Befitting his grandiose opinion of his talents, Adm. Hyman G. Rickover--82, out of a job and dry-docked--would now like to be America's leading peacemaker. Suddenly barnacled to the uncontested truth that disarmament is humanity's most urgent need, he said in a farewell appearance before the congressional Joint Economic Committee: "Put me in charge of (disarmament). I'll get you some results."
Not so fast. After a career of worshiping death-delivering nuclear warships and filling the oceans with as many of them as he could cajole Congress to pay for, Rickover is qualified to be in charge of nothing except his own remorse.
On this, he is showing promise. "I'm not proud of the part I played," he told the committee of the years in which he unblinkingly joined countless other nuclear- minded militarists--American and Russian--in pushing the world closer to the final holocaust. But now he is saying that unless we disarm--that is, unless we stop believing in what Rickover, as driven as Ahab, was preaching all these decades -- "I think probably we'll destroy ourselves."
It's touching that the repentant Rickover feels the spirit of St. Francis filling his soul. But it's a bit late. He is like the pyromaniac who has been drenching a house with gasoline but announces, after he is too weary to lift another can, that we shouldn't go near the place with matches.
Even then, Rickover is not overly worried about the flames. "What difference does it make?" he asked the committee about the probability that man will destroy himself through nuclear war. "Some new species will come along. They may be wiser."
The cynicism is colossal: Rickover, a man in his ninth decade, advising those whose lives are still ahead of them that survival makes no difference. As a nuclear weapons zealot, he helped create the climate of despair that now pervades the world. And his wise word is, So what if you all roast?
It was typical of Rickover to promote himself to be "in charge" of disarmament. No role of being a gray eminence among America's peacemakers for him. And no apprenticeship among respected disarmament leaders like Gene LaRocque or George Kennan.
All Rickover would likely bring to the disarmament movement are the same self- importance, meanness and bluster that marked his naval career. His record is marked with bullying anyone in his way in the military and fawning over his patrons in Congress. His criticism of military waste and stupidity was superficial. It was the mouthing off of a man too bothered to take the time to make a genuine contribution through careful analysis.
In the new biography "Rickover" by Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, the authors tell of an exchange between Rickover and Rep. Joseph Addabbo, a congressional authority on Pentagon waste. Addabbo, hearing the familiar Rickover fuming about cost overruns, pressed for details on where specifically to cut costs. Rickover couldn't deal with it. The authors state that he "ducked any responsibility to carry out what he so often, so tirelessly advocated, an improvement in the efficiency of the Pentagon. . . . He seemed more interested in eliciting laughter than reform."
The laughter followed the ridicule he directed at those he knew couldn't strike back. It enabled him to keep public attention focused on the excesses of others, not his own. He could be free to preen as the enemy of weapons overkill. But it was Rickover who, sinking Navy hopes for a small submarine, was responsible for the excesses in power, speed, size and missile capacity of the Trident sub. Rickover provided the critical lobbying that overcame strong resistance in Congress to a hurried-up Trident program.
Military men commonly go out with doomsday warnings: Eisenhower's famous alarm about the "military-industrial complex," Omar Bradley's assessment that "We know more about war than we do about peace--more about killing than we know about living." They were men of hope and caring. In comparison, Rickover is a crass cynic.
Thirty years ago, Rickover's offer to be a peacemaker might have meant something. Today, it's little more than the cry of a fired bureaucrat just wanting more action. War or peace--what's the difference, as long as the urge to be "in charge" is satisified.