This Day in Jewish History / The Navy's 'Kindly Old Gentleman' Is Born

Chaim Rickover, who became Hyman George Rickover after immigrating to America, was the first Jewish navy officer to reach the rank of admiral and the architect of the U.S.'s nuclear navy.

January 27, 1900, is the birthdate of Hyman George Rickover, the U.S. naval officer who was responsible for the creation of the American nuclear navy. He was the first Jew to reach the senior rank of admiral.

He was born Chaim Rickover in the village of Ryki (from which the family name was derived) near Makow Mazowiecki, Poland. In 1897, pogroms led his tailor father Abraham to begin to plan to the family’s emigration, although but it was only six years later that Chaim, his mother Rachel, and sister Faygele joined Abraham in the United States. After two years in New York, the family moved to the Chicago neighborhood of Lawndale. An excellent student in high school, Rickover, his name now Americanized to Hyman, was sponsored by U.S. Congressman Adolph Sabath, himself a Jewish immigrant (from Czechoslovakia), for a place at the Naval Academy.

Rickover graduated from Annapolis in 1922 and began a naval career that would last 63 years, still a record. He pursued further studies in electrical engineering, first at the Academy and then at Columbia University, which is also where he met his first wife, Ruth Masters. Shortly after they married, he converted to Episcopalianism. Rickover never, however, denied his Jewish upbringing, and spoke freely about his origins and about the fact that he had been denied the right in Poland to attend public school because he was Jewish.

In 1929, foreseeing the future importance of submarines, he fought for the right, despite his relatively advanced age, to serve on one. He later translated a standard German text on the subject, “Das Unterseeboot,” which then became a basic guide for American submarine service too. During World War II, he became head of the navy’s bureau of ships’ electrical section, and this led, after the war, to his being sent to head a project at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where he was tasked with developing a nuclear electric generating plant.

The creation of a nuclear power plant for a submarine was a mission of profound complexity, in a field that was largely uncharted territory. For one thing, in the early 1950s, a nuclear reactor of sufficient power would have occupied the size of a city block. Rickover’s greatness was in his personal involvement in selecting people for the program, and his unyielding insistence on high standards and personal integrity. He was demanding, undiplomatic and not afraid of confrontations, no matter what the rank of his opponent. (He was known in the navy as the “KOG” – the “kindly old gentleman.”)

The first U.S. nuclear-powered submarine was the Nautilus, which was launched in 1955. From then through 2007, the nuclear navy built and operated 200 nuclear submarines and another 23 aircraft carriers and cruisers. None has ever suffered an accident in its reactor, a record of safety that is often attributed to the standards pioneered by Rickover, who made it a practice to be present on the first cruise of every new nuclear sub. Rickover also played a role in the development of America’s first commercial pressurized water nuclear power plant, the (landlocked) Shippingport Atomic Power Station, in western Pennsylvania.

Rickover, by then a full four-star admiral (the navy’s highest non-wartime rank), was forced to retire in 1982, after clashing bitterly with the then-secretary of the navy, John Lehman. The move was not smooth, was accompanied by several minor scandals that cast doubt on Rickover’s judgment and abilities, and in the end required the involvement of President Ronald Reagan. Shortly before his retirement, testifying before Congress, Rickover said he would have been happy to forgo the creation of the nuclear navy, had it been possible, so as to avoid the problem of nuclear waste: “I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation I would sink them all. I am not proud of the part I played in it. I did it because it was necessary for the safety of this country. That's why I am such a great exponent of stopping this whole nonsense of war.”

Hyman G. Rickover died on July 8, 1986, at the age of 86. Two years before that, he had been honored with the commissioning of a nuclear submarine in his name. It was in service until 2006.

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