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Hyman George Rickover
Hyman Rickover 1955
Rickover pictured in 1955 as rear admiral (upper half)
Birth name Chaim Rickover
Nickname "Father of the Nuclear Navy"
Born January 27, 1900 (1900-01-27)
Died July 8, 1986 (1986-07-09) (aged 86)
Place of birth Maków Mazowiecki, Poland
Place of death Arlington, Virginia
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Navy
Years of service 1918–1982 (includes academy years)
Rank US-O10 insignia 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

Hyman George Rickover (January 27, 1900 – July 8, 1986) was a four-star admiral of the United States Navy 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.

Rickover is known as the "Father of the Nuclear Navy", which as of July 2007 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 under construction.

On 16 November 1973 Rickover was promoted to four-star admiral after 51 years of commissioned service. 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 active duty.[1][2][3]

Rickover's 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 subsequent to reactor core damage.[4]

Early life[]

Hyman Rickover was born as Chaim Godalia Rickover, to Abraham Rickover and Rachel (née Unger) Rickover, a Jewish family in Maków Mazowiecki of Poland, at that time ruled by the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II. His parents later changed his name to "Hyman," also derived from the same Hebrew: חַיִּים </noinclude> (Chayyim), meaning "life." He did not use his middle name Godalia (Yiddish: "God is great"), 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 an hour of Warsaw, as is Maków Mazowiecki.

Fleeing anti-Semitic Russian pogroms[5][6] during the Revolution of 1905 that killed over 3,000 Jews, Rickover, his mother and sister Faygele (Americanized: "Fannie") made passage to New York City in March 1906, joining Abraham who had made earlier, initial trips there beginning in 1897 to become established.[7] 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 Lawndale, a community of Chicago, 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.[8][9]

While attending John Marshall High School in Chicago, from where he graduated with honors in 1918, Rickover held a full-time job delivering Western Union telegrams, through which he became acquainted with U.S. Congressman Adolph J. Sabath. By way of the intervention of a family friend, Sabath, himself a Czech Jewish immigrant, nominated Rickover for appointment to the United States Naval Academy. Though only a third alternate for an appointment, through disciplined self-directed study and good fortune the future four-star admiral passed the entrance exam and was accepted.[10][11]

Early naval career through World War II[]

On 2 June 1922, Rickover graduated 107th out of 540 Midshipmen and was commissioned as an Ensign.[12] He joined destroyer USS La Vallette (DD-315) 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.[13]

He next served on board the battleship USS Nevada (BB-36) before earning a Master of Science (M.Sc.) in Electrical Engineering by way of a year at the Naval Postgraduate School at the Naval Academy, followed by further work at Columbia University. At Columbia he met his future wife, 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.[14][15]

Rickover had a high regard for the quality of the education 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 that 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."[16]

Preferring life on smaller ships, and knowing that young officers in the submarine service were advancing quickly, Rickover 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.[17]

During 1933, while at the Office of the Inspector of Naval Material in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 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.

In June 1937, he assumed command of the minesweeper USS Finch (AM-9), and on 1 July of that year was promoted to Lieutenant Commander. In October his designation as an engineering duty officer became effective, and he left the Finch. He was assigned to the Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines, expecting to be transferred shortly to the Bureau of Engineering in Washington D.C. 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., Rickover arrived in Washington and took up his duties as assistant chief of the Electrical section of the Bureau of Engineering on 15 August 1939.[18]

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,"[19] enabling the battleship to sail under her own power from Pearl Harbor to Puget Sound Navy Yard.[20]

Later during 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. During his wartime service, as noted later in the January 11, 1954 Time magazine magazine issue that featured him on its cover:[21]

"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."[8]

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.[22]

Naval reactors and the Atomic Energy Commission[]

Hyman Rickover inspecting USS Nautilus

Admiral Rickover looking over USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-powered vessel.

In 1946 a project 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 State, to develop a nuclear propulsion plant for destroyers, but in May 1946,[23] 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, Rickover was finally sent to Oak Ridge as the deputy manager of the entire project, granting him access to all facilities, projects and reports. Following efforts by physicists Ross Gunn, Philip Abelson and others in the Manhattan Project, he became an early convert to the idea of nuclear marine propulsion.[24]

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, whose endorsement to build the world's first nuclear-powered vessel, USS Nautilus (SSN-571), later caused Rickover to state that Sullivan was "the true father of the Nuclear Navy."[25][26]

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 establish the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology and to begin the design of the pressurized water reactor for submarine propulsion.[27][28]

In February 1949, he received an assignment to the Division of Reactor Development, Atomic Energy Commission, 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 both lead the effort to develop Nautilus, which was launched and commissioned in 1954, as well as 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, and – though he knew that Rickover was "not too easy to get along with" and "not too popular" – in his judgment Rickover was the man who the Navy could depend on "no matter what opposition he might encounter, once he was convinced of the potentialities of the atomic submarine."[29]

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:

  • In the early 1950s, a megawatt-scale nuclear reactor took up an area roughly the size of a city block.
  • The prototype for the USS Nautilus propulsion plant was the world's first high-temperature nuclear reactor.
  • The basic physics data needed for the reactor design were as yet unavailable.
  • The reactor design methods had yet to be developed.
  • There were no available engineering data on the performance of water-exposed metals that were simultaneously experiencing high temperatures, pressures and multi-spectral radiation levels.
  • No nuclear power plant of any kind had ever been designed to produce steam.
  • No steam propulsion plant had ever been designed for use in the widely varying sea temperatures and pressures experienced by the condenser during submarine operations.
  • Components from difficult, exotic materials, such as zirconium and hafnium, would have to be extracted and manufactured with precision via techniques that were as yet unknown.[30]

Promoted to the rank of Vice Admiral in 1958, the same year he was awarded the first of two Congressional Gold Medals,[31] for nearly the next three decades Rickover exercised tight control 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. Varying from arcane to combative to humorous, and ranging from midshipmen to very senior naval aviators who sought command of 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.[32][33][34][35][36]

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.[4] 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 because of Rickover's singular focus on reactor operations, and direct line of communications with each nuclear submarine's captain, that this acted against the captains' war-fighting abilities.

The accident-free record of United States Navy reactor operations stands in stark contrast to those of America's primary competitor during the Cold War, the Soviet Union, 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."[37]

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.[38][39] From Rickover's first replacement, Kinnaird R. McKee, to today's head of Naval Reactors, John M. Richardson, 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.[40]

Three Mile Island[]

Following the Three Mile Island (TMI) power plant's partial core melt[41] on March 28, 1979, President Jimmy Carter commissioned a study, "Report of the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island (1979)." 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."[4]


Hyperactive, political, blunt, confrontational, insulting, flamboyant, and an unexcelled workaholic who was always demanding of others — without regard for rank or position — as well as himself, Admiral Rickover was a thundering force of nature and lightning rod for controversy. 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."[42] Even while a Captain, Rickover did not conceal his opinions, and many of the officers he regarded as dumb eventually rose in rank to be admirals and were assigned to the Pentagon.[43]

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. 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.[8][44]

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."[45](Photo)

While both Rickover's military authority and congressional mandate with regard to the U.S. fleet's reactor operations was absolute, it was not infrequently a subject of Navy-internal controversy. As head of the Naval Reactors branch, and thus responsible for "signing off" on a crew's competence to operate the reactor safely, he had the power to effectively remove a warship from active service and did so on several occasions, much to the consternation of those affected.

In short, Rickover was obsessed with a safe, details-focused and successful nuclear program. Coincident with this success, the perception became established among many observers that he sometimes used the raw exercise of power to settle scores or tweak noses.

Full accountability[]

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

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 when in 1982, near the end of his career, he testified before the U.S. Congress that, were it up to him, he "would sink them all." A seemingly outrageous enigma of a statement — and perhaps one attributable to an old man beyond his time[46] — 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. I think the human race is going to wreck itself, and it is important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it." (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."[47]

Willingness to forgo all accomplishments[]

As quoted by President Jimmy Carter during his 1984 interview with Diane Sawyer:[48]

"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 forego all the accomplishments of my life, and I would be willing to forego 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.'"[49]

Focus on education[]

Admiral Rickover with President Kennedy

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.[50]

Following his formal education in the U.S. as described above and the birth of his son, Robert,[51] 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."[52]

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.[53][54] 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.[55]

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.

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.[56]

But on January 31, 1982, in his 80s, and after 63 years of service to his country under 13 presidents (Woodrow Wilson through Ronald Reagan), 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. This was done in a premeditated fashion. As Lehman, a reservist naval aviator while serving as Secretary of the Navy, put it 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.[57]

Fitting to the end of the decades-long reign and reputation of Rickover, his career concluded in both a battle with the defense establishment and a coming-to-terms with his own human limitations.

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. While the yard tried to pass the vast cost overruns directly onto the Navy, 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.

Although 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, Rickover was bitter over the yard having effectively and successfully sued the Navy for its own incompetence and deceit. Of no small irony, the United States Navy was also the yard's insurer — though the concept of reimbursing General Dynamics under these conditions was initially considered "preposterous" in the words of Secretary Lehman, the legal basis of General Dynamics' claims included insurance compensation.[58][59]

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 these contractors[60] – 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 came to be 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 remains a fugitive from U.S. justice.[61][62]

Subsequent to accusations by the indicted Veliotis, a Navy Ad Hoc Gratuities Board determined that Rickover had received gifts from General Dynamics including jewelry, furniture and exotic knives valued at $67,628 over a 16-year period. 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.[63]

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.[58]

Secretary Lehman admonished Rickover for this impropriety via a nonpunitive letter and stating that Rickover's "fall from grace with these little trinkets should be viewed in the context of his enormous contributions to the Navy."[63] 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."[63] 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."[64]

Beyond any personal enmity or power struggles between the two naval leaders, it was Rickover's advanced age, singular focus and waning political clout regarding nuclear power, and strong, near-insubordinate stance against paying the fraudulently inflated submarine construction claims that gave Secretary Lehman substantial political capital to have Rickover retired. A moderate loss of ship control during the sea trials of the newly constructed USS La Jolla (SSN-701) — over which Rickover had direct supervisory control and, as the man-in-charge, actual culpability by way of human error — provided Lehman with the final impetus for ending Rickover's career.[65]

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."[66]

(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."[67]

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

[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."[68]

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."[69]

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.[70][71]

Final public words and thoughts[]

Developed and polished over the course of the last five of his 63 years of public service,[72] 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").

In his lecture, titled Thoughts On Man's Purpose in Life,[73] Rickover presented his crucible, summary comments on the subject for the audience's careful consideration. 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, Rickover 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 July 8, 1986 at 86 years of age, the same as that of his father, Abraham, before him.[74] 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."[75][76]

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?").[77] 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.[78] 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 Robert Rickover, his sole son by his first wife.

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."[79] The plaque is displayed in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum as part of the Oval Office exhibit.[80]

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.[81]


USS Rickover

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 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.

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, often misquoted[82] quote:

"Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience."[83][84]



Rickover Congressional Gold Medal

The second of two Congressional Gold Medals awarded to Admiral Rickover.

Decorations and Medals

Foreign Order

Qualification Badge

In recognition of his wartime service, he was made Honorary Commander of the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1946.

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.[85] 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."[86] In addition to the Enrico Fermi Award, some of the most notable awards include:[87]

  • the Egleston Medal Award of Columbia University Engineering School Alumni Association (1955),
  • the George Westinghouse Gold Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) (1955),
  • the Michael I. Pupin 100th Anniversary Medal (1958),
  • the Golden Omega Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) (1959),
  • the Prometheus Award from the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) (1965)
  • the Newcomen Medal (1968)
  • the Washington Award from the Western Society of Engineers[88] (1970)

Some of his Honorary degrees included:

  • Sc.D.: Colby College (1954);[89] Stevens Institute of Technology (1958);[90] Columbia University (1960)[91]

See also[]


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  6. "Born to a Jewish family in a part of Poland under Russian rule in 1900, Rickover fled with his parents to the United States in 1905 in an effort to avoid Russian-instigated pogroms."
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In order of publication:

  • The Man in Tempo 3 cover story on Rickover in Time magazine magazine (January, 1954)
  • Blair, Clay, The Atomic Submarine and Admiral Rickover (H. Holt, 1954)
  • Rickover, Hyman G., Nuclear Power and the Navy (Navy League of the United States, 1955)
  • Stanford, Neal, The Future of Fossil Fuels - An Intimate Message from Washington (The Christian Science Monitor, 1957)
  • Wallace, Robert, A Deluge Of Honors For An Exasperating Admiral (LIFE magazine, September 1958)
  • Rickover, Hyman G., Education and Freedom (Dutton, 1959)
  • Rickover, Hyman G., Swiss Schools and Ours: Why Theirs are Better (Little, Brown, 1962)
  • Rickover, Hyman G., American Education, a National Failure; The problem of our schools and what we can learn from England (Dutton, 1963)
  • Rickover, Hyman G., Liberty, Science and Law (Newcomen Society in North America, 1969)
  • Rickover, Hyman G., Eminent Americans: Namesakes of the Polaris Submarine Fleet (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972)
  • Rickover, Hyman G., Nuclear Warships and the Navy's Future ({s.n.}, 1974)
  • Rickover, Hyman G., The Role of Engineering in the Navy, speech, (1974)
  • Groves, Leslie R., Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project (Da Capo PR, 1975)
  • Zumwalt, Elmo R., On Watch: A Memoir (Quadrangle/New York Times Co., 1976) includes a chapter on Rickover
  • Rickover, Hyman G., How the Battleship Maine Was Destroyed (Naval Institute Press, 1976)
  • Rickover, Hyman G., Thoughts on Man's Purpose in Life speech presented at the San Diego Rotary Club (1977)
  • Rickover, Hyman G., No Holds Barred: The Final Congressional Testimony of Admiral Hyman Rickover (Center for Study of Responsive Law, 1982)
  • Rickover, Hyman G., Doing a Job 1981 management philosophy speech at Columbia University School of Engineering (CoEvolution Quarterly, 1982)
  • Rickover, Hyman G., Thoughts on Man's Purpose in Life, (Second Annual Morgenthau Memorial Lecture, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, 1982 revision)
  • Polmar, Norman; Allen, Thomas B., Rickover: Controversy and Genius (Simon and Schuster, 1982)
  • Schratz, Paul R., "Admiral Rickover and the Cult of Personality" (Air University Review, July–August 1983) -- "non-conformist" opinion piece from a World War II diesel boat commander
  • Rickover, Hyman G., personal interview on 60 Minutes by Diane Sawyer and Edward R. Murrow (1984)
  • Tyler, Patrick, Running Critical: The Silent War, Rickover & General Dynamics (Harper Trade, 1986)
  • Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 3 (1989)
  • Duncan, Francis, Rickover and the Nuclear Navy: The Discipline of Technology (Naval Institute Press, 1990)
  • Rockwell, Theodore, The Rickover Effect: The Inside Story of How Adm. Hyman Rickover Built the Nuclear Navy (John Wiley & Sons, 1995)
  • Beaver, William, Admiral Rickover: Lessons for Business Leaders (Business Forum, 1998)
  • Sontag, Sherry; Drew, Christopher; Drew, Annette Lawrence; Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage (PublicAffairs, 1998)
  • Gordon, Robert B., Working for Admiral Rickover: Memoir (Naval Historical Foundation Memoir program, 2000)
  • Duncan, Francis, Rickover: The Struggle for Excellence (Naval Institute Press, 2001)
  • Craven, John Piña, The Silent War: The Cold War Battle Beneath the Sea (Simon & Schuster, 2001)
  • Lehman, Jr., John F., Command of the Seas, (US Naval Institute Press, 2nd rev. ed., 2001)
  • Rockwell, Theodore, The Rickover Effect: How One Man Made a Difference (, 2002)
  • Clancy, Tom, Submarine: A Guided Tour Inside a Nuclear Warship (Berkley, 2002)
  • Hinkle, David, United States Submarines (Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 2002)
  • David, Heather M., Admiral Rickover and the Nuclear Navy (Putnam Pub Group, 2004)
  • Zweigenhaft, Richard L., Diversity in the Power Elite: How It Happened, Why It Matters (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006)
  • Gilchrist, Dan, Power Shift: The Transition to Nuclear Power in the U.S. Submarine Force As Told by Those Who Did It (iUniverse, 2006)
  • Rickover, Hyman G., Energy Resources and Our Future, 1957 speech, (Energy Bulletin, 2006)
  • Rose, Lisle A., Power at Sea: A Violent Peace, 1946-2006 (University of Missouri Press, 2006)
  • Allen, Thomas; Polmar, Norman; Rickover: Father of the Nuclear Navy (Potomac Books, 2007)
  • Meyer, CM, The Long Shadow of Admiral Hyman Rickover, Part 1, PDF document, (energize magazine, April 2007)
  • Meyer, CM, The Long Shadow of Admiral Hyman Rickover, Part 3, PDF document, (energize magazine, June 2007)
  • Spear, Steven J., Chasing the Rabbit (McGraw-Hill, 2008) -- includes applicable business lessons from the US Navy's Nuclear Power Program
  • Tucker, Todd, Atomic America: How a Deadly Explosion and a Feared Admiral Changed the Course of Nuclear History (Free Press, 2009)
  • Toti, William J., The Wrath of Rickover (Proceedings Magazine, U.S. Naval Institute Press, June 2010)
  • A brief history: From squash court to submarine - Nuclear reactors and their uses have not changed much over seven decades (The Economist, March 2012)
  • Chiles, James R., Titanics of Tomorrow? (New York Daily News, April 15, 2012)

External links[]

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