The Navy recently announced another honor for the late Hyman G. Rickover, naming a second nuclear-powered attack submarine for the “Father of the Nuclear Navy.” This coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the initial cruise of the first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN 571).
Admiral Rickover is the first person for whom a second warship will be named who was alive when the first ship was named in his honor. The Los Angeles-class submarine USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN 709) served between1984 and 2006. The next USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN 795) is the 22nd Virginia–class submarine.
Admiral Rickover was the longest serving naval officer, 63 years in uniform. He was the driving force for the creation of nuclear-powered warships. Today, all U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers are nuclear powered. To Admiral Rickover’s great credit, there never has been a major nuclear incident during the many thousand ship-years of operation–a striking achievement in a difficult environment (on and below the sea surface) with new and dangerous technology.
Admiral Rickover was described as a “paradoxical visionary.” The New York Times obituary noted:
In his career Admiral Rickover generated controversy on all sides. He attacked Naval bureaucracy, ignored red tape, lacerated those he considered stupid, bullied subordinates and assailed the country’s educational system. And he achieved “the most important piece of development work in the history of the Navy.”
A complex and contradictory man, he nurtured essential Congressional support. Rickover’s unshakable convictions did not put him above exploiting perceived intellectual inadequacies — of subordinates, peers, even his superiors–to devise confrontation– sometimes humorous, sometimes not – but always at the expense of others to enhance his legendary status.
He was a nasty bully who would relentlessly pick on those who could not fight back (though the powerful were also subject to his fury). Some of that might have been to see if subordinates could take the pressure, but much of it was for sport. By the end of his career, he would be tarnished by his admission that over a period of years he had accepted gifts from defense contractors that were valued at tens of thousands of dollars.
Rickover was a master of bureaucratic in-fighting. He exquisitely balanced his dual assignments as a Navy flag officer and official of the Atomic Energy Commission (later the Department of Energy) to play one master against the other. No man can serve two masters but two masters served Rickover. He used his “dual hatting” to best advantage –for the Navy’s nuclear program and for himself.
Immediately after Reagan was elected President, his Defense team began to plan how to transition Rickover. In November 1981 Rickover was informed of his impending retirement. He was granted a personal exit interview with the president that turned into a confrontation culminating in a tirade. Rickover’s friend and former-President Jimmy Carter recounts the Admiral’s first meeting with newly elected President Ronald Reagan:
Several weeks later, he was invited to the Oval Office and decided to don his full dress uniform. He told me that he refused to take a seat, listened to the president ask him to be his special nuclear advisor, replied “Mr. President that is bullshit,” and then walked out.
Rickover’s personal relationship with Carter could not have helped during the new administration. In accepting the1980 Republican nomination, Reagan proclaimed that, “An Annapolis graduate may be at the helm of the ship of state, but the ship has no rudder.”
There was an inherent conflict between some of the facts of Rickover’s personal life, none more than his upbringing as an Orthodox Jew who became a practicing Episcopalian. What was inherently contradictory in most men merged into unique and unshakable conviction in Hyman Rickover.
Contrary to much folklore, and Admiral Rickover’s silence when it was written, Rickover was not the first American Jewish admiral. In fact, he had long before been christened in the Episcopal faith, therefore, was not Jewish when he was advanced to flag rank. Though, unlike some other senior officers who were striving for selection to general- or flag-officer status, Rickover never concealed his Jewish roots.
Second, a number of Jews had been promoted to flag rank well before Rickover. Admiral Claude C. Bloch, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Fleet 1938-40, was Jewish and reached four-star rank; Admiral Ben Moreell, founder of the famed “Seabees,” also served as a four-star admiral years before Rickover reached flag-officer rank.
Rickover immigrated as a four-year old and grew up in Chicago attending Hebrew schools six days a week. He was a life-long advocate of rigorous and lengthy education required for success.
Contradictory by nature, Rickover was singular in his vision and focus. Constitutionally ineligible to become president, he advised– even directed — presidents to realize his vision of a nuclear Navy, with an unequaled record of safety and achievement.
Rear Admiral Kantrowitz and Captain Brennan (both retired) served in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps.