- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2002

RICKOVER: THE STRUGGLE
FOR EXCELLENCE
By Francis Duncan
U.S. Naval Institute Press, $37.50 Cloth, 364 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY PHILIP GOLD

Benjamin Disraeli once remarked that there are two ways to dominate men. You can surpass their accomplishments or you can despise them.
Hyman G. Rickover spent a lifetime doing both. His accomplishments gave the United States Navy its modern submarine fleet and its nuclear powered aircraft carriers. His scorn for the accomplishments of others his imperious egocentricity and oft-expressed contempt for the "traditional" Navy also brought him dominance. And hate.
Was it worth it? Francis Duncan, a historian for the old Atomic Energy Commission and an associate of Rickover's for decades, believes so. His emphasis in his meticulous "Rickover: The Struggle For Excellence" is on the surpassing technological excellence that Rickover both demanded of and bestowed on the nuclear submarine program. He does not deny Rickover's disdain for lesser mortals and his abrasive, driven manner: How could he? Still, this is semi-sanitized history. Mr. Duncan simply notes them as givens.
Hyman Rickover was born in Russian Poland in 1900. His father preceded the family to America; Hyman arrived in 1906. His childhood foretells his relationship with the Navy: in it but not really of it. According to Mr. Duncan, Rickover diligently helped his impoverished family, but early on went his own way emotionally and intellectually. He had no problem lying about his age or forging his mother's signature, when it suited his needs. He maintained loyal contact with his parents throughout their lives, even though they vehemently opposed his marriage outside the Jewish faith (he never visited them with his wife or son) and he accepted that their world had become utterly irrelevant to his.
Rickover nurtured no warrior fantasies in 1918 when he entered the Naval Academy. He had gotten the appointment by chance; he'd taken it for the free education. Though he worked himself fiercely, his grades were far from distinguished. As for the anti-Semitism that corroded his Annapolis experience: Mr. Duncan claims, a bit too disingenuously, that it was no worse than anywhere else in America. Nonsense. The old officer caste (in all the services) knew whom and how to hate. Of course, so few Jews contemplated military careers back then that Rickover must have seemed more a curiosity than a minority.
And for nearly 30 years, he remained pretty much that: diligent but aggravating, dependable but infuriating, expert but not fated for much of anything. The year 1945 found him a surplus captain. No combat experience, only one rather pathetic command at sea (a minesweeper), highly competent but hardly irreplaceable.
Still during those years, he'd developed a style (many called it other names) that was about to mesh wondrously with the needs of the postwar Navy and nation. Rickover had learned to treat any assignment as though he "owned it." This meant more than mere bureaucratic self-protection. It required a total devotion to the task at hand, reified through hard work and the laborious acquisition of superior expertise. So long as he knew more than anyone else, he'd be safe. He also developed a profound aversion to good-old-boy forms of trust. "He would never," writes Mr. Duncan, "be at the mercy of subordinates." He demanded that everyone take responsibility for their jobs, but interpreted responsibility to mean Doing It His Way.
He was, in short, both an outsider and a control freak. Rickover's career in nuclear propulsion began in 1946, when the Navy assigned him to the Oak Ridge atomic facility, mostly to see what the Army was up to.
Rickover quickly grasped that nuclear power could turn the submarine, hitherto a surface craft capable of limited underwater operations, into a genuine submersible. The Navy yawned. Rickover, scornful, set to work creating a universe in his own image.
The rest is legend. He made himself indispensable by mastering the discipline. He protected his turf by having the Navy program co-located within the Atomic Energy Commission, and by cultivating influential politicians. He rammed his own promotions and active duty extensions down the Navy's throat. He personally selected every officer who entered the program. He designed generations of submarines. He forced the Navy to rethink its entire educational system. He was untouchable (although not undefeatable) until the latter 1970s, when age, the passing of his supporters, the institutionalization of his program, a series of contracting and personal scandals, and hate caught up. By 1982, he had admirers but not defenders. It was over.
Since then, Rickover critics have concentrated less on his personality than on his legacy. Yes, he built the submarine force, but his methods, they claim, produced automata, not thinking officers. Yes, the Navy's a high-tech place, but his obsession with technology withered the Navy's values of leadership and tradition. He was a necessary man. He left a great gift. But he made the institutional cost higher than it need have been.
Perhaps. But it might also be said that Hyman Rickover gave the Navy more than the Navy gave him. And to give more than you receive is not a bad legacy. For anyone.

Philip Gold is senior fellow in national security studies at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.



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