The Rise of Hyman 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…

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