Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, who died yesterday at the age of 86, became one of the most influential military figures of the post-World War II era not only because he conceived and engineered the submarine nuclear technology that revolutionized the Navy, but because of a seemingly inexhaustible energy and flamboyance that mobilized broad public and congressional support for his programs.
Both his technological vision, and the way he often bulldozed his way through bureaucratic roadblocks to pursue it, were recalled by his colleagues and admirers yesterday.
President Reagan issued a statement in which he said Adm. Rickover's "commitment to excellence and uncompromising devotion to duty were an integral part of American life for a generation . . . . He was also a revered teacher who instilled in his pupils a desire to strive for the highest achievements. Countless thousands of sailors benefited from the skill and expertise of this talented public servant. Though he worked on tools of defense, he was a man of peace."
Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. said yesterday, "Adm. Rickover took the concept of nuclear power from an idea to the present reality of more than 150 U.S. naval ships under nuclear power, with a record of 3,000 ship years of accident-free operations. All Americans owe him a debt of gratitude."
Not only did Adm. Rickover preside over the building of the nuclear Navy, but beginning with the first of its ships, the submarine Nautilus, which was launched in January of 1954, he also personally selected the officers and enlisted men who would serve in it, and he supervised their training.
An engineer and administrator rather than a sailor, Adm. Rickover was a naval officer who spent almost all of his career in offices and laboratories and almost none of it at sea. A taskmaster who was as hard on himself as he was on his subordinates, he could be harsh and vindictive in private and he could behave the same way on national television. He held high positions both in the old Atomic Energy Commission and the Navy's Bureau of Ships.
Yet he became a symbol of excellence. This gave him a level of popular acclaim and celebrity that was rarely equaled even by the swashbucklers among his military contemporaries. And he was capable of expressions of tenderness and caring. When the nuclear submarine Thresher sank 220 miles east of Cape Cod on April 10, 1963, he sent handwritten notes of sympathy to the wives and parents of all 129 men who died.
Former president Jimmy Carter, who served under him, said in his campaign biography "Why Not the Best?" that next to his parents, Adm. Rickover had influenced his life more than anyone else. In a statement issued yesterday in Chicago, where he was doing volunteer construction work at a low-income housing project, Carter said, "As president I realized anew his great contributions to our nation's preparedness and to world peace."
Lyndon Johnson, when he was majority leader of the Senate, called Adm. Rickover "the symbol of the Can Do Man."
As a scientist, the admiral became a critic of U.S. education in general, and scientific training in particular. In July 1959, he accompanied Richard M. Nixon, then the vice president, to Russia. He later used the trip as a springboard to campaign for more rigorous schooling. In testimony before Congress, in books and in speeches, he assailed education in this country as soft, dominated by "progressives," wasteful, and inferior to education in Europe, including Russia.
During a 63-year career that ended with his forced retirement in 1982, Adm. Rickover regularly flouted Navy tradition. He rarely wore his uniform, he called the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis a "lousy boys' school," and, for the most part, he shunned social contact with his fellow officers. He once said that the greatest "single contribution to improved military efficiency" would be "eliminating 40 percent of the jobs at the Pentagon."
His interviews with officers who sought to serve under him were legendary. He called Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., who later would become chief of naval operations, a "stupid jerk" when Zumwalt was under consideration for a nuclear assignment. Other candidates were sometimes forced to sit during the interviews in chairs with six inches sawed off the front legs.
Later Zumwalt told Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, the authors of the biography, "Rickover: Controversy and Genius," that the Navy's two greatest enemies were, first, the Soviet fleet, and second, Adm. Rickover.
Abrasive though Adm. Rickover was, many, like Carter, were proud to say they had worked for him. And his abilities were such that he was greatly admired on Capitol Hill. In 1953, when he was passed over for promotion to admiral and faced with retirement, Congress intervened and the Navy gave him flag rank.
In his later years, Adm. Rickover fought a series of protracted battles with defense contractors, whom he accused of failing to keep contractual obligations and trying to cheat the government.
However, in 1985, three years after he retired, he was censured by the Navy for having accepted more than $68,000 in gifts over the years from defense contractors, the bulk of it from General Dynamics Corp. Adm. Rickover defended his actions, saying he gave most of the gifts to supporters of the nuclear Navy -- including presidents and members of Congress -- and insisting that no gift ever affected any of his decisions.
Hyman George Rickover was born Jan. 27, 1900, the son of a tailor, in the village of Makow, about 50 miles north of Warsaw, in what was then a part of Czarist Russia. He came to the United States when he was 6, and he was reared in Chicago.
As a high school student, Adm. Rickover worked part time delivering telegrams for Western Union, and one of the offices he visited regularly was that of Adolph Joachim Sabath, a Democratic congressman from Chicago who, like the future admiral, was a Jewish immigrant from Europe. It was Sabath who recommended the youth for appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1918. The two kept in touch during the remainder of Sabath's congressional service, which ended with his death in 1952.
Adm. Rickover was one of only a handful of Jewish midshipmen at the Naval Academy, some of whom were the targets of an uncommonly fierce brand of anti-Semitism. More than 60 years later, Adm. Rickover would recall on CBS television's "60 Minutes" that he received more than his share of hazing "because I was Jewish."
In a class of 539, Adm. Rickover graduated 106th, and he entered a peacetime Navy that was cutting back to such a degree that about one-third of his classmates failed to receive commissions. There followed five years of sea duty, aboard a destroyer and later as an engineering officer aboard the battleship Nevada.
In 1927, Adm. Rickover returned to Annapolis for a year of advanced study in electrical engineering and then spent another year of postgraduate study at Columbia University. While there, he met Ruth Masters, a native Washingtonian who was doing graduate study in international law. They were married in 1931.
Adm. Rickover's only sea command came in 1937, after assignments aboard the battleships California and New Mexico, when he was named captain of the Finch, a 188-foot mine sweeper on the China station. Japan and China were already at war and during the four months of Adm. Rickover's command the Finch spent most of its time at anchor in the harbor at Shanghai or in ferrying U.S. marines up and down the Yangtze River.
He asked for engineering duty after that, and during most of World War II he was ashore directing the electrical section of the Navy's Bureau of Ships. In the final months of the conflict he was posted to Okinawa to manage a ship repair base.
When the war ended, Adm. Rickover was assigned to supervise the mothballing of ships on the West Coast. With the Navy once again cutting back to adjust to peacetime conditions the prospects for further advancement appeared dim.
But the Navy was just beginning to investigate the possibility of nuclear-powered submarines and other ships. A team of naval officers and civilians was being assembled for assignment to Oak Ridge, Tenn., to observe the work being done on nuclear reactors there. In 1946, Adm. Rickover received orders to join them.
Two years later, he was named to head a joint Navy-Atomic Energy Commission program to develop the first Naval nuclear propulsion system. He became head of the Naval Reactors Branch at the AEC and assistant chief for nuclear propulsion at the Navy's Bureau of Ships, and over the years he achieved immense power at each agency.
Under Adm. Rickover the group developed a land-based prototype of a nuclear submarine propulsion system, and in 1953 it ran at full power continuously for 66 days, enough to have carried a ship twice around the world without refueling. The Nautilus was launched in 1954 and put to sea a year after that.
It traveled 62,500 miles on its first nuclear core before refueling for the first time in 1957. The Nautilus became the first submarine to pass under the North Pole's icecap in 1958, and in 1960 another nuclear submarine, the Triton, became the first boat to circumnavigate the globe under water.
It was during this period that Congress saved then-Capt. Rickover from retirement. When it became known in 1953 that he had been passed over a second time for promotion to rear admiral, Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.) demanded a congressional investigation. He charged that failure to grant the promotion reflected a pattern of discrimination against naval engineers that was hurting morale "to a most disturbing extent."
The Senate Armed Services Committee delayed action on the promotions of 39 other captains to rear admiral until the Navy, at the direction of Navy Secretary Robert B. Anderson, convened a special selection board specifically to promote a captain with a background in engineering and nuclear propulsion. There was only one officer who fit that description.
Adm. Rickover was promoted to vice admiral in 1958 and to admiral in 1973. His influence in Congress only increased after the 1953 promotion controversy. He was twice awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
That award was made not only for Adm. Rickover's work in the nuclear Navy. It also praised him for directing the scientific, technical and industrial team that developed the pressurized water reactor at Shippingport, Pa., which supplied electricity to the city of Pittsburgh and also served as a laboratory for much of the technology that went into other nuclear power plants.
Within the Navy, the principle of nuclear propulsion was not long confined to submarines. Three nuclear powered surface ships, the aircraft carrier Enterprise, the guided missile cruiser Long Beach and the destroyer Bainbridge, all cruised around the world without refueling in a demonstration aimed at promoting the applicability of nuclear power to the surface fleet -- and at the same time futher expanding Adm. Rickover's sphere of influence.
It was during the process of selecting the men who would serve aboard the nuclear ships that Adm. Rickover came to the conclusion that many had been poorly educated. He wrote three books critical of American education and, to the dismay of the corps of professional educators, held himself out to the media as an expert on the subject.
In a 1958 interview with Edward R. Murrow on CBS television, Adm. Rickover castigated Murrow for asking "stupid questions" about education in America. "The trouble with you is that you want easy answers, but you don't know the proper questions," said Adm. Rickover.
Despite the fact that he trained thousands of officers for service aboard nuclear-powered ships, Adm. Rickover never made peace with the Navy establishment. He thought its rules were silly and its traditions a waste of time. "We never had a book of Navy regulations in my office," he said on "60 Minutes" in December of 1984. "One time some guy brought it in and I told him to get the hell out and burn it."
The Navy reciprocated. In 1958, it left his name off a guest list for a White House reception after the Nautilus' voyage under the polar icecap. There was such a public outcry that the secretary of the Navy apologized personally. In 1982, Navy Secretary Lehman ordered him into retirement, citing "actuarial realities" as the reason.
In his farewell appearance before Congress, Adm. Rickover warned that the arms race had become so out of control that the human race was likely to destroy itself in a nuclear war. "I'm not proud of the part I played in it," he said, adding that he considered his nuclear fleet a "necessary evil." Three former presidents, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon and Carter, attended his retirement testimonial dinner.
Adm. Rickover's first wife died in 1972.
In 1974 he married Eleanor Ann Bednowicz, a Navy nurse, who survives him. He also is survived by a son by his first marriage, Robert Masters Rickover.