Maverick Rickover Was Dedicated to the Project of a Nuclear Powered Navy

Several years ago, a student in my entrepreneurship seminar asked if he could do his paper on Admiral Rickover. I am glad that I finally said “yes.”

(p. C9) . . ., in “Admiral Hyman Rickover: Engineer of Power,” Marc Wortman delivers a 17-gun salute to this short, profane spitfire who pulled a reluctant Navy into the atomic era.

. . .

Though physically courageous, Rickover, according to one of his commanding officers, showed “no outward signs of qualities of leadership.” In the late 1920s, he spent a year studying electrical engineering at Columbia University.

. . .

It can be difficult for landlubbers to grasp the significance of nuclear power to a navy. Freed from the shackles of fuel tenders, a nuclear-powered submarine can “slide into the depths and maintain top speeds for weeks or even months without need for recharging fuel, air, or battery,” Mr. Wortman notes. “Atomic-powered submarines represented a seafaring and naval warfare leap as fundamental as that from sail to steam.”

. . .

[Rickover’s] experience at Columbia imbued him with an unconventional attitude toward authority when he headed the Navy’s nuclear-propulsion group. At the Atomic Energy Commission’s Division of Naval Reactors, “he abolished rank and uniform,” Mr. Wortman writes. “ ‘There is no hierarchy in matters of the mind,’ Rickover said, and he insisted that all were ‘permitted to do as they think best and to go to anyone and anywhere for help. Each person is then limited only by his own ability.’ ”

But he also demanded accountability and was a Captain Bligh to the men he selected to run his reactors. Addressing one group of newly minted engineers, Rickover “jumped his then-seventy-seven-year-old body up on a tabletop, stomped with rage like an angry djinn, and screamed at the top of his lungs, ‘I understand genetics. If you make a mistake with my nuclear plant, it’s because your mother was a street whore who trawled for tricks with a mattress on her back!’ ” His Pattonesque benediction concluded: “On penalty of all you hold dearest, do not fail to live up to my standard of perfection.”

His maverick approach threw off sparks when it rubbed against military structure. “Navy and government officials bristled at Rickover’s rebellious nature, indifference to the chain of command, and frequent workarounds,” Mr. Wortman writes. “He was obstinate, egotistical, and abrasive, a specialized engineer indifferent to and sometimes actively in rebellion against the Navy’s chain of command, protocols, and culture. By pushing the Navy into technology frontiers, his nuclear-power program proved alien to existing thinking.” Passed over for promotion twice, the ill-tempered Rickover relied on supporters in Congress and the White House to move up to admiral and remain in uniform past retirement age.

For the full review, see:

Jonathan W. Jordan. “The Navy’s Atomic Generator.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022): C9.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed name, added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 11, 2022, and has the title “‘Admiral Hyman Rickover’ Review: The Navy’s Atomic Generator.”)

The book under review is:

Wortman, Marc. Admiral Hyman Rickover: Engineer of Power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022.

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