Admi­ral Hyman Rick­over: Engi­neer of Power

Marc Wort­man

  • Review
By – May 9, 2022

Although Jews have been rep­re­sent­ed in all branch­es of the mil­i­tary and have served in every con­flict, lin­ger­ing stereo­types have cast doubt on this area of Jew­ish accom­plish­ment. Admi­ral Hyman Rick­over was not only the longest serv­ing active-duty offi­cer in U.S. his­to­ry, but he also pio­neered and led the pro­gram that devel­oped nuclear-pow­ered sub­marines, reformed edu­ca­tion at the Naval Acad­e­my, and imple­ment­ed strict pro­to­cols for safe­ty in nuclear pow­er plants. Yet this rep­re­sen­ta­tive of mil­i­tary pow­er was a Jew­ish immi­grant who escaped the per­se­cu­tion and pover­ty of his Pol­ish shtetl. Marc Wortman’s fas­ci­nat­ing biog­ra­phy, part of the Yale Jew­ish Lives series, cap­tures the many con­tra­dic­tions of his accom­plished subject.

Rickover’s life is tes­ti­mo­ny to the role of chance and cir­cum­stance, along with tal­ent, in deter­min­ing any individual’s suc­cess. Work­ing his way through pub­lic high school in Chica­go while hold­ing down a job, Hyman was pre­sent­ed with a rare oppor­tu­ni­ty when his family’s board­er had a con­nec­tion to the U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Adolph J. Sabath, who nom­i­nat­ed Hyman as a can­di­date to the Naval Acad­e­my. Through the trans­ac­tion­al nature of local pol­i­tics, he became one of the two-per­cent minor­i­ty of Jew­ish stu­dents there. Dili­gent and focused, he was able to over­come weak­ness­es in his edu­ca­tion to grad­u­ate and then study elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. Soon he was part of a new group of tech­nocrats deter­mined to trans­form society.

Much of Wortman’s biog­ra­phy involves explain­ing the engi­neer­ing chal­lenges that Rick­over con­front­ed in devel­op­ing ships that would be faster, safer, and have greater endurance, all through the use of nuclear pow­er. He explains these tech­ni­cal prob­lems clear­ly and shows how they inter­sect­ed with polit­i­cal and orga­ni­za­tion­al issues. At the end of World War II, the use of atom­ic ener­gy threat­ened to make the Navy obso­lete, as the Air Force would take prece­dence in trans­port­ing the pow­er­ful atom­ic weapons in the future. Rick­over was aggres­sive in pro­mot­ing con­trolled nuclear fis­sion as a means of pow­er­ing ships, and also pro­duc­ing ener­gy in peace­time. When the Sovi­ets cut off access to West Berlin in 1948, the accel­er­at­ing Cold War made his ideas more urgent, and he was placed in charge of the Navy’s new Nuclear Pow­er Branch.

But Rickover’s career was con­stant­ly inter­rupt­ed by con­tentious dis­putes with his col­leagues and supe­ri­ors. Wort­man char­ac­ter­izes him as iras­ci­ble and obnox­ious,” a man osten­si­bly ded­i­cat­ed to pub­lic ser­vice who was often self­ish and nar­row-mind­ed. His behav­ior towards stu­dents apply­ing to his pro­grams was often abu­sive, and, late in his career, an inves­ti­ga­tion found him guilty of the cor­rupt use of gifts in his offi­cial capac­i­ty. Open­ly dis­dain­ful of naval tra­di­tions when it suit­ed him, Rick­over denied oth­ers the right to fol­low his path in chal­leng­ing authority.

How did his Jew­ish back­ground influ­ence these qual­i­ties? Here, Wort­man is spec­u­la­tive. He sug­gests that the rig­ors of his orig­i­nal ched­er edu­ca­tion helped to pre­pare him for lat­er intel­lec­tu­al pur­suits, yet he aban­doned all Jew­ish reli­gious prac­tice, mar­ry­ing a non-Jew­ish woman and rais­ing his son as a Chris­t­ian. When Rick­over was orig­i­nal­ly denied pro­mo­tion from cap­tain to rear admi­ral, his sup­port­ers alleged anti­semitism as the rea­son. Wort­man sug­gests that it is dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate prej­u­dice against Rick­over as a Jew from the per­son­al hos­til­i­ty and tact­less­ness which had made him ene­mies. In a sense, that para­dox encap­su­lates the ironies of Rickover’s career, which was unusu­al in the scale of his influ­ence but also emblem­at­ic of many Jews promi­nent in pub­lic life.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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