Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement”: Hyman G. Rickover
Remembered as a gruff, pile-driving, hard-working, stern taskmaster, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover helped the U.S. Navy modernize its operations and equipment. He is remembered as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy” for his insistence that nuclear power was crucial to submarine warfare. His 63-year career on active duty made him the nation’ longest-serving naval officer as of this writing.
Rickover was born Chaim Godalia Rickover in Poland on January 27, 1900, the last year of the nineteenth century. Hi parents Abraham and Rachel (Unger) Rickover eventually changed the name “Chayyim,” which means “life,” to its derivative “Hyman.” When he entered the U.S. Naval Academy, Hyman Rickover listed his middle name as “George.”
Young Hyman moved with his mother and sister to New York City when he was six years old. His father had already emigrated to pave the way for his family’s journey. The Rickovers were Jewish. They fled Poland to avoid antisemitic pogroms that became frequent during the Russian Revolution of 1905.
The family lived on the East Side of Manhattan until they relocated to North Lawndale, a Jewish community on the west side of Chicago, in 1908. Abraham Rickover found work as a tailor, setting an example as a hard worker. Hyman took the lesson to heart. One distinguishing characteristic of his long life was his fierce work ethic. He found his first job at age nine and moved on to a variety of jobs throughout his youth, including a stint delivering groceries.
Rickover attended John Marshall Metropolitan High School in Chicago, graduating with honors in 1918. Afterward, he found a full-time job delivering Western Union telegrams. In that position, he encountered Congressman Adolph J. Sabath, a Jewish immigrant who was impressed with the young man. Sabath appointed Rickover to the United States Naval Academy. Although initially only a third alternate, he passed the entrance examination and earned admission to the Academy.
He was too young to fight in the First World War. Rickover graduated from the Naval Academy on June 2, 1922, 107th in a class of 540. Commissioned an ensign, he joined the destroyer USS La Vallette in September 1922. Even in those early days, he impressed his superiors with his towering intellect and his strong work ethic. On June 21, 1923, he was promoted to an engineering officer, the youngest in his squadron.
Rickover was nothing if not ambitious. He set out to fashion a stellar career. After serving on a battleship, the USS Nevada, he earned a Master of Science in electrical engineering from Columbia University. While he was studying at Columbia, he met Ruth Masters, a graduate student in international law. He married her in 1931. He also became a lifelong Episcopalian.
At the age of 29, Rickover applied for submarine duty. It was a strategic move. Recognizing that promotions came quicker to submarine officers, Rickover was determined to advance. Alas, his application initially was declined because he was seen as too old for such service. Only the intercession of his former commanding officer from the Nevada rescued his application.
Rickover came of age as a submariner during the 1920s and 1930s. He learned the trade on S-class submarines S-9 and S-48. He also translated a world War I German submarine manual into English, which helped it become a basic text for U.S. submarine service. He appeared to be a model thinking-man’s warrior.
Rickover served in various exotic ports of call. He worked on a minesweeper near China in 1937. Later, he served at the Cavite Naval Base in the Philippines before being transferred to the Bureau of Engineering in Washington, DC, to serve as assistant chief of the electrical section of the Bureau of Engineering.
After the United States entered World War II, Rickover moved to the Pearl Harbor Naval Base to assist in repairs on the USS California, a ship sunk by the Japanese in December 1941. He was promoted to commander on January 1, 1942. Later that year, he became a temporary captain. Although he sought to enter active duty, Rickover’s age worked against him. Moreover, his skills ran to non-combat activities. He eventually completed a stint investigating naval supply inefficiencies in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
When he finally arrived in Okinawa, a prefecture of Japan, Rickover was slated to command a ship repair facility. Unfortunately, a typhoon destroyed the facility in October 1945. Instead of working on ships, Rickover was teaching at a school for Okinawan children at war’s end.
Although Rickover’s naval service far less dramatic than officers who served in war zones, he used his time to good effect. He took to whatever tasks he was assigned with a zeal and attention to detail that almost always assured a favorable outcome. Rickover left nothing to chance. No item was too small or insignificant to escape his attention. He also learned about directing large programs and assembling a team of talented, dedicated people. These lessons served him, and the Navy, well. He eventually won the Legion of Merit, an award provided for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements. Rickover even appeared on the cover of Time magazine on January 11, 1954, along with an article outlining his naval career.
As the article noted, Rickover was known as a hard-working, high-energy, ferocious dynamo. He often made enemies by driving his subordinates relentlessly and lobbying his superiors for interesting assignments. He also earned a reputation as a fellow who cut through red tape and got things done.
Rickover’s legacy was as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy.” He saw the potential for nuclear power in the Navy before most of his contemporaries did, and he made sure that he was at the forefront of technological advances. After he became inspector general of the 19th Fleet and won an assignment working with General Electric in Schenectady, New York, in 1945, Rickover pursued several nuclear projects, notably the development of a nuclear electric generating plant at what eventually became the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Rickover was willing to ruffle a few feathers to get his way. When his superior officers were slow to recognize the potential of nuclear power, Rickover approached Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the chief of Naval Operations and a legendary commander in World War II. Nimitz immediately understood the advantages of a nuclear Navy, especially for submarines. He contacted John L. Sullivan, secretary of the Navy, who shared Nimitz’s opinion. Sullivan got behind the project, and his support helped to develop the first nuclear-powered vessel in the world, the USS Nautilus. Sullivan’s support was so crucial that Rickover subsequently insisted that Sullivan should hold the distinction of being the true farther of the Nuclear Navy.
Rickover was assigned responsibility for the Nuclear Power Division, a new section within the Bureau of Ships. From this position, he helped to launch the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology, which eventually designed a pressurized water reactor for submarine propulsion. By February 1949, Rickover was working with the Atomic Energy Commission’s Division of Reactor Development. He became the Commission’s director of the Naval Reactors Branch, which allowed him to pioneer the work leading to the development of the Nautilus.
During these years. Rickover developed him reputation as a hard man to work for, but a force to be reckoned with in the Navy. He refused to play politics or soften his message, regardless of how many people became upset with his take-charge attitude. He plowed ahead with any assignment, and he distinguished himself owing to his intellectual prowess and his seemingly limitless capacity for hard work.
Rickover’s prickly personality almost derailed his career. His peers found him detestable, and they sought to force his retirement by blocking his promotion. If he did not rise above the rank of captain after 30 years in the Navy, he would be eased into retirement. When Rickover’s name was omitted from a list of military promotions in 1953, his career appeared to be over. Because of the public hue and cry at his failure to win promotion, the Navy convened a special selection board, and Rickover was promoted. It was the first time that public pressure changed the outcome of a naval promotion schedule.
Rickover was at the apex of his fame and influence as he set out to develop the first nuclear reactor that could be used in a submarine. The S1W reactor, which was used in the Nautilus, was commissioned in 1954. He subsequently worked on development of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the first commercial pressurized water reactor nuclear power plant.
Rickover’s contributions to the nuclear Navy were clear and unequivocal. In 1958, he became a vice admiral and won the first of two Congressional Gold Medals for his service. In 1973, Rickover was promoted to a four-star admiral, only the second time that an officer achieved that distinction without having served as an operational line officer.
As he became more prominent, Rickover used his influence to consolidate control over the nuclear Navy. For three decades, virtually no decision involving nuclear power and naval affairs was made without Rickover’s approval. The admiral even intervened in personnel decisions involving naval officers who would serve on nuclear vessels. Estimates suggest that Rickover interviewed tens of thousands of prospective candidates during his long tenure, including 14,000 recent college graduates.
Rickover’s responsibilities did not include strategic or tactical submarine warfare. Instead, he focused on ensuring reactor safety and effectiveness. Owing in part to his methodical, precise standards, Rickover’s nuclear submarines boasted of a stellar safety record. During his tenure, no accidents occurred onboard a nuclear submarine. By contrast, the Soviet Navy suffered 14 known accidents. Rickover’s attention to detail contributed to this impressive record. He was aboard every nuclear submarine during its initial sea trial following construction.
Toward the end of his career, Rickover expressed ambivalence about the use of nuclear power. Because radiation was so dangerous, and because nations in wartime rely on whatever weapons they need to triumph, he feared that one day nuclear weapons could pose a threat to mankind. During a congressional hearing in 1982, when asked what he would do with nuclear-powered ships if he had the authority to decide their fate, he said he would “sink them all.”
Asked if he regretted anything in his career, he demurred. “I do not have regrets. I believe I helped preserve the peace for this country. Why should I regret that?” Despite his fear of nuclear-powered ships, submarine, and weapons, Rickover explained that “Nuclear technology was already under development in other countries” when he urged his superiors to develop nuclear-powered ships and submarines. “My assigned responsibility was to develop our nuclear Navy. I managed to accomplish this.”
By the 1980s, Hyman Rickover was a living legend, that rare career military officer known the world over for his accomplishments. It appeared that he might retire with his stellar reputation intact, an untouchable icon of living history. It was not to be.
A Navy Ad Hoc Gratuities Board investigating claims of malfeasance found that the General Dynamics, a defense contractor, had provided the admiral with gifts valued at $67,628 over a 16-year-period. The gratuities included jewelry, furniture, and knives. Rickover had passed the gifts on to elected officials. Navy Secretary Lehman sent Rickover a non-punitive letter that admonished such behavior. At the same time, the secretary urged Rickover’s critics to consider the merits of the old man’s long years of service. Admittedly, the admiral should not have accepted “these little trinkets,” but his career “should be viewed in the context of his enormous contributions to the Navy."
For his part, Rickover was unrepentant. He saw the scandal as much ado about nothing. He insisted that his conscience was clear, and that “no gratuity or favor ever affected any decision I made.”
Despite his decision to support Rickover in public, Secretary Lehman believed that the admiral’s utility to the Navy was diminished. It was time to retire. Using the pretext that Rickover had made an operational error during a submerged “crash back” maneuver for a new Los Angeles class submarine, the USS La Jolla, the secretary announced Rickover’s retirement. On January 31, 1982, just four days after the admiral’s eighty-second birthday, Rickover was forced to leave the Navy. He had been on active duty for 63 years. During that time, he served 13 presidents, from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan. According to a later account, Rickover learned the news when his wife heard the announcement on the radio.
A post-retirement party on February 28, 1983, featured three former U.S. presidents—Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter—although the incumbent, Ronald Reagan, did not attend. Carter was especially effusive in his praise of the admiral. He had served under Rickover in the Navy.
Rickover died in Arlington, Virginia, on July 8, 1986. He was 86 years old. At a subsequent memorial service, Former President Carter, Secretary of State George Schultz, Navy Secretary Lehman, Chief of Naval Operations James D. Watkins, and 1,000 others attended. Secretary Lehman noted that “Rickover took the concept of nuclear power from an idea to the present reality of more than 150 U.S. naval ships under nuclear power, with a record of 3,000 ship-years of accident-free operations.” Admiral Watkins noted Rickover’s reputation as an abrasive personality who did not suffer fools gladly. “He set the standards,” Watkins said. “They were tough. That is the legacy and the challenge he left to all who study his contributions.”
The Navy honored Rickover’s contributions by naming a Los Angeles-class submarine for him during his lifetime. It was only the second Navy ship to be named for a living person since 1900, although many others have been christened for living namesakes since that time. A Virginia-class submarine was named the USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-795) in July 2021.
Several buildings have been named in his honor. Rickover Hall at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, is home to the Mechanical Engineering, Naval Architecture, Ocean Engineering, Aeronautical and Aerospace Engineering departments. Joint Base Charleston houses the Rickover Center at Naval Nuclear Power Training Command. In 2011, the U.S. Navy Museum featured Rickover as part of a Technology for the Nuclear Age: Nuclear Propulsion display in a Cold War exhibit.
Rickover presents a challenging case for the study of leadership in public administration. His abrasive personality and refusal to work well with subordinates makes him a leader not to be emulated. At the same time, his strong work ethic and intellectual prowess were enviable.