Editor’s Note:This is a chapter from RADM Oliver’s new book. Rather than a review, which will follow in the next issue, this chapter is meant to give the reader a sample of the actual text.
Against the Tide is not a biography or a memoir. It instead discusses the interaction of great personalities and how leadership changed our history. The period is the decades after World War II, when the Soviet Union was an economic, military and emotional threat.
Admiral Rickover’s nuclear submarines were one of the major tools that Presidents successfully used in this fight.
To make these weapons work, Rickover had to overcome the Navy’s strong aversion to change. Specifically, he needed to eliminate the diesel officer submarine community (the same one popularly credited with winning the war just completed in the Pacific), and replace these heroes with young whippersnappers armed with slide rules.
But how was Rickover ever going to infuse his young engineers with the other essential facet of submarining –the bravery it takes to penetrate minefields, ice fields, and reattack under fire? This was the real challenge everyone knew Rickover faced. No one wanted to return to the days of yesteryear. It was not much of a secret that the Submarine Force had spent the first several years of World War II wallowing in ineffectiveness until the commanders without true steel in their hearts had been weeded out.
As will be recalled in Against the Tide, for a period in the fifties, the nuclear submarine program was excelling, the Air Force space program could not get a missile off the ground and the Army was tied up with enforcing desegregation in Selma, Alabama. By exception, Rickover and nuclear submarines became the National and International poster child of American success. The Admiral was on the cover of Time and Life magazines. For nearly three decades Rickover was one of the most easily recognized military personnel in the world, and goodness knows, he was never loath to give a friendly reporter a quote.
However,time marks even the hardest rock and, after the longest career in the history of the Navy, Rickover was finally forced to retire. Cruelly, he died before the Cold War was won. By that time, his numerous enemies were eager to bury his memory and unwilling to credit his achievements.
Rickover, an essentially private man, never did write an auto-biography and never “wasted his time” explaining. As a result, his unique management method has been largely ignored by the business world and generally dismissed (outside the nuclear submarine community). Like the neighborhood butcher in Rickover’s Chicago childhood, this book is an effort to put a thumb on the scale to made sure his good management techniques receive their proper recognition.
Planning for Success
More than ambition, more than ability, it is rules that limit contribution; rules are the lowest common denominator of human behavior. They are a substitute for rational through.
Although Rickover was an extraordinary manager and person-ally controlled submarine construction for nearly four decades, he was not an able Submarine Force representative in the Pentagon meetings that dealt with strategy and warfighting. Unlike most senior managers, Rickover accepted his personal limitations for the good of his cause. He would devise a remarkable solution.
Many maintain that a real leader can do it all—can manage anything. They are positive they can. Rickover knew this was incorrect. A real leader needs not only personality but also domain knowledge. Domains are often different. For example, someone who has never flown an airplane should not make rules for pilots.
While Rickover became uniquely qualified to build the world’s best submarines, he had never commanded one. Even more important, he failed the leadership sight test. He didn’t look like a leader, much less a military one.
Rickover was a slight man, not terribly athletic, and somewhat sensitive about that fact. He also tended to frequently use tools others found offensive. Rickover wasn’t terribly interested in polite persuasion. He didn’t generally engage unless he believed there was a right and wrong. And why in the world would anyone decide on the wrong solution? So why should he waste time on this conversation? One of Rickover’s favorite guidelines,often imparted immediately before he impatiently (and noisily) hung up the phone, was “Do what is right!”
Rickover also didn’t have the persona of a typical submarine warrior. He was an introvert with an unusually high-pitched voice.2This was not the picture the public had for the leader of nuclear submarines. They anticipated, as the movies depicted at the time, someone more like John Wayne.3Hyman G. Rickover was no John Wayne.
The diesel-submarine officers who exited World War II—the men who had used daring to overcome their platform’s clear weaknesses—had a swagger about them. The wakes behind these men were virtually awash in the testosterone elements of the day: poker, booze, women, and cigars.4These larger-than-life personalities were acceptable in the Navy because this behavior was popularly linked with legendary submariners. In contrast, Rickover never played poker, did not drink, did not smoke, and avoided any situation that might even imply unfaithfulness to Ruth Masters.
But Rickover well understood the importance of image. He knew his program needed the very best John Wayne Americans he could find. Thus, he searched the rolls for men who not only were mentally quick enough to absorb the nuclear-engineering discipline Rickover was developing but could also do what he could not—fill the public image of a submarine officer. He made an unspoken pact with these men. Rickover would teach them engineering and management and stand aside when they took (non engineering) chances at sea. Wilkinson was his first discovery.
Cdr. Eugene P. “Dennis” Wilkinson was living in San Diego when Rickover drove in from the Borrego Desert one afternoon. Wilkinson was a submariner’s submariner. He was smart and brave, was acknowledged as a warrior during World War II, and was not particularly interested in ever concealing his abilities under a barrel.It was already a matter of legend that in 1944 Wilkinson had been onboard the submarine USS DARTER when she torpedoed the Japanese cruiser Takao (a warship, not a merchant!). In escaping the counterattack, DARTER had inadvertently grounded herself on a reef in the Leyte Gulf. The muscular, handsome, six-foot-plus Dennis Wilkinson, USS DARTER’s engineer officer and strongest swimmer, dived around and under the ship in shark-infested waters, all alone, before determining that salvaging the boat was hopeless. That night Wilkinson successfully ferried a rescue line to a sister submarine. A Japanese destroyer arrived to find an empty submarine an hour after everyone had escaped via Wilkinson’s lifeline.
Wilkinson portrayed the event for history in the manner diesel submariners were expected to: “During our patrol in the DARTERI had a picture of my wife Janice mounted in my stateroom. As we were about to leave the ship, I ran back down, but I didn’t get my wife’s picture. I got the poker record book—in which I was the one the most ahead.”
This was precisely the type of individual Captain Rickover was seeking. I do not know how Rickover learned that Wilkinson was a deadly poker player (gambling was specifically prohibited by Navy regulations, but Wilkinson’s pasteboard dexterity was legendary),6but it was obvious from his broad chest that Wilkinson was a world-class athlete,7and his Silver Star and campaign ribbons were his bravery credentials. Wilkinson was an exceptional leader, and he looked like one.
Unlike others who lead organizations, Rickover did not resent Wilkinson (although Wilkinson and many other subsequent senior officers who gave their all to Rickover were always surprised—and probably hurt—that he did not ever become their friend). Comfortable with himself, Rickover did not require the usual emotional approbation as he went about the business of assessing what was necessary for his program’s success. This ability to evaluatea situation without worrying about how the assessment would affect his relationships helped make Rickover unusually effective as a manager.
In 1954 Wilkinson became the first Commanding Officer of USS NAUTILUS, the first nuclear-powered submarine. Seven years later, when the first nuclear-powered surface ship was commissioned, Wilkinson was assigned as the initial Commanding Officer of USS LONG BEACH(CGN-9). He would subsequently be placed in charge of the entire Submarine Force, and in retirement, after the disaster at Three Mile Island in 1979, Wilkinson would, as a civilian, become the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations in order to bring the principles of nuclear navy rigor to the civilian nuclear industry.
Since Rickover wore a civilian suit even after he had been promoted to admiral, Wilkinson was the first uniformed admiral I ever met. Wilkinson came on board USS NAUTILUS at 4:00 one morning in 1969 to present me with the Brass Oak Leaves for my collar insignia the day I was approved for promotion to lieutenant commander. He and I subsequently had the normal occasional professional touches until the late eighties. By then Wilkinson had retired to California, and I was the rear admiral in San Diego in charge of the fast-attack submarines on the West Coast. The Cold War was ongoing, and the Pacific Ocean had recently received the first of a completely new class of submarines, the 688 class, to add to our older 594s and 637s.
In honor of his seventieth birthday, I invited Admiral Wilkinson to go to sea for a few days to experience the new undersea capabilities he had been so instrumental in getting funded. Wilkinson accepted. It was to be a revealing visit.
After the admiral had been “piped aboard,” he and I walked through the ship. Dozens of sailors wished to meet the legend. He graciously spoke to each one and listened as they proudly bragged about their new equipment. During the ninety minutes the ship was clearing San Diego Harbor and preparing to dive, we walked the football-field-plus-long ship, passing literally thousands of valves and cables as we did.
Unlike previous classes of submarines, the 688-class, for ease of inspection and cleaning, did not have any covering over the areas in which the ship’s runs of pipes and valves and cables were laid. As one consequence, the eight-to-eleven-digit aluminum tags identifying each of the hundreds of electrical cables were visible from the narrow passageways by which sailors moved fore and aft.
Admiral Wilkinson’s initial social duties accomplished, the two of us retreated to the wardroom while the ship’s crew went about the serious business of getting the ship underwater and properly compensated (submerged and balanced fore and aft, accomplished by taking i nor pumping out ballast water until the weight of the ship and the water displaced were the same). The wardroom was relatively small, intended to seat eight to ten officers snugly for meals, but for the moment there were only the two of us.
Admiral Wilkinson settled back on one of the Naugahyde-covered benches, warming his hands with a mug of coffee. He was still a lean man, about six feet two or three, four or five inches taller than the comfortable height in a submarine. As a result, he bent slightly forward at the shoulders. His eyes compensated for this odd posture. They were always focused on his listener.
His first words to me were a challenge: “Would you like to know the numbers on each of the cables we passed in the order we passed them or in reverse?”
For a long moment I thought he was kidding. He was not. He gave me a couple of eleven-digit numbers. I wrote them down and then went out in the passageway and checked. He was absolutely accurate. I knew he was smart; I had not realized he was also a number savant. I decided not to play poker with him. Instead, I pulled out the cribbage board, dealt us each six cards, and asked him how he had begun in nuclear power. The story he told revealed a lot about Rickover’s deviously effective determination.
When he first met Rickover, it was 1947. Wilkinson was a lieutenant commander serving as the executive officer on the first missile-firing submarine, USS CUSK(SSG-348).8World War II was over, and Wilkinson and his wife, Janice, were living in San Diego, where they had both grown up.
Whenever he had free time, Wilkinson would drive up to the University of California–Los Angeles (it was possible to get from San Diego to LA and back in much less than a fortnight in those days) to further his personal study in the mysterious new field of nuclear physics (he had completed everything for his PhD except his dissertation). As he spoke to Rickover at that initial meeting, it became obvious that the captain had screened every naval officer’s record before he had driven across country to interview Lieutenant Commander Wilkinson.
Wilkinson told me he had immediately agreed to be a part of the nuclear-power program, and a short time later he and Janice joined Rickover’s small team in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where Wilkinson began work on the design of a core for a submarine reactor.
Rickover was in the habit of taking his own people to meet with experts in the burgeoning nuclear field, and some months after Wilkinson had reported to Oak Ridge, the two of them headed north. Rickover was scheduled to meet Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago. At that time Fermi was the best-known nuclear physicist in America. He had won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938 and on 2 December 1942 had established the first sustainable nuclear chain reaction in the world in the uranium pile he had built on the rackets court under Alonzo Stagg Field, home of the Chicago Maroons football team.
When Rickover and Wilkinson arrived, Fermi was busy with his slide rule, calculating the flux and buckling numbers basic to the new reactor he proposed to build. Rickover and the young Wilkinson sat across from him at his desk. As Rickover and Fermi talked, Wilkinson studied a couple of pages of calculations he could see scattered across the blotter. They were upside down but legible.
After fifteen minutes Wilkinson rose and wordlessly went to one of the chalkboards that surrounded the room. There he began writing from the point he believed Fermi had left safe theoretical ground, through the error he posited in Fermi’s calculations to calculations Wilkinson thought led to the correct path. Fermi, who had swiveled in his chair to watch the chalk-board work, stopped speaking to Rickover. He instead pulled his papers over to reinspect his work as he followed Wilkinson’s white numbers with increasing interest.
After ten minutes he slowly nodded his agreement. “Maybe.”
An hour later Fermi, slide rule in hand, was standing at the board with Wilkinson, saying, “Right,” and returning to his desk occasionally to erase some numbers on his papers and scribble in new ones. He was obviously impatient for the Navy men to leave so he could rethink his buckling problem in private. Wilkinson recalled that Rickover was equally ready to conclude the discussion.
As soon as they left Fermi’s office, Rickover made a telephone call from a pay phone and then began searching for a Salvation Army second-hand store. When they found one, he purchased a light brown suit, deliberately two sizes too large, for his companion. The following morning it was reveille at dawn for both of them so that they could make the remaining ten-hour drive to downtown Washington. Rickover was impatient. The previous day’s telephone call had been to the chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Senator Brien McMahon from Connecticut.
After World War II, Congress had established the Atomic Energy Commission (which would subsequently become the Department of Energy in 1970) as the successor to the Manhattan Project. The Atomic Energy Commission (commonly abbreviated AEC) was fully responsible for the development of atomic energy for the United States. Captain Rickover had already been designated to lead the Navy portion of the AEC nuclear program.
During the Fermi discussion, Rickover had conceived an idea that would prove critically important to the history of nuclear power in the Navy.
Since the AEC was responsible for the development of atomic energy, the commission’s budget funded designing and developing the reactors for the Navy’s submarines and surface ships. The AEC budget also bought the reactor cores for these ships. The Navy and Department of Defense funded everything else involved in the construction and maintenance of submarines and surface ships.
This arrangement—having two different government agencies or departments in control of two essential pieces of the same program—may seem feasible in theory but is terrible in practice. As the Good Book must somewhere say, having two government agencies in charge of one project was, and ever shall be, an invitation to pass “Go” and proceed directly to hell.
Unfortunately, it was not an easy problem to fix. There was absolutely no chance that either organization would yield any power. Power equals control of dollars, and no one in Washington gives up control of money. Unless one person was in charge (and making the necessary trade-offs and accommodations among capabilities, schedule, and time), there was practically no chance the two parts of the ship would be delivered on the same schedule. This equates to planning for automatic cost overruns.
While Rickover and Wilkinson were speeding across Ohio and Pennsylvania, the AEC was mulling over whom it would appoint to head its naval section. On the one hand, it could be a friend of Rickover’s or, more likely, a retired naval officer (who, given the politics of the Navy,would not be Rickover’s friend). Given the current prominence of Enrico Fermi, it could well be one of the Nobel Prize winner’s disciples. If it were the latter, the mantle would probably fall to Dr. Walter H. Zinn, who had recently been assigned the directorship at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, the U.S. center for reactor development. Dr. Zinn was not overly fond of Rickover and definitely not in favor of aggressively pursuing a nuclear submarine until his laboratory had several more years to evaluate the options.
Whoever was assigned, it would still be an invitation to the devil to dance, and Rickover knew that even if he could success-fully build and launch USS NAUTILUS, no one, not even the President of the United States, had the power to make two overlapping government agencies work together. It is difficult to manage one agency and impossible to coordinate two. The costs and frustration of a nuclear armada would inevitably sky-rocket out of control—and Rickover’s vision of a nuclear-submarine fleet would be sunk before it floated.
Vice Admiral Wilkinson told me that they parked on Capitol Hill and walked to McMahon’s Senate office. Rickover frequently did not share either strategy or tactics with his subordinates, and this time the only direction Rickover gave Lieutenant Commander Wilkinson was to sit in his oversized brown suit—which must have literally hung on his tall, gaunt frame—on the couch as far away as possible from the senator’s desk. Of course, no office in Congress, even for an important committee chairman, is very large, and the chairman and Captain Rickover’s conversation was easily overheard.
“Rick,” said the senator, shaking his head in disagreement, “I and the members are more than a little inclined toward a civilian appointee. I think that is where we must go.”
“Mr. Chairman, I truly respect what you and your committee are doing for our country, but I know that would be a mistake.” Rickover paused to let foreboding creep into his voice, and the poker player bones in Wilkinson thoroughly approved of the performance. “And I saw something yesterday that convinced me I should bring this directly to your notice.”
Rickover had lowered his voice with the last few words, and Wilkinson watched the senator lean attentively forward. “Mr. Chairman, I have been traveling around the country, and I have assembled the very best team of Americans to work on nuclear power. There is nothing like them in the civilian world.”
Rickover inched his heavy chair closer to the senator’s desk. “You know I would never say something bad about someone, but that fellow over there [gesturing dismissively with his thumb back at Wilkinson] and I were talking to Enrico yesterday in Chicago, and something happened to make me come straight to see you.”
Wilkinson laughed at the memory of that day years ago, took a sip of his coffee, and spread his large hands out on the wardroom table. He continued his story:
“The senator looked over at me, sized up that ugly oversized brown suit plus the fact that I was three or four weeks overdue for a haircut, and his lips came together tighter than a man eating green persimmons.
“Rickover had been watching the senator’s face just as I had, and when he saw the expression he had been expecting, the Old Man closed for the kill. First, he lowered his voice so that I could just barely hear him, and I was only six feet away.”
“Senator,” said the captain, “I have to tell you, that man back there is the dumbest member of my Navy team, and he is smarter than Enrico Fermi.”Wilkinson chuckled, “I could see the disbelief spread on the chairman’s face.”
As Rickover leaned across the desk and used his elbow to inch the senator’s telephone closer to his hand, he consciously pitched his normally high voice lower. “This is important, Senator. Call Enrico and ask him. That officer back there’s name is Wilkinson. Ask Fermi if Wilkinson is smarter than him. I am telling you he is.”
The chairman looked at Rickover for a second, never glancing at the young Wilkinson, and then resolutely dialed Fermi. Rickover and Wilkinson could only hear the senator’s side of the conversation.
“Fermi, Rickover is here in my office, and he says that some young officer named Wilkinson on his team is even smarter than you. I can’t believe that.” There was a long pause while the congressman listened to the Nobel Prize winner renowned for his personal modesty. Finally the chairman cradled the telephone, cast one more doubting look at the tall man in the brown suit on the sofa, and spoke quietly to Rickover. “Enrico says you are correct: Wilkinson is smarter than he is.”
Even when he was being played, the senator was no one’s fool. His voice contained his suspicion. “What do you propose?”
Rickover pulled from his inside coat pocket the two-page draft joint committee legislation he had worked on while Wilkinson had driven that morning. “To maximize the safety of nuclear power in the United States, I think your committee should establish my Navy team in charge of the aspects of the Atomic Energy Commission that affect the Navy.”
The chairman reached for the papers, slightly shaking his head, his lips again pursed. “I don’t see how we could have a Navy team in the Atomic Energy Commission. . . . Perhaps we should just appoint you as the head of that particular portion of the atomic energy team.”
Rickover, frowning, let the papers slide from his grasp into the chairman’s hand. From his long hours at the poker table, Wilkinson realized his boss’s frown was as insincere as the secondhand brown suit he was wearing. “I thought you might have that concern, Mr. Chairman, so I made your suggestion the preferred option.”
As our new 688-class submarine finally broke free from surface tension, nosed down, and slowed its rolling, the steward came in to fill our coffee mugs. In another few minutes, many of the ship’s officers would arrive, eager to meet Vice Admiral Wilkinson, the first nuclear commanding officer in the U.S. Navy. He would spend each waking moment over the next few days talking to them about his role in building a nuclear navy.
Before the ship’s commanding officer, still wearing his brown sweater from the bridge, entered the wardroom, Wilkinson quietly finished his story: “Two weeks later Congress established Rickover as the director of naval nuclear energy in the Atomic Energy Commission, where he has remained until this day.
“No one ever figured out how he did it.” Wilkinson grinned, and we both tipped our coffee cups in silent homage to Rickover’s foresight and willingness to take risks to achieve his vision.
In this chapter I maintain that Rickover could anticipate the future. I also make the point that Rickover would do whatever was necessary to succeed, including picking individuals very different from him personally but who could better represent nuclear submarines (and his principles) in the rough push and shove of the operational side of the Navy.
Have you ever met anyone who could look far enough ahead to plan for obstacles not yet visible? Is this unusual and extraordinary ability to see the future perhaps one of the discriminating characteristics some unconsciously consider when they seek to differentiate between management and leadership?
In the oral histories of the senior nuclear submariners of the Rickover era, many imply that they never felt close to Admiral Rickover. Recognizing that familiarity is a tool commonly used to bind managers together, why did Rickover not use this device? Is familiarity a useful tool for managers? Was it possible for Rickover, given his own personality? Can a manager be close to his subordinates and still maintain his objectivity?