Thursday, March 3, 2022

Marc Wortman's "Admiral Hyman Rickover"

Marc Wortman is an independent historian and award-winning freelance journalist. His books include 1941: Fighting the Shadow War: A Divided America in a World at War, The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta, and The Millionaires’ Unit: The Aristocratic Flyboys Who Fought the Great War and Invented American Air Power.

Wortman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Admiral Hyman Rickover: Engineer of Power, and reported the following:
Rickover is that rarest of engineers, the inventor of a new form of power. He is famously the father of the nuclear Navy, the most significant maritime change since the move from sail to steam. He also engineered the first civilian nuclear power utility station. He launched what is now a worldwide industry. He continued on to build more than one hundred nuclear-propelled subs and ships, including aircraft carriers, that radically altered Cold War strategies, serving as a both a deterrent to attack and a means of projecting power to maintain freedom of the seas.

But it was how he managed these world-changing achievements that merits continuing attention. Unfortunately, the Page 99 Test doesn't fly in this instance. The page is devoted to explaining his work building the prototype of the submarine reactor, thus the first practical nuclear power reactor. He succeeded and did so at an incredible speed. When it powered up in 1953 that was the "Kitty Hawk" moment for the atomic energy future. However, the book as a whole is devoted to his furious efforts both to engineer nuclear power and to carry out a revolution from within the US Navy, to create and exercise his power over it.

His life story was certainly part of my fascination: he was a Jewish immigrant from a Polish shtetl who became the longest-serving officer in the history of a navy that sought time and again to force him out. He was a ruthless and fiery power-grabber who made many enemies but knew, as the book title indicates, how to engineer power in Washington. He used his power to force a cultural revolution upon a navy that was not prepared intellectually, culturally or in command structure to handle the dangerous realities of nuclear power. His friends on Capitol Hill and in the White House would not let the Navy or Pentagon drive him out, not even when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara threatened to court martial him. He was a philosopher-admiral, author of several books on education and history, along with numerous philosophical essays on technology, education, work, and responsibility. That side of him attracted Jimmy Carter, a former nuclear submarine officer who called him "the greatest engineer who ever lived" and his life's most important influence beside his father. As president, Carter welcomed him into the White House as a sort of confidante and mentor.

Rickover's continuing technological influence is in the safe operation of nuclear reactors, hidden under the sea and in aircraft carriers, and in the changed culture of the modern Navy. But for those who understand nuclear propulsion, everything about the recent AUKUS submarine deal and diplomatic dust up happened because of what Rickover did in setting up a nuclear tech secrets-sharing arrangement with Lord Mountbatten back in 1958--and refusing to do a similar deal with the French a year later.

Certainly, Rickover was a complex figure. He was a hero of the Cold War, a brilliant engineer, a political street fighter, who managed to win power over a navy that despised him and change the world.
Visit Marc Wortman's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta by Marc Wortman.

--Marshal Zeringue