Dressed in his starched, white dress uniform, Capt. Hyman Rickover basked in a ticker-tape parade, waving from the Canyon of Heroes to New Yorkers celebrating the Navy officer’s phenomenal creation.
The Soviets had beaten the Americans into space in 1958 with Sputnik. The satellite further rattled a nation trying to adjust to doomsday scenarios of all-out nuclear war. How would President Eisenhower respond?
A documentary on Rickover by filmmaker Michael Pack and his Manifold Productions in Chevy Chase, Maryland, gives the answer.
Four years earlier, Rickover oversaw the development and launch of the first U.S. nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus. Thankfully for the commander in chief, Rickover won his internecine battle with top flag officers and built the boat in a relatively brief three years.
It gave Ike a trump card. Go north, the president ordered.
In August 1958, the sub did the unthinkable for its predecessors powered by diesel. The Nautilus became one of history’s great explorers, traversing the dark, frigid waters of the North Pole and relying on a basic gyrocompass to prevent an underwater disaster.
A delighted president had the skipper, Cmdr. William R. Anderson, flown from the Arctic to the White House for a photo opportunity. Eisenhower told the world that the U.S. was indeed a nuclear power both above and below water. The Soviets owned no nuclear submarines.
As if propelled by some special fuel himself, Rickover went on to serve a total 51 years, longer than any other Navy officer, attaining four-star rank. He accumulated enemies in the Pentagon. He hated Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids,” but he made friends where it counted — in Congress.
Mr. Pack debuted the two-hour biopic “Rickover: The Birth of Nuclear Power” recently at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington.
The screening brought together old Rickover hands and current submariners, including Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations. He is one of the dwindling active-duty sailors who went through the famous (some would say infamous) Rickover interviewing process to select Naval Academy graduates for the nuclear Navy.
Mr. Pack uses a mix of on-camera interviews, newsreels and dramatizations to capture the uniquely combative bantamweight. Played by actor/director Tim Blake Nelson, Rickover tells one applicant he has 10 seconds to make him mad or flunk the session. The midshipman hears Rickover tick down the seconds, then suddenly sweep’s half the contents of Rickover’s desk onto the floor.
“I’m mad,” Rickover concedes before hiring the young officer.
Father of the nuclear Navy
Like millions of other American dreams, Rickover’s began when he was a turn-of-the-century immigrant. At age 6, he and his parents escaped Russian domination and squalor in Poland and headed for a new life via Ellis Island.
America gave him the freedom to think about the vast new universe of electrical engineering. A stellar high school student in Chicago, he became one of the few Jews at that time to gain admission to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. As an example of anti-Semitism in the 1920s, the yearbook allowed graduates to pull out the perforated pages showing Jewish midshipmen.
As a young officer, Rickover was assigned to the emerging nuclear weapons industry at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. It was there where he decided to steer the Navy on a course to harness the power of the atom for its ships, beginning with one of the smallest — a submarine.
He was to become the father of the modern nuclear Navy and a big player in persuading the country to embrace nuclear power to light, heat and cool homes and businesses.
When top flag officers resisted his plans, Rickover discovered a love of politics. Nothing is accomplished in the military unless Congress provides the money, so he bypassed the Pentagon and went straight to Capitol Hill. He jawboned and charmed lawmakers into funding the Nautilus and the nuclear future.
The Navy’s epicenter at the Pentagon detested the arrogant and combative Rickover and tried to get rid of him. He failed to make promotion to admiral, meaning forced retirement.
But Congress stepped in to save him by writing a job description that Rickover joked could be filled only by a 125-pound Jew.
“He hated to wear the uniform,” his son Robert says in the film. At Navy headquarters, his father could be mistaken for a janitor.
‘Provocative and searingly blunt’
Film clips show Rickover lecturing a panel of senators on the virtues of the atom and on how to manage people to prevent mistakes. He blamed the Three Mile Island accident not on design flaws but on human failure to monitor the reactor properly.
Appearing on “60 Minutes,” Rickover tells Diane Sawyer that his job was not to get along with superiors but to produce results.
A former aide tells how Rickover would be on the phone chewing out an officer one minute, then using a syrupy polite voice while taking a congressman’s call.
A committed Cold War fighter, Rickover did not trust CIA analysts. When the agency reported that Soviet attack subs were limited to a certain speed, he knew how to prove them wrong. He had an aircraft carrier incrementally increase its speed once a Soviet sub was detected. Sure enough, when the carrier exceeded the CIA’s estimate, the sub kept up the pace.
By proving the agency wrong, Rickover showed the need for faster U.S. submarines.
Mr. Pack has produced more than a dozen documentaries. He covered the rise of the Republican House with “Inside the Republican Revolution: The First Hundred Days,” narrated by Washington Times columnist Donald Lambro. Mr. Pack also chronicled the downside with “The Fall of Newt Gingrich.”
His Rickover production is scheduled to appear this fall on PBS.
Mr. Pack describes his subject, who died in 1986 at age 86: “Combative, provocative and searingly blunt, Adm. Hyman G. Rickover was a flamboyant maverick, a unique American hero.”
At that 1958 ticker-tape parade, Rickover broke protocol as captain and donned a dress white uniform. The White House snubbed him for the Nautilus photo op, igniting the wrath of America’s big-city newspapers.
Eisenhower quickly regrouped by sending Rickover to New York as the president’s official representative.
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at email@example.com.
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