by Marc Wortman
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. Pp. xii, 310.
Illus., Notes, index. $26.00. ISBN: 0300243103
The “Father of the Nuclear Navy”
Acerbic, outspoken and arrogant, Hyman Rockover made many enemies, particularly in the Navy in which he served his whole working life. But Rickover was also brilliant, driven, and unstoppable. Once he became convinced that nuclear energy could be harnessed to drive submarines, he steeped himself in nuclear technology. From that point on his path in life was set as he relentlessly pursued his objective to create a nuclear navy in the face of often daunting opposition, much of it well earned by his frequently obnoxious behavior. Rickover consistently regarded the Navy, and particularly the Navy brass, as obstacles to his plans. He felt the same about many ship manufacturers whom he mistrusted as both dangerously careless regarding safety standards and only interested in their bottom line. Part of what enabled Rickover to succeed, however, was that he also assiduously cultivated important and influential supporters, mostly among members of Congress. And succeed he did. Eventually, the nuclear navy over which he exercised virtually absolute control became the dominant force in a post-World War II naval revival helping to make the United States the predominant power in the Cold War.
A 1922 Naval Academy graduate, Rickover was in many ways the opposite of the typical career naval officer. He was short, slight, and from a Jewish immigrant family. He was ascetic, frugal, and scorned the social scene which he had no interest in joining, instead pouring all his energies into study. After graduation he served on destroyers, battleships, and took a torpedo school course. In 1927, his interest in obtaining more technical education took him back to Annapolis for a year’s course in advanced engineering fundamentals, followed by a year’s graduate work in electrical engineering at Columbia University. Engineering duty on a diesel submarine, shore duty, and assignment as assistant engineering officer on a battleship brought Rickover to 1937 when he was promoted to lieutenant commander and finally got the seagoing command he had ambitiously worked towards. However, this turned out to be only an antiquated mine-sweeper, part of the Navy’s Asiatic Fleet. His imperiousness and scorn for Navy hierarchy, added to the poor reports he received from this, his first ship command, brought home to Rickover that he would probably never be given the sort of ship he wanted. Ever the pragmatist, he therefore switched to Engineering Duty Only (EDO) status, making the change that defined the rest of his life. EDO status meant Rickover would be on permanent shore duty with postings at naval yards and labs, or in the DC engineering bureaus.
After spending much of World War II in what became the Bureau of Ships and continuing to make enemies by his habit of ignoring the chain of command and going straight to the Chief of Naval Operations to get what he wanted, his career seemed to be over with the abrupt end of the war and the subsequent downsizing of the Navy. Salvation came with his assignment as senior naval officer to Oak Ridge to study the Manhattan Project for the feasibility of powering ships by atomic energy. This was Rickover’s first small step in winning complete authority over naval nuclear propulsion.
At first, he met with opposition from many sides. With the post-war Navy budget cuts even nuclear engineers emphasized how costly it would be to power submarines, never mind larger vessels, by atomic energy, and the whole project fizzled. As was to happen again many times, Rickover’s career seemed over. But then he was saved by the 1948 Berlin crisis making the Cold War threat suddenly very real. He became the Navy’s liaison with the Atomic Energy Commission for nuclear reactors and was put in charge of the newly created Nuclear Power Branch in the Bureau of Ships. His hybrid Navy-AEC group, soon known as “Naval Reactors,” ambitiously announced it would launch a nuclear-powered submarine by 1955. It had to build up something completely new and untried, for the first time harnessing atomic technology to drive a vessel and building an industry to manufacture it. With this, as Wortman notes, “The age of controlled atomic power was born.” (p. 114).
The second half of Wortman’s engrossing and highly readable book details how Rickover, as head of Nuclear Reactors, step-by-step gradually became the most important man in the Navy with his control of its atomic power. Fulfilling his promise, the first nuclear submarine, Nautilus, was launched in 1954, built by Electric Boat and christened by Mamie Eisenhower. Rickover had brought about the age of nuclear propulsion against strong Navy opposition, but with enthusiastic support from Congress. As the nuclear Navy grew, eventually including nuclear powered supercarriers, missile cruisers and destroyers, and all-nuclear task forces, as well as nuclear subs loaded with Polaris nuclear missiles, so did Rickover’s control. He created a formidably tough selection process for entry into his nuclear program, and ran it with brutal efficiency, insisting on perfection in operation of all nuclear-propelled vessels which he personally oversaw. To get officers capable of achieving the high-performance he insisted on, Rickover pushed through revision of the curriculum at the Naval Academy making it mandatory for all midshipmen to take a demanding core of math, science and engineering courses.
And yet, in spite of his success, because of his abrasive personality, his scorn for rank and his unorthodox behavior, Rickover faced delay and opposition at every level to his promotion in the Navy. For one thing, he seldom wore naval uniform - his customary appearance in civilian garb appearing as an affront to many of his colleagues. Indeed, it was only after acclaim from Congress and the public, following Nautilus’ record-breaking 1,830-mile sail under the Arctic icecap, that Rickover won his third star and promotion to vice admiral. In 1960, Rickover engineered another triumph when the nuclear sub Triton circumnavigated the globe underwater undetected, so when it was time for him to retire in 1964, he was over and over again extended for special terms of two-years active duty. Richard Nixon promoted Rickover to full admiral in 1973, and he also developed a close friendship with President Jimmy Carter. According to Wortman, however, Ronald Reagan’s Navy Secretary, John Lehman, wanted Rickover gone. Since by then most of Rickover’s supporters in Congress were also gone, Lehman finally succeeded in forcing his retirement.
Wortman does a masterly job of explaining to the non-engineer the intricacies of nuclear power. He also makes clear the difficulties Rickover faced in creating a whole new field, a new profession to man it, and the roadblocks to building it into the powerful core of the Navy. Wortman describes Rickover’s infamously difficult temperament and behavior unsparingly, but he also describes Rickover’s abstemious personal life, his long and successful first marriage, and his happy second marriage. In clear and accessible prose, Wortman does a masterly job of detailing Rickover’s astonishing career and his many accomplishments while also giving a vivid sense of the man himself. In addition, this book is important for shedding light on a whole era of naval development and its interconnectedness to the political scene and to international relations.
Our Reviewer: Prof Williams, a military historian, former visiting professor at Annapolis, and sometime Executive Director of The New York Military Affairs Symposium, is the author of several books on naval history and technology, including Secret Weapon: U.S. High-Frequency Direction Finding in the Battle of the Atlantic, Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea, The Measure of a Man: My Father, the Marine Corps, and Saipan, and most recently Painting War: George Plante's Combat Art in World War II. Prof Williams’ previous reviews include The Trident Deception, Battleship Commander: The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr., and Churchill, Master and Commander.
Note: Admiral Hyman Rickover is also available in e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium