyond survival. J. Edgar Hoover comes once again to mind. What distinguished Hyman Rickover’s career was the presence of a cause in whose pursuit he could shamelessly present bottles of North Pole water to congressmen or drive his subordinates until they dropped. Nuclear propulsion systems were the object of this cause, but its essence was a morality of achievement.

This morality can be explained by illustrating what it is not. In his early days as an officer, Rickover read Harold Nicolson’s behind-the-scenes account of the Treaty of Versailles. Polmar and Allen say that the book “gave Rickover an insight into a reality he would long abhor: Deals in politics were made by insiders—men who knew each other through old school ties, men who, self-licensed by privilege and heredity, acted as if they owned and ran the world. What had happened at Versailles would happen in the Navy, the young Rickover realized, for Annapolis bred a world of insiders as thoroughly as Eton and Oxford did.”

There were two things wrong with such a system, in Rickover’s view. It excluded those—himself, for one—who lacked the proper pedigree of birth, rearing, or even grace at sports. And of those it admitted, it failed to demand dedication proportional to the power they enjoyed. Throughout his years as a public figure, Rickover’s fury has been aroused by the imbalance between privilege and responsibility. His farewell testimony before the Joint Economic Committee of the Congress, excerpts from which were published in the last issue of The New York Review, distilled this view, and particularly his scorn for the defense industries that have been grossly overcharging the government.

In the portion of the world that was within his control, Rickover set out to create a different social system based on a different morality. It was an attempt to replace an old-boy network with a “meritocracy.” It largely succeeded, which was Rickover’s glory but in certain ways his shame.

Rickover shaped his new world down to its smallest detail. He prided himself on personally interviewing every candidate who applied for nuclear training—the rest of the Navy referred to them as “nucs,” rhyming with “kooks”—although as the years went by and the ranks of trainees swelled, the interviews grew cursory and capricious. He inspected the textbooks and examination papers used in the training programs. He expected daily reports from his representatives—or spies, as the contractors considered them—at the ship building yards. When he established a sort of graduate school for officers without previous nuclear training, he avoided such traditional naval sites as Charleston or San Diego. Students reported instead to an installation near Idaho Falls, Idaho, where the reactor for the Nautilus had been developed and where the only established tradition was that of the nuclear Navy.

Rickover was determined to cleanse his Navy of the comfortable countryclub standards he had denounced in the rest of the force. Before a congressional committee, he was once asked why so many “unqualified” officials rose to the top of the military structure. He answered, “The only rationale I can come to is that everything in life has been easy for these officials. They have been carried along by family, by wealth, by friends, possibly by political considerations. In a position requiring technical expertise for the first time in their lives, they believe themselves capable of solving these problems by their ‘personality’ methods that have previously gotten them by.”

There was to be none of that in the nuclear force. In theory, it was to be the perfect meritocratic system. Opportunity was in principle open to all who would make the effort, regardless of the hated complications of family, wealth, or friends. Indeed, nothing was more revolutionary about Rickover’s system than its virtual disregard of rank. Polmar and Allen suggest that Rickover’s own rank was important to him—witness the bitter struggles over his promotions—but inside his organization a junior officer might give orders to a senior. The standard was competence, not rank. It was all a question of who could get the job done. During one interview, Rickover asked a young candidate for his program what his father did for a living. “My father is an industrial engineer.” “I didn’t ask you what he is,” Rickover thundered back. “I asked you what he does.” Rickover proposed to admit people to his community on the basis of what they did, not who they were, and to insist that they keep doing it if they hoped to remain. “He infused the Navy with the idea of excellence,” one officer told Polmar and Allen, in the most positive assessment presented in the book. “He said that the standard should be excellence, and he made that happen.”

Rickover also avoided several of the traps that can make a leader the prisoner of his organization rather than its master. In the government, one of the two most perilous traps is the constant churning of officials from one job to the next. (The other is the tendency of any organization to keep bad news from flowing to the top.) The problem is especially acute in a military force that hopes to “broaden” its officers by rotating them through a succession of two-year stints in different jobs. Rickover said this made officers regard each job, even a nuclear Navy job, as a mere way-station on their journey toward promotion. He made this pattern seem not just a managerial but a moral failing, in that it diluted a man’s sense of duty. So, too, did he pronounce judgment, in tones of almost biblical reproach, upon the chicaneries of lawyers, politicians, and managers who, in the guise of increasing efficiency, diverted public and private institutions from their sense of moral responsibility.

Yet this kingdom of merit began to display its deficiencies. Effective as it was in the design of nuclear reactors, its principles threatened the values on which the rest of the Navy stood. Rickover’s uniform symbolized the challenge—he almost never wore it, unless directly ordered to do so (as he was, by the Secretary of the Navy, John Warner, for the ceremonies dedicating Rickover Hall at Annapolis). From Rickover’s perspective, civilian clothing was a sign that protocol mattered less than the sacred standard of technical competence. To the Navy, it was the plainest possible rejection of the larger loyalties that military forces have always required in order to do their jobs.

Within his own, industrial-style organization, Rickover could drive his men with the ideas of excellence and merit; but the Navy as a whole had a different task. Not all of its duties resembled those of a research laboratory. Military units required men to perform, as a unit, in times of physical danger and stress. They required a mixture of personality types. They might oblige commanders to pay close attention to the “personal details” of their employees’ lives, since those details could affect the chemistry of a unit. In short, while Rickover could concentrate on individuals and their performance, other naval commanders were concerned with groups. They needed to develop teams which gained organic unity from bonds of loyalty and trust. And in the creation of such units, things like tradition, deference, and symbolism—the values so despised by Rickover—could count for a lot.

Polmar and Allen point out that Rickover’s only experience as a purely military commander, his three-month tour as skipper of a small mine-sweeping craft, was a disaster. Shortly before Rickover was relieved of his command, the ship was seen steaming into port with a red flag flying and with “mad-house” emblazoned in red letters across the ship’s side. These were the work of an unruly crew whose loyalty Rickover had not known how to command.

Because his bureaucratic power became so enormous, Rickover’s style of leadership eventually spread beyond the reactor lab that had been its natural home. Line officers of the Navy—those who commanded ships—came to hate its effect. On ships with mixed “nuc” and “non-nuc” crews, Rickover’s men were at times infamous for refusing to share in the scutwork and the heavy lifting. Of such details is morale made, or destroyed. The nadir was reached in 1980, when Annapolis graduates were “drafted” for service in the nuclear fleet, which had hitherto been voluntary. Within the Navy, this was construed as a violation of the social contract—and an indication that problems of morale were severe among the nucs.

But by that time, there were many other indications that, whether because of age or because of the arrogance of his position, Rickover had grown careless of the basic human decencies essential even among groups of technicians. The most outrageous evidence that Polmar and Allen present concerns Rickover’s treatment of young officers in their screening interviews. He bullied, threatened, humiliated, and cursed them, toward no apparent end other than a demonstration of his power. The man who had sworn revenge against the Navy’s coterie of insiders interviewed one young candidate only long enough to determine that his father was one of Rickover’s enemies. The interview then ended and the candidate was forthwith rejected. Tales of these ordeals spread through the Navy and took an additional toll from morale. A former chief of the Bureau of Naval Personnel finally said, “I had numerous instances of young officers coming to me after their interview with Admiral Rickover and stating that they didn’t want to stay in a Navy that had an officer like Admiral Rickover as a flag officer.”

Polmar and Allen present other illustrations that, late in his career, Rickover sometimes betrayed his loyalty to excellence, or to his employees, or to any cause besides himself. He refused to let a potential successor rise within his ranks, which solidified his hold on his organization but only at the cost of its long-term health. Once he went to the Electric Boat company’s yards in Groton, Connecticut, to supervise the sea trials of a missile-carrying submarine, the Ethan Allen. Even at 4 AM the dock was crowded with workers who had brought their families to glimpse the famous man on whose projects they had worked for years. Rickover saw the crowd and asked who they were. The manager said they were men who had built the submarine. “Rickover said nobody was supposed to be on the dock,” said a man who was there that day. “he didn’t want anybody there. After that, I never went back to see him.”

If that was not his low point as a leader, then this was: much of Rickover’s morality rested on the idea of responsibility. He once told a congressional committee, “You must make a competent man responsible for the entire program and not let him say, ‘Well I’m here two years and if something goes wrong it was the fault of my predecessor.’ I can never say that…. If anything goes wrong, I’m responsible.” Yet, according to Polmar and Allen, in 1963, when the submarine Thresher sank and 129 men were crushed to death in the pressures of the deep, Rickover picked up the telephone on the very evening of the disaster, to remind the chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Ships that he, Rickover, had been responsible for nothing except the propulsion system in the ship, and therefore could not be blamed.

In his last congressional testimony as an officer, Rickover made headlines by saying that the United States and the Soviet Union had passed the point of “enough-ness” with their nuclear forces. In disarmament, he said, lay our only hope. He spoke with passion; yet where had he concealed these views during the thirty years in which he was petitioning Congress for the programs he now considered superfluous? Why did he save his talk of disarmament until he had lost the power to influence weapons programs directly? Rickover’s recommendation was that he be placed in charge of disarmament; then you’ll see results, he told the congressmen.

At that moment, Rickover revealed his deepest similarity to a student who had imperfectly absorbed many of his other teachings about excellence, Jimmy Carter. In the end, what Carter offered the public was his own faith in his ability to answer questions as they were placed before him; in volunteering to unravel the knot of the arms race, Rickover offers us his competence once again. On balance, his talents have been a national blessing, but one that has come at a cost.

  1. 1

    See my National Defense (Random House, 1981), pp. 139-170. 

  2. 2

    William H. Bates was a congressman from Massachusetts who sat on the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, whose support was crucial to Rickover’s plans. Glenard P. Lipscomb was the ranking minority member of the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on defense.