Hyman G. Rickover

Hyman G. Rickover

Rickover pictured in 1955 as two-star rear admiral
Birth name Chaim Godalia Rickover
Nickname(s) "Father of the Nuclear Navy"
Born January 27, 1900 (1900-01-27)
Maków Mazowiecki, Congress Poland
Died July 8, 1986 (1986-07-09) (aged 86)
Arlington County, Virginia, U.S.
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch  United States Navy
Years of service 1918–1982
Rank Admiral
Commands held USS Finch
Naval Reactors
Battles/wars World War II
Cold War
Awards Navy Distinguished Service Medal (3)
Legion of Merit (2)
Congressional Gold Medal (2)
Presidential Medal of Freedom
Enrico Fermi Award
Spouse(s) Ruth D. Masters (1931–1972 (her death); 1 child)
Eleonore A. Bednowicz (1974–1986 (his death))

Hyman George Rickover (January 27, 1900  July 8, 1986) was a United States Navy admiral who directed the original development of naval nuclear propulsion and controlled its operations for three decades as director of Naval Reactors. In addition, he oversaw the development of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the world's first commercial pressurized water reactor used for generating electricity. As of July 2007, the Naval Sea Systems Command programs which he oversaw the creation and operation of had produced 200 nuclear-powered submarines, and 23 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and cruisers, though many of these U.S. vessels are now decommissioned and others are under construction.

Known as the "Father of the Nuclear Navy", Rickover's profound effects on the Navy and its most powerful warships were of such scope that he "may well go down in history as one of the Navy's most important officers."[1] A naval officer who served in a flag rank for nearly 30 years  from 1953 to 1982  Rickover was promoted to four-star admiral after 51 years of commissioned service. In total, with his unique personality, political connections, responsibilities, and depth of knowledge regarding naval nuclear propulsion, Rickover became the longest-serving naval officer in U.S. history with 63 years of active duty service.[2][3][4]

Rickover is the only person who has ever been awarded two Congressional Gold Medals. His substantial legacy of technical achievements includes the United States Navy's continuing record of zero reactor accidents, as defined by the uncontrolled release of fission products to the environment subsequent to reactor core damage.[5][6]

Early life and education

Rickover was born Chaim Godalia Rickover, to Abraham Rickover and Rachel (née Unger) Rickover, a Polish-Jewish family in Maków Mazowiecki of Poland, at that time ruled by Russia. His parents later changed his name to "Hyman," which, like Chaim, is derived from Chayyim, meaning "life." He did not use his middle name, Godalia (a form of Gedaliah), but when required to list one for the Naval Academy oath, he substituted "George". The family name "Rickover" is derived from the village and the estate of Ryki, located within 100 kilometres (62 mi) of Warsaw, as is Maków Mazowiecki.

Rickover made passage to New York City with his mother and sister Faygele (Americanized: "Fannie") in March 1906, fleeing anti-Semitic Russian pogroms[7][8] during the Revolution of 1905 that killed over 3,000 Jews, joining Abraham who had made earlier, initial trips there beginning in 1897 to become established.[9] Decades later, the entire remaining Jewish communities of Ryki and Maków Mazowiecki were killed or otherwise perished during the Holocaust.

Rickover's immediate family lived initially on the East Side of Manhattan and moved two years later to the North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago, which at that time was a heavily Jewish neighborhood, where Rickover's father continued work as a tailor. Rickover took his first paid job at nine years of age, earning three cents an hour for holding a light as his neighbor operated a machine. Later, he delivered groceries. He graduated from grammar school at 14.[10][11]

While attending John Marshall High School in Chicago (from which he graduated with honors in 1918), Rickover held a full-time job as a telegraph boy delivering Western Union telegrams, through which he became acquainted with U.S. Congressman Adolph J. Sabath, himself a Czech Jewish immigrant. Through the intervention of a family friend, Sabath nominated Rickover for appointment to the United States Naval Academy. Rickover was only a third alternate for appointment, but through disciplined self-directed study and good fortune, the future four-star admiral passed the entrance exam and was accepted.[12][13]

Early naval career through World War II

Rickover's active duty naval career began in 1918, during a time when attending military academies was considered active duty service, due in part to World War I. On 2 June 1922, Rickover graduated 107th out of 540 midshipmen and was commissioned as an ensign.[14] He joined the destroyer La Vallette on 5 September 1922. Rickover impressed his commanding officer with his hard work and efficiency, and was made engineer officer on 21 June 1923, becoming the youngest such officer in the squadron.[15]

He next served on board the battleship Nevada before earning a Master of Science (M.Sc.) in Electrical Engineering by way of a year at the Naval Postgraduate School at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis,[16] followed by further work at Columbia University. At Columbia, he met Ruth D. Masters, a Christian and graduate student in international law, whom he married in 1931 after she returned from her doctoral studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. Shortly after marrying, Rickover wrote to his parents of his decision to become an Episcopalian, remaining so for the remainder of his life.[17][18]

Rickover had a high regard for the quality of the education that he had received at Columbia, as demonstrated in this excerpt from a speech he gave at the university some 52 years after attending, in which he recalled and thanked particular teachers who influenced him:

"In 1929 I attended the Columbia School of Engineering for postgraduate study in electrical engineering. Columbia was the first institution that encouraged me to think rather than memorize. My teachers were notable in that many had gained practical engineering experience outside the university and were able to share their experience with their students. I am grateful, among others, to Professors Morecroft, Hehre, and Arendt. Much of what I have subsequently learned and accomplished in engineering is based on the solid foundation of principles I learned from them. I am therefore especially gratified by your invitation to return and speak this evening."[19]

Rickover preferred life on smaller ships, and he also knew that young officers in the submarine service were advancing quickly, so he went to Washington and volunteered for submarine duty. His application was turned down due to his age, at that time 29 years. Fortunately for Rickover, he ran into his former commanding officer from Nevada while leaving the building, who interceded successfully on his behalf. From 1929 to 1933, Rickover qualified for submarine duty and command aboard the submarines S-9 and S-48.[20]

While at the Office of the Inspector of Naval Material in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during 1933, Rickover translated Das Unterseeboot (The Submarine) by World War I German Imperial Navy Admiral Hermann Bauer. Rickover's translation became a basic text for the U.S. submarine service.

On 17 July 1937, he reported aboard the minesweeper Finch at Tsingtao, China to relieve Lt. Joseph Perkins Rockwell, USN. The future longest-serving U.S. Navy officer assumed his only ship-command with additional duty as Commander, Mine Division Three, Asiatic Fleet. The Marco Polo Bridge Incident had occurred ten days earlier, and by mid-August, troops of the National Revolutionary Army of the Republic of China were fighting in downtown Shanghai, China and outlying towns in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to vanquish invading Imperial Japanese Army troops. In August, Finch stood out for Shanghai to protect American citizens and interests from the conflict between out-gunned Chinese troops and the increasingly belligerent Japanese ground, naval, and air forces. On 26 August, Finch disembarked 102 U.S. Marines at Shanghai and observed two Japanese destroyers firing into Woosung, China. On 26 September, Rickover was promoted to lieutenant commander, retroactive to 1 July. In October, his designation as an engineering duty officer became effective, and he was relieved of his three-month command of Finch by Lt. D. S. Evans at Shanghai on 5 October, detaching on 24 October 1937 from Finch and what came to be known as the Battle of Shanghai, the first of 22 major engagements fought between the Chinese and Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Rickover was assigned to the Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines, expecting to be transferred shortly to the Bureau of Engineering in Washington, D.C. Rickover arrived in Washington after a trip overland across China, Burma, and India, by air across the Mideast to Athens and then London, and by ship to the U.S. Once there, he took up his duties as assistant chief of the Electrical section of the Bureau of Engineering on 15 August 1939.[21]

On 10 April 1942, after America's entry into World War II, Rickover flew to Pearl Harbor to organize repairs to the electrical power plant of USS California. In that role he was "a leading figure in putting the ship's electric alternators and motors back into operating condition,"[22] enabling the battleship to sail under her own power from Pearl Harbor to Puget Sound Navy Yard.[23]

Rickover had been promoted to the rank of commander on 1 January 1942, and in late June of that year had been made a temporary captain. In late 1944 he appealed for a transfer to an active command. He was sent to investigate inefficiencies at the naval supply depot at Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Having identified a number of problems there he was appointed in July 1945 to command of a ship repair facility on Okinawa.[24]

Later in the war, his service as head of the Electrical Section in the Bureau of Ships brought him a Legion of Merit and gave him experience in directing large development programs, choosing talented technical people, and working closely with private industry. Time magazine featured him on the cover of its January 11, 1954 issue. The accompanying article described his wartime service:[25]

"Sharp-tongued Hyman Rickover spurred his men to exhaustion, ripped through red tape, drove contractors into rages. He went on making enemies, but by the end of the war he had won the rank of captain. He had also won a reputation as a man who gets things done."[10]
See also: Naval Reactors
Admiral Rickover looking over USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-powered vessel.

In 1946, an initiative was begun at the Manhattan Project's nuclear-power focused Clinton Laboratory (now the Oak Ridge National Laboratory) to develop a nuclear electric generating plant. The United States Navy decided to send eight men to this project, including three civilians and one senior and four junior naval officers. Realizing the potential that nuclear energy held for the Navy, Rickover applied.

Since December 1945 Rickover had been Inspector General of the 19th Fleet on the west coast. He had been assigned to work with General Electric at Schenectady, New York, to develop a nuclear propulsion plant for destroyers. Rickover was sent to Oak Ridge under Harold Etherington[26] as the deputy manager of the entire project in May 1946[27] through the efforts of his wartime boss, Rear Admiral Earle Mills (who became the head of the Navy's Bureau of Ships that same year), granting him access to all facilities, projects, and reports. Following efforts officially begun in 1939 by physicists Ross Gunn,[28] Philip Abelson, and others in the Manhattan Project, he became an early convert to the idea of nuclear marine propulsion.[29]

Rickover's vision was not initially shared by his immediate superiors. He was recalled from Oak Ridge and assigned "advisory duties" with an office in an abandoned ladies room in the Navy Building. He subsequently went around several layers of superior officers, and in 1947 went directly to the Chief of Naval Operations, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, by chance also a former submariner. Nimitz immediately understood the potential of nuclear propulsion and recommended the project to the Secretary of the Navy, John L. Sullivan. Sullivan's endorsement to build the world's first nuclear-powered vessel, USS Nautilus, later caused Rickover to state that Sullivan was "the true father of the Nuclear Navy."[30][31]

Subsequently, Rickover became chief of a new section in the Bureau of Ships, the Nuclear Power Division, and began work with Alvin M. Weinberg, the Oak Ridge director of research, both to initiate and develop the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology and to begin the design of the pressurized water reactor for submarine propulsion.[32][33]

In February 1949 he received an assignment to the Atomic Energy Commission's Division of Reactor Development, and then assumed control of the Navy's effort as Director of the Naval Reactors Branch in the Bureau of Ships, reporting to Mills. This twin role enabled him to lead the effort to develop Nautilus, which was launched and commissioned in 1954, as well as to oversee the development of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the first commercial pressurized water reactor nuclear power plant.

The decision for selecting Rickover to head the development of the nation's nuclear submarine program ultimately rested with Admiral Mills. According to Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, the primary military leader in charge of the Manhattan Project, Mills was anxious to have a very determined man involved. He knew that Rickover was "not too easy to get along with" and "not too popular," but in his judgment Rickover was the man whom the Navy could depend on "no matter what opposition he might encounter, once he was convinced of the potentialities of the atomic submarine."[34]

Rickover did not disappoint. The imagination, drive, creativity, and engineering expertise demonstrated by Rickover and his team during that era resulted in a highly reliable nuclear reactor in a form-factor that would fit into a submarine hull with no more than a 28-foot beam. These were substantial technical achievements, given that:

Rickover was promoted to the rank of vice admiral in 1958, the same year that he was awarded the first of two Congressional Gold Medals.[36] Rickover exercised tight control for the next three decades over the ships, technology, and personnel of the nuclear Navy, interviewing and approving or denying every prospective officer being considered for a nuclear ship. Over the course of Rickover's record-length career, these personal interviews amounted to tens of thousands of highly impressionable events; over 14,000 interviews were with recent college-graduates alone. These legendary interviews loomed large in the minds of midshipmen from both the U.S. Naval Academy and Naval ROTC and recent graduates of Naval Officer Candidate School. They varied from arcane to combative to humorous, and ranged from midshipmen and newly commissioned ensigns destined for nuclear-powered submarines and surface combatants, to very senior combat-experienced Naval Aviator captains who sought command of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (which sometimes lapsed into ego battles). The content of most of these interviews has been lost to history, though some were later chronicled in the several books on Rickover's career, as well as in a rare personal interview with Diane Sawyer in 1984.[37][38][39][40][41]

Rickover's stringent standards and powerful focus on personal integrity are largely credited with being responsible for the United States Navy's continuing record of zero reactor accidents.[5] During the mid-late 1950s, Rickover revealed the source of his obsession with safety in a personal conversation with a fellow Navy captain:

"I have a son. I love my son. I want everything that I do to be so safe that I would be happy to have my son operating it. That's my fundamental rule." (p. 55, Power at Sea: A Violent Peace, 1946–2006 (2006))

He also made it a point to be aboard during the initial sea trial of almost every nuclear submarine completing its new-construction period, and by his presence both set his stamp of personal integrity that the ship was ready for the rigors of the open seas, and ensured adequate testing to either prove as much or to establish issues requiring resolution.

As head of Naval Reactors, Rickover's focus and responsibilities were dedicated to reactor safety rather than tactical or strategic submarine warfare training. It could be argued that Rickover's singular focus on reactor operations, and his direct line of communications with each nuclear submarine's and nuclear surface warship's captain, acted together against the captains' war-fighting abilities. However, the accident-free record of United States Navy reactor operations stands in stark contrast to those of the Soviet Union, America's primary competitor during the Cold War, which had fourteen known reactor accidents.

As stated in a retrospective analysis in October 2007:

"U.S. submarines far outperformed the Soviet ones in the crucial area of stealth, and Rickover's obsessive fixation on safety and quality control gave the U.S. nuclear Navy a vastly superior safety record to the Soviet one. This was especially crucial as in a democratic society, particularly after the Three Mile Island nuclear power station crisis in March 1979, a host of nuclear accidents or well-publicized near misses could have shut down the nuclear fleet completely."[42]

However, the extreme focus on nuclear propulsion plant operation and maintenance was well known during Rickover's era as a potential hindrance to balancing operational priorities. One way by which this was addressed after the admiral retired was that only the very strongest, former at-sea submarine commanders have held Rickover's now unique eight-year position as NAVSEA-08, the longest chartered tenure in the U.S. military.[43][44] From Rickover's first replacement, Kinnaird R. McKee, to today's head of Naval Reactors, James F. Caldwell, Jr.,[45][46] all have held command of nuclear submarines, their squadrons and ocean fleets; not one has been a long-term Engineering Duty Officer such as Rickover.[47]

The uniqueness of the NAVSEA-08 role's eight-year term was, however, set aside in 2015 by way of the nomination of a merely two-year incumbent, Admiral John M. Richardson, by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to President Barack Obama to serve as the Navy's next CNO. This proposal was publicly challenged by former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, who as it happens was the man who oversaw Admiral Rickover's forced retirement.[6]

Three Mile Island

Following the Three Mile Island (TMI) power plant's partial core melt on March 28, 1979, President Jimmy Carter commissioned a study, Report of the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island (1979).[48] Subsequently, Admiral Rickover was asked to testify before Congress in the general context of answering the question as to why naval nuclear propulsion had succeeded in achieving a record of zero reactor-accidents (as defined by the uncontrolled release of fission products to the environment resulting from damage to a reactor core) as opposed to the dramatic one that had just taken place at Three Mile Island. In his testimony, he said:

"Over the years, many people have asked me how I run the Naval Reactors Program, so that they might find some benefit for their own work. I am always chagrined at the tendency of people to expect that I have a simple, easy gimmick that makes my program function. Any successful program functions as an integrated whole of many factors. Trying to select one aspect as the key one will not work. Each element depends on all the others."[5]


Admiral Hyman G. Rickover has been declared in retrospect as "the most famous and controversial admiral of his era."[49] Hyperactive, political, blunt, confrontational, insulting, flamboyant, and an unexcelled workaholic, Rickover was always demanding of others — without regard for rank or position — as well as himself. Moreover, he had "little tolerance for mediocrity, none for stupidity." "If a man is dumb," said a Chicago friend, "Rickover thinks he ought to be dead."[50] Even while a captain, Rickover did not conceal his opinions, and many of the officers whom he regarded as dumb eventually rose in rank to be admirals and were assigned to the Pentagon.[51]

Rickover found himself frequently and loudly in bureaucratic combat with these senior naval officers, to the point that he almost missed becoming "Admiral" Rickover: Two admiral-selection boards — exclusively made up of admirals — passed over Captain Rickover for promotion even while he was in the process of becoming famous. One of these selection boards even met the day after USS Nautilus had its keel-laying ceremony in the presence of President Truman — and indicative of the Navy's attitude toward the ship's creator, Rickover had not been originally invited to this key event and was only eventually invited by way of his AEC role, not his Navy role.[52]

It eventually took the intervention of the White House, U.S. Congress, and the Secretary of the Navy — and the very real threat of changing the Navy's admiral-selection system to include civilians — before the next flag-selection board welcomed the twice passed-over Rickover (normally a career-ending event) into their ranks.[10][53]

Even the most senior, renowned, and professionally accomplished nuclear-trained officers that Rickover had personally selected, such as Edward L. Beach, Jr., had mixed feelings about "the kindly old gentleman," or simply "KOG", as Rickover became euphemistically known in inner circles. Beach, in his later years, once referred to him as a "tyrant" with "no account of his gradually failing powers" (p. 179, United States Submarines, 2002).

However, President Nixon's comments upon awarding the admiral's fourth star in 1973 are germane:

"I don't mean to suggest ... that he is a man who is without controversy. He speaks his mind. Sometimes he has rivals who disagree with him; sometimes they are right, and he is the first to admit that sometimes he might be wrong. But the greatness of the American military service, and particularly the greatness of the Navy, is symbolized in this ceremony today, because this man, who is controversial, this man, who comes up with unorthodox ideas, did not become submerged by the bureaucracy, because once genius is submerged by bureaucracy, a nation is doomed to mediocrity."[54](Photo)

Rickover's military authority and congressional mandate were absolute with regard to the U.S. fleet's reactor operations, but his exceptional degree of control was frequently a subject of internal Navy controversy. He was head of the Naval Reactors branch, and thus responsible for "signing off" on a crew's competence to operate the reactor safely, giving him the power to effectively remove a warship from active service — and he did so on several occasions, much to the consternation of those affected.

Rickover was obsessed with the maintenance of a safe, detail-focused, and successful nuclear program. Alongside Rickover's success, the view became established among many observers that he sometimes exercised power to settle scores or tweak noses.[55]

Full accountability

Rickover adamantly took full responsibility for everything within the scope of the naval nuclear propulsion program (NNPP)—in distinct contrast to numerous examples of admirals and senior naval officers who would point their finger at individuals or groups in the fleet when something went seriously awry. Sample Rickover quote:

"My program is unique in the military service in this respect: You know the expression 'from the womb to the tomb'; my organization is responsible for initiating the idea for a project; for doing the research, and the development; designing and building the equipment that goes into the ships; for the operations of the ship; for the selection of the officers and men who man the ship; for their education and training. In short, I am responsible for the ship throughout its life — from the very beginning to the very end." (Hearings on Military Posture and H.R. 12564, U.S. G.P.O., 1974, page 1,392)

Distinguishing the academic from the practical

In a statement to the U.S. Congress in 1953, early on in the development of nuclear reactors, Rickover addressed the confusion amongst the nation's decision-makers in his typical head-on fashion, and notably pointed out the chasm between the world of academia and the world of practical engineering:

"An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose ("omnibus reactor"). (7) Very little development is required. It will use mostly "off-the-shelf" components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.

"On the other hand, a practical reactor plant can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It is requiring an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. Corrosion, in particular, is a problem. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of the engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.

"The tools of the academic-reactor designer are a piece of paper and pencil with an eraser. If a mistake is made, it can always be erased and changed. If the practical-reactor designer errs, he wears the mistake around his neck; it cannot be erased. Everyone can see it.

"The academic-reactor designer is a dilettante. He has not had to assume any real responsibility in connection with his projects. He is free to luxuriate in elegant ideas, the practical shortcomings of which can be relegated to the category of "mere technical details." The practical-reactor designer must live with these same technical details. Although recalcitrant and awkward, they must be solved and cannot be put off until tomorrow. Their solutions require manpower, time and money."[56]

Willingness to "sink them all"

Given Rickover's single-minded focus on naval nuclear propulsion, design, and operations, it came as a surprise to many[57] in 1982, near the end of his career, when he testified before the U.S. Congress that, were it up to him what to do with nuclear powered ships, he "would sink them all." In context, Rickover's personal integrity and honesty were such that he was lamenting the need for such war machines in the modern world, and specifically acknowledged as well that the employment of nuclear energy ran counter to the course of nature over time.

At a congressional hearing Rickover testified that:

"I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation. Then you might ask me why do I have nuclear powered ships. That is a necessary evil. I would sink them all. I am not proud of the part I played in it. I did it because it was necessary for the safety of this country. That's why I am such a great exponent of stopping this whole nonsense of war. Unfortunately limits — attempts to limit war have always failed. The lesson of history is when a war starts every nation will ultimately use whatever weapon it has available." Further remarking: "Every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has a certain half-life, in some cases for billions of years. There are, of course, many other things mankind is doing which, in the broadest sense, are having an adverse impact, such as using up scarce resources. I think the human race is ultimately going to wreck itself. It is important that we control these forces and try to eliminate them." (Economics of Defense Policy: Hearing before the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States, 97th Cong., 2nd sess., Pt. 1 (1982))

However, after his retirement — and only a few months later, in May 1982 — Admiral Rickover spoke more specifically regarding the questions "Could you comment on your own responsibility in helping to create a nuclear navy? Do you have any regrets?":

"I do not have regrets. I believe I helped preserve the peace for this country. Why should I regret that? What I accomplished was approved by Congress — which represents our people. All of you live in safety from domestic enemies because of security from the police. Likewise, you live in safety from foreign enemies because our military keeps them from attacking us. Nuclear technology was already under development in other countries. My assigned responsibility was to develop our nuclear navy. I managed to accomplish this."[58]

Willingness to forgo all accomplishments to avoid nuclear weapons

As quoted by President Jimmy Carter during his 1984 interview with Diane Sawyer:[59]

"One of the most remarkable things that he ever told me was when we were together on the submarine and he said that he wished that a nuclear explosive had never been evolved. And then he said, 'I wish that nuclear power had never been discovered.' And I said, 'Admiral, this is your life.' He said, 'I would forgo all the accomplishments of my life, and I would be willing to forgo all the advantages of nuclear power to propel ships, for medical research and for every other purpose of generating electric power, if we could have avoided the evolution of atomic explosives.'"[60][37]

Focus on education

President Kennedy and Rickover, White House, 1963

When he was a child still living in Russian-occupied Poland, Rickover was not allowed to attend public schools because of his Jewish faith. Starting at the age of four, he attended a religious school where the teaching was solely from the Tanakh, i.e., Old Testament, in Hebrew. School hours were from sunrise to sunset, six days a week.[61]

Following his formal education in the U.S. as described above and the birth of his son, Robert,[62] Admiral Rickover developed a decades-long and outspoken interest in the educational standards of the United States, stating in 1957:

"I suggest that this is a good time to think soberly about our responsibilities to our descendants — those who will ring out the Fossil Fuel Age. Our greatest responsibility, as parents and as citizens, is to give America's youngsters the best possible education. We need the best teachers and enough of them to prepare our young people for a future immeasurably more complex than the present, and calling for ever larger numbers of competent and highly trained men and women."[63]

Rickover was particularly of the opinion that U.S. standards of education were unacceptably low. His first book centered on education was a collection of essays calling for improved standards of education, particularly in math and science, entitled Education and Freedom (1959). In this book, the admiral states that, "education is the most important problem facing the United States today" and "only the massive upgrading of the scholastic standards of our schools will guarantee the future prosperity and freedom of the Republic." A second book, Swiss Schools and Ours (1962) was a scathing comparison of the educational systems of Switzerland and America. He argued that the higher standards of Swiss schools, including a longer school day and year, combined with an approach stressing student choice and academic specialization produced superior results.

His persistent interest in education led to some related discussions with President John F. Kennedy.[64][65] While still on active duty, the admiral had suggested that there are three things that a school must do: First, it must transmit to the pupil a substantial body of knowledge; second, it must develop in him the necessary intellectual skill to apply this knowledge to the problems he will encounter in adult life; and third, it must inculcate in him the habit of judging issues on the basis of verified fact and logical reasoning.

Recognizing "that nurturing careers of excellence and leadership in science and technology in young scholars is an essential investment in the United States national and global future," following his retirement Admiral Rickover founded the Center for Excellence in Education in 1983.[66]

Additionally, the Research Science Institute (formerly the Rickover Science Institute), founded by Admiral Rickover in 1984, is a highly respected summer science program hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for rising high school seniors from around the world.

"The Silent War: Rickover and General Dynamics"

In the early 1980s, structural welding flaws — whose nature and existence had been covered up by falsified inspection records — led to significant delays and expenses in the delivery of several submarines being built at the General Dynamics Electric Boat Division shipyard. In some cases, the repairs resulted in practically dismantling and then rebuilding what had been a nearly completed submarine. The yard tried to pass the vast cost overruns directly on to the Navy, while Rickover fought Electric Boat's general manager P. Takis Veliotis tooth and nail at every possible turn, demanding that the yard make good on its "shoddy" workmanship.

The Navy eventually settled with General Dynamics in 1981, paying out $634 million of $843 million in Los Angeles class submarine cost-overrun and reconstruction claims. As it happened, the United States Navy was also the yard's insurer, liable to compensate the yard for losses and other mishaps. The concept of reimbursing General Dynamics under these conditions was initially considered "preposterous," in the words of Secretary Lehman, but the eventual, legal basis of General Dynamics' reimbursement claims to the Navy for the company's poor workmanship included insurance compensation.[67][68]

Rickover was bitter over the General Dynamics yard having successfully sued the Navy for hundreds of millions of dollars due to its own incompetence and deceit, money which "most believe [the yard] did not deserve" according to author and Rear Admiral Dave Oliver in his book Against the Tide.[69] He commented ironically that, "within a month or two after [he] left, most of that money was given to the shipbuilders."[37]

Outraged, Rickover furiously lambasted both the settlement and Secretary Lehman, who was partly motivated to seek an agreement in order to continue to focus on achieving President Reagan's goal of a 600-ship Navy. This was hardly Rickover's first clash with the defense industry; he was historically hard, even harsh, in exacting high standards from defense contractors[70] – but now his relationship with Electric Boat took on the characteristics of an all-out, no-holds-barred war (Running Critical: The Silent War, Rickover & General Dynamics, 1986).

Veliotis was subsequently indicted by a federal grand jury under racketeering and fraud charges in 1983 for demanding $1.3 million in kickbacks from a subcontractor. He nonetheless eventually escaped into exile and a life of luxury in his native Greece, where he remained a fugitive from U.S. justice.[71][72]

Subsequent to accusations by the indicted Veliotis, a Navy Ad Hoc Gratuities Board determined that Rickover had received gifts from General Dynamics over a 16-year period valued at $67,628, including jewelry, furniture, exotic knives and gifts that Rickover had in turn presented to U.S. politicians. Charges were investigated as well that gifts were provided by two other major nuclear ship contractors for the navy, General Electric and the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock.[73]

Veliotis also charged, without providing substantiating evidence, that General Dynamics had given gifts to other senior naval officers, and had routinely underbid contracts with the intention of charging the government for cost overruns. These charges were not pursued by the Navy, at least in part due to Veliotis' flight from justice.[67]

Secretary Lehman admonished Rickover for his impropriety via a nonpunitive letter and stated that Rickover's "fall from grace with these little trinkets should be viewed in the context of his enormous contributions to the Navy."[73] Rickover released a statement through his lawyer saying his "conscience is clear" with respect to the gifts. "No gratuity or favor ever affected any decision I made."[73] Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin, a longtime supporter of Rickover, later publicly associated a debilitating stroke suffered by the admiral to his having been censured and "dragged through the mud by the very institution to which he rendered his invaluable service."[74]

Veliotis also accused Rickover of reckless seamanship during the sea trials of the newly constructed USS La Jolla (SSN-701).[75]

Forced retirement

By the late 1970s, Rickover's position seemed stronger than it had ever been. He had survived more than two decades of attempts by the Navy brass to force him into retirement — including being made to work out of a converted ladies room and being passed over twice for promotion. Over many years, powerful friends on both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees ensured that he remained on active duty long after most other admirals had retired from their second careers.[76]

But on January 31, 1982, in his 80s, Rickover was forced to retire from the Navy as a full admiral by Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, with the knowledge and consent of President Reagan—after 63 years of service to his country under 13 presidents (Woodrow Wilson through Ronald Reagan). This was done in a premeditated fashion. As Lehman, a reservist naval aviator while serving as Secretary of the Navy, opined in his book, Command of the Seas:

[O]ne of my first orders of business as secretary of the navy would be to solve ... the Rickover problem. Rickover's legendary achievements were in the past. His present viselike grip on much of the navy was doing it much harm. I had sought the job because I believed the navy had deteriorated to the point where its weakness seriously threatened our future security. The navy's grave afflictions included loss of a strategic vision; loss of self-confidence, and morale; a prolonged starvation of resources, leaving vast shortfalls in capability to do the job; and too few ships to cover a sea so great, all resulting in cynicism, exhaustion, and an undercurrent of defeatism. The cult created by Admiral Rickover was itself a major obstacle to recovery, entwining nearly all the issues of culture and policy within the navy.[77]

Regardless of any personal enmity or power struggles between the two naval leaders, Secretary Lehman finally attained enough political clout to enforce his decision to retire Rickover. This was in part assisted by the Admiral's nearly insubordinate stance against paying the fraudulently inflated submarine construction claims, as well as his advanced age and waning political leverage.

According to Rickover, he first learned of his firing when his wife told him what she heard on the radio.[37]

Upon being apprised of Lehman's decision that it was time for the admiral to finally retire, President Reagan asked to meet with Rickover. As quoted from Lehman's Command of the Seas, Rickover was unhappy with the course of events and held forth in a "tirade" against Lehman, with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in attendance, at the meeting with the President:

(Rickover, referring to Lehman:) "Mr. President, that piss-ant knows nothing about the Navy." The admiral turned toward (Lehman) and raised his voice now to a fearsome shout. "You just want to get rid of me, you want me out of the program because you want to dismantle the program." Shifting now toward President Reagan, he roared on: "He's a goddamn liar, he knows he is just doing the work of the contractors. The contractors want me fired because of all the claims and because I am the only one in the government who keeps them from robbing the taxpayers."[78]
(Lehman, as later quoted by CNN:) "... it was a difficult moment for the president in the Oval Office. And he was so concerned about the man, about Admiral Rickover and that he not be embarrassed, that he asked us all to leave. He said, "Admiral Rickover and I see things the same way. Could you leave us a while? We want to talk about policy."[79]

The meeting ended as follows, according to former President Jimmy Carter, who had served as an officer in the nuclear submarine program under Rickover:

[In the context of Rickover's recommendation to Carter that he again run for president, after first remaining quiet for a couple of years:] "Admiral Rickover never had much political judgment, but he understood the relationships among the Congress, defense contractors, and the Department of Defense as well as anyone. His long and distinguished career ended abruptly: in late 1981 Rickover's wife heard on the radio that President Reagan had retired the admiral, who was on a new submarine conducting sea trials, and she had to give him the news. 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."[80]

The Navy's official investigation of General Dynamics' Electric Boat division was ended shortly afterward. According to Theodore Rockwell, Rickover's Technical Director for more than 15 years, more than one source at that time stated that General Dynamics officials were bragging around Washington that they had "gotten Rickover."[81]

On February 28, 1983, a post-retirement party honoring Admiral Rickover was attended by all three living former U.S. Presidents at the time, Nixon, Ford, and Carter, all of whom were formerly officers in the U.S. Navy. President Reagan was not in attendance.[82][83] Senator Bob Dole, widely known for having a caustic brand of humor, described the three gathered presidents at the time as, "See no evil, hear no evil...and Evil."[84]

Final public words and thoughts

Admiral Rickover's final public remarks after his retirement included a lecture in May 1982 at the Morgenthau Memorial Lecture series under the auspices of the Carnegie Council ("The Voice for Ethics in International Policy"), developed and polished over the course of the last five of his 63 years of public service.[85]

In his lecture Thoughts On Man's Purpose in Life,[86] Rickover presented his summary comments on the subject, drawing upon wide-ranging philosophers and dignitaries such as Voltaire, Emerson, Sir Thomas More, Robert Browning, President Theodore Roosevelt, Justice Louis Brandeis, Aristotle, and Martin Luther, as well as extracts from the I Ching. He presented some of the fundamentally guiding thoughts and beliefs that he had acquired during his lifetime.

Rickover's core comments centered around the thoughts that "principles of existence — responsibility, perseverance, excellence, creativity, courage — must be wedded to intellectual growth and development if we are to find meaning and purpose in our lives" and that "a final principle of existence essential to man's purpose in life is the development of standards of ethical and moral conduct."

Earnest in pointing out the triumph of action over thoughts alone, Rickover's comments included the following:

"Man has a large capacity for effort. In fact it is so much greater than we think it is that few ever reach this capacity.

"We should value the faculty of knowing what we ought to do and having the will to do it. Knowing is easy; it is the doing that is difficult. The critical issue is not what we know but what we do with what we know. The great end of life is not knowledge, but action.

"I believe that it is the duty of each of us to act as if the fate of the world depended on him ... we must live for the future, not for our own comfort or success."

He closed his remarks at the lecture with a question and answer period that addressed various aspects of Rickover's public service record, opinions, philosophies and anticipation for the future.


After suffering strokes, pneumonia and generally declining health over time, Admiral Rickover died at his home in Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday, July 8, 1986 at 86 years of age, the same as that of his father, Abraham, before him. He was buried on Friday of that same week in a small, private ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.[87] On Monday, July 14, 1986, memorial services were led by Admiral James D. Watkins at the Washington National Cathedral, with President Carter, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Secretary Lehman, senior naval officers and about 1,000 other people in attendance. Mrs. Rickover had asked President Carter to read from John Milton's On His Blindness. Carter was at first puzzled by her choice, but then came to believe that the last line had special meaning for all wives and family members of submariners who were away at sea: "They also serve who only stand and wait."[88][89]

Clearly a man of conscience, despite Admiral Rickover's last public and instructive remarks he went to his deathbed questioning the meaning and purpose of his own life, and specifically whether or not it was led in consonance with God's intentions ("How the hell are you supposed to know what God wants you to do with your life, eh?").[81] Milton's poetic words regarding a man's inherent blindness and potential-yet-unknown ability to otherwise serve God may well thus have also held a special meaning to Rickover himself, as it paradoxically answers one of the admiral's last questions in life:

"... God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."

Admiral Rickover is buried in Section 5 at Arlington National Cemetery.[90] His first wife, Ruth Masters Rickover (1903–1972), is buried with him and the name of his second wife, Eleonore A. Bednowicz Rickover, whom he met and married while she was serving as a Commander in the Navy Nurse Corps, is also inscribed on his gravestone. He is survived by Eleanore and by Robert Rickover, his sole son by his first wife, who today teaches the Alexander Technique.[91]

At Arlington, Rickover's burial site overlooks the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame. Of note, it was Rickover who gave President Kennedy the old Breton fisherman's prayer plaque, which states, "O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small."[92] The plaque is displayed in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum as part of the Oval Office exhibit.[93]

During the last century, only a few names naturally come to mind of those who have made a truly major impact on both their navies and their nations: Mahan, Fisher and Gorshkov. Rickover joined them. Creating a detail-focused pursuit of excellence to a degree previously unknown, he redirected the United States Navy's ship propulsion, quality control, personnel selection, and training and education, and has had far reaching effects on the defense establishment and the civilian nuclear energy field.[94]


USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-709)

The Los Angeles-class submarine USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-709) was named for him. It was commissioned two years before the admiral's death, making it one of the relatively few United States Navy ships to be named for a living person. USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-709) was launched on August 27, 1983, sponsored by the admiral's second wife, Mrs. Eleonore Ann Bednowicz Rickover, commissioned on July 21, 1984, and deactivated on December 14, 2006.

In 2015, the Navy announced that a new Virginia class submarine, USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN-795), would be named for Rickover.[95]

Rickover Hall at the United States Naval Academy, houses the departments of Mechanical Engineering, Naval Architecture, Ocean Engineering, Aeronautical and Aerospace Engineering. Rickover Center at Naval Nuclear Power Training Command, where officer and enlisted U.S. Navy personnel begin their engineering training, is located at Joint Base Charleston.

In 2011, the U.S. Navy Museum included Admiral Rickover as part of the Technology for the Nuclear Age: Nuclear Propulsion display for its Cold War exhibit, which featured the following, most-often misquoted[96] quotation:

"Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience".[97][98]



Warfare insignia

Decorations and medals

Foreign order

In recognition of his wartime service, he was invested as an Honorary Commander of the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1946 by King George VI.

Admiral Rickover was twice awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for exceptional public service; the first in 1958, and the second 25 years later in 1983, becoming one of only three persons to be awarded more than one.[103] In 1980, President Jimmy Carter presented Admiral Rickover with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest non-military honor, for his contributions to world peace.

He also received 61 civilian awards and 15 honorary degrees, including the prestigious Enrico Fermi Award "For engineering and demonstrative leadership in the development of safe and reliable nuclear power and its successful application to our national security and economic needs."[104] In addition to the Enrico Fermi Award, some of the most notable awards include:[105]

Some of his honorary degrees included:


See also


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