Admiral Hyman Rickover, born Chaim Rickover, was a Polish Jew who became one of the United States’ most prized Navy men. At the time of his death, the admiral had served as an officer for 63 years, longer than any other naval officer in American history at the time.
In his 1986 obituary, the New York Times memorialized Rickover as a controversial but staunch officer: “He attacked Naval bureaucracy, ignored red tape, lacerated those he considered stupid, bullied subordinates and assailed the country's educational system. And he achieved, in the production of the nuclear-powered submarine in the early 1950's, what a former Secretary of the Navy, Dan Kimball, called ‘the most important piece of development work in the history of the Navy.’”
Rickover was born in Makow Mazowiecki in Poland; his family fled after the Russian pogroms during the 1905 Revolution, which killed over 3,000 Jews. Rickover, his mother, and sister Faygele traveled to New York City in March 1906, joining Rickover’s father, who had been establishing himself there for several years. Decades later, the remaining Jewish communities where Rickover’s family had lived were decimated during the Holocaust. Rickover’s family lived at first on the east side of Manhattan, but then moved to Chicago, where Rickover’s father worked as a tailor.
Rickover worked at Western Union delivering telegrams while he was in high school, and became acquainted with US Congressman Adolph J. Sabath, a Czech Jewish immigrant who nominated Rickover to the Naval Academy. “He got an appointment to the United States Naval Academy not so much because he loved the sea as because the education was free and his family could not afford tuition,” according to the New York Times. Rickover worked on the USS Nevada battleship before earning his graduate degree in electrical engineering a few years later at the Naval Postgraduate School, along with further study at Columbia University. He met his wife, Ruth D. Masters, a Christian, while studying at Columbia. Shortly after Rickover married Ruth, he decided to become an Episcopalian.
After World War II, Rickover became convinced the Navy needed nuclear-powered ships to further America's security. “He began formulating these ideas after he was assigned in 1946 to study atomic energy in Oak Ridge, Tenn., a site of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb in World War II,” according to the New York Times. “In 1949 he accomplished what became a classic example of maneuvering against red tape. The Atomic Energy Commission was persuaded to create a Reactor Development Division and within it a Naval Reactors Branch. To head the branch it came up with Captain Rickover.”
“Wearing both hats, the captain sometimes wrote letters to himself asking for certain things; he would then answer the letters in the affirmative. Thus there was virtually always agreement between the Navy and the Atomic Energy Commission.”
The Secretary of the Navy in the 1980s, John F. Lehman Jr., who ordered Admiral Rickover to retire against his wishes in 1982, said in 1986 that Rickover “made a contribution in bringing the concept of nuclear power from a mere idea to the reality of more than 150 naval ships today steaming under nuclear power,” according to the New York Times.
“The idea of the nuclear-powered submarine did not originate with Admiral Rickover, who was an engineer and not a scientist. But he was responsible for the design and production of the world's first nuclear-powered engines and the development of the Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-propelled submarine," the New York Times also noted.
Rickover also established the first large-scale all-civilian atomic power plant in Pennsylvania, which supplies power to Pittsburgh.
One reporter at the Christian Science Monitor wrote in 1957 that Rickover was one of the most “particularly significant” men of the time. The reporter had attended an energy conference in Washington DC during which Rickover had given a speech.
“Admiral Rickover is the Navy’s top man in nuclear propulsion; and his speech referred to is as full of startling, provocative, and significant observations as any your correspondent can remember coming across in years,” the reporter wrote.
While an official version of the speech is not available, the reporter summarized Rickover’s speech to American readers across the country. Rickover’s comments represent a startling look at energy sustainability at a time when Americans were first becoming conscious of the challenges that the world would face, should the country continue at its pace.
“This is what might be called the fossil fuel age,” the reporter wrote, summarizing Rickover’s speech about the future of energy. “Coal, oil, and natural gas supply 93 percent of the world’s energy. Water power accounts for only 1 percent. Labor of men and domestic animals accounts for 6 percent. This is in startling contrast to a century ago when fossil fuels supplied only 5 percent of the world’s energy, and men and animals 94 percent. Five-sixths of all the coal, oil, and gas ever consumed by man has been burned up in the last 55 years. The rate at which fossil fuels are being consumed is breathtaking. All coal, oil, natural gas used before 1900 would not last five years at today’s rate of consumption.”
“It may well be that it was man’s unwillingness to depend on slave labor for energy needs that turned the minds of medieval Europeans to search for alternate sources of energy, thus sparking the power revolution of the Middle Ages which paved the way for the industrial revolution of the 19th century. When slavery disappeared in the West, engineering advanced. When a low-energy society comes in contact with a high-energy society, the advantage always lies with the latter. Europe not only achieved standards of living vastly higher than those elsewhere but did so while its population was growing at rates far surpassing those of other peoples.”
“Now what of the future of fossil fuels? It is an unpleasant fact that according to our best estimates total fossil fuel reserves (recoverable at not over twice today’s unit cost) are likely to run out at some time between 2000 and 2050 AD. Oil and natural gas will disappear first; coal last. Nuclear fuels would seem to be the answer. But they have their drawbacks. They can't be used in small machines, such as cars, trucks, buses, tractors. We must remember that the oil we use in the United States in one year took nature 14,000,000 years to create.”
“Barring atomic war or unexpected changes in the population curve we can count on an increase in world population from 2,500,000,000 today to 4,000,000,000 by the year 2000. It is an awesome thing to contemplate a graph of world population from prehistoric times to the year 2000 AD, for 99 percent of that time it stretches almost level. In the 8,000 years from the beginning of history to 2000 AD world population will have grown from 10,000,000 to 4,000,00,000, with 90 per cent of the growth taking place during the last 5 percent of that period—or 400 years.”
Some reporters may have loved Rickover, but the feeling was not always mutual. “When reporters asked him questions he thought were stupid, he would not equivocate. 'That's a stupid question,' he would say,” according to the New York Times.
Rickover advocated not only for energy sustainability and a shift from fossil fuels but also for improving American education. He called for a complete overhaul of the system, with increased emphasis on technological and science classes. “We waste the best years of our children in the name of democracy and of the sacred comprehensive school,” he once said.
In the 1980s, President Reagan offered Rickover a position as an adviser on nuclear matters as part of the White House staff, but the admiral turned down the job. He later said that both nuclear weapons and nuclear power should be outlawed. “I'm not proud of the part I played,” he said, toward the end of his life.
Rickover died in 1986 at his home in Arlington, Va. after having struggled with strokes and pneumonia. He was 86.