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The Rise of Hyman Rickover


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

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.”

  1. 1

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

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