Admiral Hyman Rickover: a vintage television interview and some thoughts

Interview from 1984 by Diane Sawyer with Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, from 60 Minutes

Admiral Rickover probably did more for both the American nuclear industry and the American military establishment in terms of the promotion of key, innovative, nuclear technologies in the early Cold War years than any other single person in history. Certainly, his legacy is vast—as was his actual career: even now, decades after his death in the mid-1980s, he remains the longest-serving officer on active duty in the history of the US Navy. Rickover also is one of the highest-ranking officers in American military history to have spent the majority of his career—and his flag command—in a purely technical capacity. Only General Bernard Schriever (USAF Systems Command commanding officer and "father of the missile program") would qualify as another engineer who rose to the highest levels while remaining in the thick of technological programs and did so while crafting the very future of essential American military war-fighting technologies. Indeed, Admiral Rickover's nuclear-powered subs and General Schriever's ICBMs provided the vanguard of our nuclear capacity during the latter Cold War decades. 

As the interview above will make clear—please watch it, it's seventeen minutes very well spent—Admiral Rickover was not always the easiest fellow to get along with and had very certain—and often quite odd—views on how to get things done. He cut a broad wake through the waters of the US Navy and the turbulence of that wake still can be felt at Naval Reactors and elsewhere. Indeed, Naval Reactors—a major command Rickover created and helmed for over three decades—is now a position that requires a full four-star admiral as its commanding officer and has more direct oversight in that position than any other position or command I know of across the entire US military. Rickover knew from the onset of his interest in nuclear that it would be a tough sale to many in the Navy brass and in Congress, but he was determined that nuclear, as a mechanism of on-board power for ships and submarines, was unmatched in promise and utility. He also knew that many who opposed nuclear feared it as they worried either a catastrophic accident or intentional act of terrorism could upend naval nuclear assets in a most horrible manner. To counter this, Rickover ensured that every aspect of Naval Reactors ran as well as possible and even hand-selected and personally interviewed every officer who desired to work for Naval Reactors. As if Naval Reactors was the engine room of a ship where Rickover was the Chief Engineer, the admiral made certain he knew each of the men who served under him and that they knew inside and out every aspect of the technology they worked with and did their utmost to produce the highest level of safety possible. It worked. While the Soviet navy suffered a number of embarrassing accidents with its nuclear subs, the US Navy during the Cold War suffered none, excepting the losses of the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion. Even then, these horrible losses were not due to nuclear accidents or reactor-associated issues as far as is known. The Soviet record all the way around is far less impressive on nuclear sub safety. Admiral Rickover knew that if the safety or surety of even one sub on even one single day was called into question—if one engineer for one hour was sloppy—and the public knew of it, his entire enterprise could grind to a halt. Long before Three Mile Island, Rickover knew that the American public and their elected officials could turn like angry dogs on nuclear in a heartbeat, and he was going to make sure that didn't happen on his watch. 

Was he an effective leader? Rickover was loved by the Congressmen he courted for support of his programs, but disliked by many in both the Navy and contractor circles. He was stubborn, quick to judge, and without pity for those who were lazy or even simply less-intelligent than he was himself, and he would take to task a senior officer or leading contractor as quickly as a green ensign, too. There are plenty of horror stories about him and even in the interview above you seem some of his personality come out in how held an utter contempt for Navy procedures and even chides Diane Sawyer for making a (rather fair and expected) joke in a question about whether he dated girls at all as a studious Naval Academy midshipman. Yet whatever quirks of his personality, he got stuff done. America's first nuclear sub, the USS Nautilus, was built in a breath-taking five years from concept to launch. Rickover and his men, maybe more than any politician or anyone else, sent a tangible message to the USSR that America would be the leader in the next generation of naval power and we would use nuclear power to move our most-essential ships and subs across the world's oceans to protect our nation. What he accomplished—not only in the onset of nuclear propulsion, but in the sustained performance thereof and the advent of nuclear power generation for peaceful use at Shippingport—is simply staggering. Rickover also cast the die for how military technological program management would be run in the future: Our massive modern aircraft carrier and fighter and bomber aircraft programs today are the direct results of the work of men active in the 1960s like Rickover and Lockheed visionary Kelly Johnson. 

Some who read this may well have served under Rickover at Naval Reactors. Some may have known him otherwise. In any case, he's a legend, and I'll be writing on this blog more about him in coming weeks, but for now, that video is really worth watching.