ADMIRAL RICKOVER AND THE CULT OF PERSONALITY Norman Palmar and Thomas B. Allen, Rickover (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982, $20. 75), 744 pages. JUL-AUG 83/dj
When Admiral Hyman G. Rickover cleared his desk and took final departure from the U.S. Navy
and the Naval Reactors Branch on the last day of January 1982, it marked the end of an era. None
of us can quite share the feeling, for no one else ever completed 63 years of continuous active
service before heading for pasture at age 82. The Norman Palmar and Thomas B. Allen biography
of that career, writ ten without R ickover’ s support and published despite the threat of a lawsuit, offers a fascinating view of the spawning, growth, and maturation of the Rickover empire.
During the last hundred years, only a few names come to mind of those who have made a major
impact on their navies or nation: Mahan, Fisher, Gorshkov. Rickover can join them. He changed
the U.S. 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
The book is tremendously important for the military professional in uniform or for the Washington bureaucrat. Whatever his branch of service, Rickover raises trenchant issues. Are we seeing the first of a new breed of technocratic flag and general officers — and possibly the last of the “characters” in uniform succumbing to the era of the organization man? Was Rickover the indispensable man whose personal drive created a nuclear navy by the force of his indomitable will over the backs of reluctant
admirals refusing to be dragged into the twentieth century; or was he an opportunist who
capitalized on fate to build his own navy within the real Navy?
In his naval service to midcareer, Rickover showed little promise of future greatness. He
volunteered for submarine duty, rose to executive officer of the s-48 but then was not selected for
command. His pattern of sea and shore assignments up to the rank of captain was unimpressive. In
the fall of 1946 however he saw nuclear power “as an opportunity for the Navy”. Chosen almost by
chance for a four-month assignment to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Rickover soon parlayed the opportunity into a fortuitous dual responsibility to the Atomic Energy Commission –later the Department of Energy — and the Navy.
Proving himself a master at bureaucratic infighting, he built his empire, sensing shrewdly
what few others ever realized, that congressmen prefer giving money to people rather than institutions. Going before committees as an individual and not as a Navy official, he gave a
strong and convincing impression that he spoke as a man of truth and right, not necessarily to
support the U.S. Navy but to support the nuclear navy. He told Congressmen: “Those of us who have
an objective, a desire to get something done, cannot possibly compromise and communicate all day
long with people who wallow in bureaucracy, who worship rules and ancient routines •11 Thanks to
outstanding preparation and delivery by this truly expert witness, Rickover ‘s flawless performances
generated their own fame in the press as a folksy, down-home philosopher.
To an Armed Services Committee, he stated: “We have got somehow to drag the Navy into the
Twentieth Century. From the beginning the Navy has opposed nuclear power.” (Yet the authors
sought in vain for any opposition or even serious question about the construction of nuclear-powered
submarines.) But how else could he make himself – and the congressional committees the indispensable ingredient behind the reality or the nuclear program?
Admiral Rickover’s greatest contribution was neither as a technician nor manager; his real
genius lay in infusing into the Navy the pursuit of excellence, the genius not or breadth or
vision but or the insistence on taking infinite pains in the smallest detail in the development
or nuclear energy. He set high standards or excellence as the norm and forced compliance. In
the nuclear program, Special Trust and Confidence, the traditional words on a u.s. military officer’s commission, had little relevance. Everything and everyone was checked, rechecked, then checked again.
Only those with superior qualifications were considered for the nuclear program. Probing the
minds and attitudes or potential officers and crewmen, the Rickover stamp reached every individual in the program. Over the years the famed interview became a legend. Ordeals or harassment, verbal abuse, banishment to a broom closet, and demeaning indignities — all sought to evaluate the individual under stress and to instill forever the conviction of who was boss.
From the early USS Nautilus days, the nuclear program was marked more and more by the growing
cult or the individual. The nuclear program became the means or personal advancement. Rickover, himself, furthered both the nuclear program and his own career, carrying his own promotions beyond “the system” to the apex or four stars — and retention on active duty far beyond normal or even legal retirement limits. His bureaucratic vendetta within the Bureau or Ships was only the background for his grand strategy: the nation must have an all nuclear navy which he would create and control.
The cult or personality produced other adverse side effects. Having achieved brilliant success
with the pressurized water coolant system in the Nautilus installation, innovation in other types
of plants was given little encouragement. The USS Seavolt plant, developed in tandem with Nautilus,
utilized liquid sodium as coolant, and promised much smaller and more compact reactors. Because
of limitations in metallurgy, the system proved unsuccessful. The program was scrapped, and its
superiorities were never again re-examined — even after twenty years of further progress in nuclear
technology. Rickover also discouraged programs generated within the Office of Naval Research and
elsewhere for smaller, lightweight reactors that might reduce the enormous size and cost of
nuclear-powered ships. None saw the light of day. When nuclear power was adapted to surface use for large combatants such as aircraft carriers and missile cruisers, new propulsion systems
apparently were not examined. For instance, a smaller and more efficient combination of nuclear
power for normal cruising plus an overdrive of conventional gas turbine plants for high speed use
had been proposed but was not investigated further.
The lack of an adequate research and development program for new propulsion techniques
was only one indicator of the increasing conservatism of the Rickover program. Truly it has been said, “The father of the last technological revolution is in the ideal position to stamp out the next one.” Lou Roddis notes that the Soviet development of the Alfa nuclear submarine, smaller, faster, and deeper diving than any U.S. underseas craft, has no counterpart in the u.s. development.
The cult of personality and the dominance of the Rickover program tended increasingly to
isolate the nuclear Navy officers from the rest of the Navy. Brilliant, carefully selected, and
meticulously trained, they are superb engineers but see little of “the Navy”. The Rickover system
trains engineers rather than broad guaged naval officers. Through his insistence, the Naval
Academy curriculum offers 80 percent of its courses in the hard sciences, 20 percent in the
liberal arts. (West Point divides it 60-40; the Air Force Academy, 50-50.) Mid-career “nucs”
were screened from war college assignments -despite the enormous influence they had to gain
and to give — and from staff duties outside the narrow limits of their specializations as nuclear
engineers. Nor could they, for example, be found even on submarine staffs, where they would
develop tactics and doctrine for nuclear attack and missile submarines in both offensive and
defensive roles. Shore duty of any sort is limited; of 1500 billets in the Navy for nuclear specialists, only 122 are ashore.
Admiral Rickover made a great contribution to his country over an unsurpassed 63-year career of
active service. Unlike most senior officers who retire in a blaze of ceremony and parades, he
chose to pass up the traditional ritual and make his farewell on Capital Hill. His swan song to
the combined House and Senate Joint Economic Committees found only three members present.
But, a grateful Congress struck a gold medal in his honor. In the words of Senator Gary Hart on
a similar occasion, “The mahogany cheered.”Turning down President Reagan’s invitation to
serve as a consultant on civilian nuclear matters, this driven man, suddenly grown old and
tired in the service, passed quietly from the scene.
Both Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen deserve high praise for balanced, even-handed, although
controversial analysis. Palmar is an expert on naval affairs and strategic weapons. Coauthor
Allen has had long editorial experience as Associate Director of National Geographic Books
and is a Navy veteran of the Korean War. Since Admiral Rickover was totally hostile to the
publishing of this biography, the authors were forced into an overreliance on reams of
congressional testimony and interviews of both the bitter and worshipful.
Rickover is an important book on a highly significant subject. The professional officer, whatever his service affiliation, will find the study fascinating, sometimes unbelievable, but amply rewarding.
Dr. Paul R. Schratz
The Underwater War 1939 – 1945, by Cdr. Richard Compton-Hall MBE, RN (Ret.), Blandford Press,
England 1982, distributed in U.S. by Sterling Publishing Co., 2 Park Ave., NYC 10016, 160 pages, $19.95.
This review stems from a 1982 book, “The Underwater War 1939-1945”, by Richard ComptonHall,
a British submariner. I reviewed this book for “Shipmate” in June 1983. Since several views expressed in the book needed refutation or discussion, I am limiting this article to an overview of certain important passages in order to present my differing views which seem appropriate for the stated goals of the Submarine Review.
Compton-Hall, in his book, makes the statement that “the indecision which dogged submarine
development between the wars (WWI -WWII) resulted in most boats which sailed to fight World War II being little different, basically, from those which had fought the first underwater war a
quarter of a century earlier”. He says, the WWII boats “tended to be larger, long-legged and a
little more comfortable but there had been no giant strides forward. Propulsion was virtually
unchanged and maximum speeds submerged were still around 8 knots.”
These statements are more true than false, but they give a wrong impression. Instead of “giant
strides forward”, u.s. submarines were mostly subject to an evolution. The P-boa ts and S-boats that were commissioned in the middle thirties were impress! ve compared to the 0′ s and R’s of WWI vintage. Two small submarines, the Marlin and Mackerel, were also built in the midthirties.
Older submariners who were in Washington in the middle thirties told of quite a debate on new submarine design and that the longlegged submarines barely won out. That was a
“giant stride forward” and without it our submarines could not have performed as they did
in WWII, until at least later in the War. Initially, patrols were of two month 1 s duration;
e.g. , Pearl to the Japanese Empire, one month on station, then return to Midway. On one of my patrols we “steamed” 14 thousands miles.
There were other differences between WWI and WWII U.S. submarines; some that we needed, but
failed to recognize. Had we known that we could get away with night surface attacks even before
we had radars, we would have appreciated some means to obtain range to the target other than
size of the target in binoculars. The same applied to getting a true bearing rather than
shouting relative bearing down the hatch to be converted in the conning tower.
Sonar was a sad story. Between the wars the British produced ASDIC (pinging). It was so
successful that the whole world believed that submarines were doomed. The U.S. tried to develop passive sonar. By the mid-30s, we had strings of microphones around the bows or destroyers and submarines to give target direction by binaural audition. It was not very successful — so passive sonar was abandoned. But in 19112, we needed the passive sonar capability that we got much later.
Compton-Hall, in his book, also felt that u.s. submarine commanding officers were not as well
grounded in tactics and periscope usage as their opposite numbers in the Royal Navy. I believe
that our submarine captains before WWII were well trained in attaining a favorable firing position
and in achieving hits with the practice torpedoes. The targets were zigzagging destroyers at speeds
greater than most of the ships we attacked in wartime. I agree with the author that during WWII
a PCO patrol was not considered by him to be enough training for a new skipper. Most PCOs
should also have spent many hours on the attack teacher. The Royal Navy’s excellent “Perisher”
course had some influence on the PCO school which was started at New London sometime in late 1941. But, then it was a second hat for the officer in charge of Submarine School. In the summer of
1943, however, I became the first boss of PCO school with no other duties.
The author says that when the U.S. got into WWII her submarine captains were overcautious -and
the admirals overconfident. Such conclusions were. not evident to me in the Pacific during early
1942. If any of the captains were very cautious, however you measure it, there were good reasons.
Before the war, submarines were used as distant scouts of the Fleet to sink some of the on-coming
enemy forces. Fleet exercises seemed to prove that submarines at periscope depth were certain to
be detected and destroyed by warships with ASDIC and by aircraft. It was believed they could spot
submarines easily at periscope depth. Neither was true but this had to be learned after the start of
WWII. Also submarine duty before WWII was not the best road to promotion. Officers qualified in
submarines were not allowed to wear their dolphins when not in submarine jobs. For example, as a
Naval Academy Nav Prof in 1937-39, I couldn’t wear my dolphins. Moreover, there was no submarine
flag officer billet in our Navy. How was the submarine voice heard?
Before World War II during the thirties, submarine officers on duty in Washington met from
time to time to discuss things relating to submarines. Each member then would go back to his
non-submarine job and try to sell what had been decided at each conference. It was at one such
conference that the long-legged big submarine won over the smaller boats. Members also appeared
before the Ships Characteristics Board, the General Board, etc. Great debts are owed to
those who saw to it that our submarines in WWII were appropriate to their tasks. The members of
those conferences were officers who had served in submarines but were unlikely to have a future
submarine billet. Still their interest in submarines helped to keep submarine matters on the right track. There were others who had never served in submarines but had been on desks dealing with submarine matters e.g., for torpedoes, personnel, etc. who also attended these submarine conferences. After WWII, the conferences were resumed. Attendees were, for the most part, WWII submarine captains. Of the some 100 submariners in Washington, only two had assignments which were limited to submarine matters. The flag officers who attended were not in submarine jobs. Only the great submarine esprit-de-corps helped carry the submarine force through the many years of being country cousins in the u.s. Navy.
There are many more items in Compton-Hall’s “book” that would be worthy of discussion but a
final one in the author’s last chapter should not be passed over. The author felt we should not
limit our submarine construction to what he called “Nuclear Monsters”. This seems to show
his lack of the full story from today’ s submariner’s point of view.
“The Underwater War 1939-45” has a thread running through it of the superb performance of
en lis ted personnel aboard submarines. In a far from comfortable environment our enlissted men
did keep the machinery and equipment in good working order. This performance was taken for
granted — even though without it we would have had chaos. Ultimate success was due as much to
the “stokers” aft as the torpedo-men forward and the “oilers” deserved a lot more credit than they
got for successful operations.
We have all heard repeatedly that personnel are our most valuable resource, though we don’t always
act like we believe it. Is there time today to act as if personnel are our most valuable resource? I hope so.
The comments· about this book which I made in Shipmate were certainly favorable, I would
strongly recommend the reading of that submarine record of WWII by Commander Compton-Hall .