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Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 169-170

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Rickover: The Struggle for Excellence. By Francis Duncan. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2001. Pp. xviii+364. $37.50.

Hyman G. Rickover was without question one of the most controversial officers ever to wear the uniform of the United States Navy, which he did for sixty-four years. His productivity was legendary, as was his irascibility. He made nuclear propulsion a reality and made enemies by the score. In this volume, Francis Duncan tries to present a balanced picture of Rickover. The author of a 1990 study of Rickover's engineering methodology, Duncan is uniquely qualified for the task at hand, not least because he enjoyed a longtime personal association with the admiral. Unlike earlier biographers, he had access to Rickover's extensive private papers, including his fitness reports, his naval academy records, and much of his correspondence. He also tapped documents in private collections and interviewed a myriad of individuals associated with Rickover and his programs.

Duncan takes care to illuminate the human side of this multifaceted individual. As a six-year-old, Rickover fled czarist anti-Semitism with his family. He remained deeply grateful to the United States for giving him refuge; later he learned that all Jews in his Polish hometown died during the Holocaust. Behind his forbidding demeanor lay an empathy with the unfortunate, exemplified by his aid in 1945 to a leper colony on Okinawa that was accidentally bombed by U.S. aircraft. Rickover championed American education in two influential books published during the 1960s. He also probed into naval history in search of a definitive conclusion on the destruction of the USS Maine in 1898.

But it was as a naval officer that Rickover made his most lasting mark. Commissioned from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, he first distinguished himself in the electrical section of the Bureau of Engineering. By 1949, he was a central figure in the navy's embryonic nuclear reactor program. Within five years, he saw the submarine Nautilus "underway on nuclear power." By 1979 he was in charge of 152 nuclear reactors, which had compiled a perfect safety record.

Duncan details Rickover's many successes, including the Shippingport civilian nuclear power plant, the fight for steam catapults on nuclear carriers, and the experimental submarine NR-1. In 1973, Rickover became the second engineering officer in the navy's history to reach the rank of full admiral. Honors showered on him late in his career, when members of Congress proposed him for a fifth star and favored naming a nuclear carrier for him. He enjoyed the distinction of attending the launching of the nuclear submarine USS Hyman G. Rickover and the dedication of Rickover Hall at the naval academy.

All these honors represented not only great accomplishments but acrimonious [End Page 169] battles, both institutional and personal. Duncan does not flinch from analyzing Rickover's stormy relationships with fellow engineering officers, his bruising promotion fights, his Byzantine institutional maneuvering, and his negative views on such disparate matters as commercial television, businessmen, the Portsmouth Navy Yard, Chief of Naval Operations Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., and navy secretaries Paul H. Nitze and John F. Lehman Jr.

Duncan examines Rickover's political alliances, including his relationships with Senator Henry Jackson and with Presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter. He devotes substantial attention to the Thresher disaster, the crashback trials on the nuclear attack submarine La Jolla, and the acid discord during the 1970s involving shipbuilding firms, especially General Dynamics. Nor does Duncan shy from blemishes that tarnished Rickover's reputation for probity, such as the use of naval personnel for personal projects and the solicitation of expensive gifts for his wife from General Dynamics.

As usual, the Naval Institute Press has done a fine job in production of this well-documented volume. Its illustrations trace a remarkable odyssey, from impoverished childhood in Poland, to Western Union messenger boy on the floor of the 1916 Republican convention, to cocky upperclassman at Annapolis, to Oval Office confidant of several presidents. This fine treatment of a remarkable...


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