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Act as if you were going to live forever and cast your plans way a etul. You must feel responsible without time limitations, and the considerations of whether you may or may not be around to see the results should never enter your thoughts.

H.G. Rickover

Admiral  Rickover  had  always  had  a  strong  interest  in history. From early youth he had liked to read history, and he always saw and evaluated important events in a broad historical context. In this he was competently aided and encouraged by his first wife, Ruth. When he first began to realize the relevance of the weakness in the American educa-tional system to the problems he encountered in training people for nuclear power, Ruth helped him with research for the books on education he wrote and published.

As each new submarine put to sea for the first time, Rickover wrote a letter while aboard, telling of the ship and her place in the growing nuclear fleet. This too ultimately grew into a historical project. He described that development as follows:

Ever since the first nuclear submarine the USS NAUTILUS– went to sea in January 1955, I have been responsible for directing the initial sea trials of each of our nuclear ships so as to make sure that their nuclear propul-sion plants functioned properly and that the officers and men had been well trained. Because many members of Congress had given strong support in getting the NAUTILUS built, I decided that it would be no more than proper for me to send each of them a letter reporting what the ship had done. I remember writing some 80 /etten in long-hand during that frrst voyage. Soon I expanded the list of recipients to include all members of Congress and appropriate officials in the executive branch.

When it came time to test our first Polaris submarine, the USS GEORGE WASHINGTON in 1960, I thought it would be appropriate to include in my letter a brief biogra-phy of the man for whom the ship was named, and I continued this practice for each of the 40 Polaris subma-rines which followed. These letters were well received, and most of them were printed in the Conrressional Record. Frequently I was urged to publish them in book form. This agreed to do and Congress, in 1968, passed a resolution authorizing the printing of this book.

The book he was referring to was a beautifully bound volume called Eminent Americans: Namesakes of the Polaris Submarine Fleet, published by the Congress as House Docu-ment no. 92-345 but copyrighted by Admiral Rickover.

It bad been traditional to name submarines after fish and other undersea life, but with the missile ships, great capital ships displacing over nine thousand tons – larger than many cruisers each carrying sixteen nuclear-tipped long-range missiles, it was decided to name them after well-known figures in American history. The distinguished patriots chosen for this purpose were remarkably diverse, ranging from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry to Daniel Boone, Will Rogers, Simon Bolivar, George Washington Carver, Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief, and Kamebameba, the Hawaiian king. Rickover noted in his preface to the book, “‘The careers of the men for whom the Polaris submarines are named span the full range of American history from the time of the Revolution to the present century. The preparation of these essays therefore required me to explore many aspects of our national history.”

He soon found that he had undertaken quite a chore: “Because these letters had been written aboard ship, they had been necessarily limited to two or three pages. For the purposes of a book, I wanted to expand the original brief sketches of these figures into more complete essays. During the past 4 years I have devoted virtually all of my spare time to this task. Had it not been for the devoted efforts of my dear wife, who did most of the research for these essays, I could not possibly have completed this task.”

Rickover described his long-term fascination with history and added, “‘This broader interest in the history of the United States led me to the conclusion that I should try to reflect in these biographical essays some of those historical themes which seem to me to have particular relevance for the kinds of problems our Nation faces today… I therefore decided to use the careers of the men for whom the Polaris submarines were named as the focus for essays which would be broad enough to include some of the significant events which occurred during their lifetimes.”

The result was a unique history text, both authentic and readable, which was popular among a wide variety of readers. Sadly, Ruth Rickover died just before the book was completed, and the Admiral dedicated it to her, as “at once the most human and intelligent person I ever knew, the greatest influence on my life and work.” And he closed his dedication with words of Tibullus, leaving the translation as an exercise for the reader: “Tu mihi curarum requies, tu nocte vel atra lumen, et in solis tu mihi turba locis” (You are my refuge from care, my light in darkest night, and in my loneliness a place of activity”).

His wife’s death was a severe blow to the Admiral. Although he always kept his personal feelings to himself, we could not help but feel his pain. So we were surprised but pleased when, some years later, he married Eleonore Bednowicz, a Commander in the Navy Nurse Corps since 1954. She had taken care of the Admiral when he was in the hospital with his first heart attack in 1961, and he had kept in touch with her all through the subsequent years.

Rickover’s final foray into historical publishing was quite a different effort. Partly as a result of the time he spent in Panama and in the Philippines, he came to look at the Spanish-American War as a turning point in American history. So in 1974 he was quite impressed with a story by John M. Taylor in the Washin~ton Star-News entitled “Returning to the Riddle of the Explosion that Sunk the MAINE. Taylor noted that the question of whether the MAINE was sunk by an enemy mine or by an accidental explosion had never been settled satisfactorily, although the battle cry “Remember the MAINE!” had fanned the lust for war on the premise that the Spanish were in fact the cause of the tragedy that had cost 266 lives. That much was not new. But Taylor noted that an atmosphere of rushing to a predetermined verdict seemed to prevail throughout the Navy’s investigations of the matter, and he reported that although the chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Steam Engineering had said that the cause of the disaster was an explosion in one of the ship’s ammunition magazines, he was not asked to testify despite his official position of expertise and responsibility within the Navy.

These points intrigued Rickover. He believed that modem knowledge and analytical techniques concerning explosions and structures might be able to shed some light on the nature of the explosion, and a reexamination of how the Court of Inquiry was selected and how it carried out its business might also be illuminating.

He carried out his investigation with characteristic thorough-ness. First, he determined to work with the Navy’s Director of Naval History, who made available to him historians and archival material, and who published the report of his investiga-tion in hard cover, with an endorsement in the foreword: “In this work, Admiral H. G. Rickover makes a unique contribution by studying the loss of the MAINE in the light of modem technical knowledge… The result is this volume which presents significant new insights in an important event in American history.” Rickover also obtained material from the Spanish, British, and French naval archives, through their respective naval attach6;. For a broader view of the picture, he brought in the President of the Naval War College and a professor of international law. He then commissioned a special study by explosives and structures experts from the Naval Surface Weapons Center and the Naval Ship Research and Develop-ment Center, who examined reports, photographs, and drawings from the Court of Inquiry of 1898 and the Board of Inspection investigation of 1911. The report of this technical study was included as an appendix to Admiral Rickover’s book. He even brought in the Curator of the Division of Naval History at the Smithsonian Institution, an expert on mines and mining techniques of the Spanish-American War period. He then had the book reviewed prior to publication by a number of indepen-dent historians and technical specialists.

Rickover’s investigation and report present persuasive arguments that there was no evidence to support the conclusion that a mine had destroyed the MAINE and that there was considerable evidence pointing to, although not proving beyond doubt, that an internal explosion was the cause. The type of bituminous coal carried on ships at the time was often the source of fires resulting from spontaneous combustion. On the MAINE, only a single thin metal wall separated some of the coal bunkers from munitions magazines, and this was an invitation to an explosion sooner or later. The lesson for us, Rickover concluded, is that “we can no longer approach technical problems with the casualness and confidence held by Americans in 1898. The MAINE should impress us that technical problems must be examined by competent and qualified people; and that the results of their investigation must be fully and fairly presented to their fellow citizens.”

He closed with the following somber warning, even more relevant today that when it was written in 1976:

With the vastness of our government and the difficulty of controlling it, we must make sure that those in ‘high places’ do not, without most careful consideration of the consequences, exert our prestige and might. Such uses of our power may result in serious international actions at great cost in lives and money injurious to the interests and standing of the United States.

As was the case when he published his views on education, Rickover’s words were viewed condescendingly by some of the professionals in the field. The Naval War College Review ran such a review, bewailing attempts by amateur historians to add anything to the field. Rickover responded simply:

I could approach the problem technically, and this I did. I did not ‘avail’ myself of the ‘opportunity’ to make a full historical study of the intetplay of administrative, politica~ persona~ human, and technological factors in the loss of the battleship since this was not my intention and, further, there were limitations of time and professional qualifications in these areas. Nor did I write a psycho-history a morasr into which historians too often descend. Dr. Comas criticizes me for restricting myselfto areas of my knowledge and experience. I would have criticized myself if I had gone beyond them.

Rickover then went on to note that a learned journal “is no better than its reviews,” and “there are several publications already covering the same fields … at no expense to the govern-ment.” He therefore suggested that “in these days, when the government is attempting to reduce paperwork, do away with superfluous employees, and save money, eliminating the Review would be a noteworthy, precedent-setting action by the War College.”

Eminent Americans did not add any original material to scholars’ historical data base, but it was good, readable history, and Rickover hoped it would interest and inspire young people and their teachers. He was disappointed that it did not receive the attention he had anticipated. The MAINE, on the other hand, was — and is — a real contribution to a hundred-year-old historical controversy. It continues to be cited in various historical works. This could not have happened if the Admiral had not tackled its writing in the same exhaustive way he undertook all of his technical projects – a truly novel procedure for the field.

[Theodore Rockwell is an engineer-scientist with 45 years in nuclear power development, starting as a Process Improvement Engineer at the war-time atomic project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. For 15 years he reported to Admiral Hyman Rickover, the last 10 as Technical Director of the national program to develop nuclear power for naval propulsion and to build the world’s {lTSt civilian nuclear power plant. With Robert Panoff and Harry Mandi~ he founded the respected engineering finn MPR Associates in 1964. He has medals and citations from several branches of the Government, and is laJOWI1 for numerous patents, books and articles, including one entitled “Grit and Stee~” with the first stroboflash pictures of fighting cocks in action.]

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