Admiral Rickover’s gift to us: showing that we can reform America

Summary: A biography of Admiral Rickover, founder of the US Navy’s nuclear submarine force, points the way to reform of our military – and America.

Against the Tide: Rickover's Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy
Available at Amazon.


Against the Tide:
Rickover’s Leadership Principles and
the Rise of the Nuclear Navy

By Rear Admiral Dave Oliver (retired).

America has entered senescence – the aging of its institutions. They grow rigid and so unable to cope with a changing world. Nowhere is that more serious than in our military. Massive, funded by almost unimaginable streams of cash, wielding weapons from science fiction – but consistently unable to defeat small numbers of poorly trained and lightly equipped insurgents. It focuses on building weapons of mind-blowing expense that do not work well (the F-35 is the poster child for this).

Most of our officers, active duty and retired, know this. When asked how to reform the US military, their most frequent (in my experience, almost the only response) is that it is impossible except for extraordinary circumstances. They discuss three scenarios.

  • Economic collapse (their scenarios are usually daft; they know little about economics).
  • Defeat in conventional war (unlikely in the nuclear age).
  • Arrival of a political savior who empowers the Wise in the military to smite their foes and build a new and better military.

Only the second has a basis in history. Most often cited is how the Prussian military rebuilt itself after Napoleon’s crushing defeat. Their reforms in personnel — selection, training, and promotion — created a military that was able to evolve repeatedly to stay a cutting-edge force. Their doctrines led to astonishing victories in the Franco-Prussian War. Sixty year later, another generation of generals created new doctrines to win in WWII (combined infantry-armor-air maneuver forces).

Instead of despair, let’s look at successful reform movements that did not draw on extraordinary sources. We have two in our own post-WWII history. The Goldwater–Nichols Act of 1986 overcame the bureaucratic inertia of the services to create combined regional commands — allowing rational deployment of US forces. A partial reform, but rich with lessons. But there is a better example.

Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover (1955)
US Navy official photo (1955).

Against the Tide

Biographies for a general audience are usually entertainment, of interest to hobbyists, professionals in that field – or just fun to read. The rare and valuable ones provide both inspiration and lessons that we can apply today. Admiral Oliver’s Against the Tide does that, big-time. He describes how one man built one of the most powerful military forces of our time. He did so against immense opposition in his own institution. He did so without most of the personal attributes usually required for such feats — a history of personal success, command presence, and high office (imagine if Nelson had lived to reform the British Navy).

When he retired in 1982, one-third of the US Navy’s capital ships were nuclear-powered submarines. Their senior officers were both capable engineers AND aggressive warriors. His ships demonstrated operational excellence on a scale seldom seen in history. Their culture was innovative and flexible, as shown in its response to the fall of the Soviet Union. His officers were the “adaptive leaders” Donald Vandergriff is training for the US Army (see below). He “established a completely unique and different subculture within the naval culture.

Rather than reactive, Rickover showed his people how to boldly anticipate problems – taking the difficult steps now to avoid future problems. As in his decision to forbid releasing radioactive liquids into the sea. Releasing slow streams of low-level fluids (e.g., reactor coolant) was accepted practice. Systems were designed to do so. Rickover decided that was an unacceptable risk to sailors and the people living near the Navy’s ports.

“Some nuclear operators did not adapt or accept how important Rickover thought this change. Those individuals were, by definition, less flexible than safety required, and they were replaced with people with greater imagination, initiative, and drive. Years later it became evident that {we} had greatly underestimated the danger of the insidious buildup over time of radioactive contaminants in the seabed adjacent to our common ship’s moorings. By the time the facts were in, because Rickover had taken early action, the danger was already decaying away.

“Rickover had not spent years agonizing about the consequences of a change in policy. He had not had numerous teams analyze the data. he did not worry about the costs of change or spend hours listening to lawyers harp about the possible costs of consequential lawsuits. …He stopped the submarine force from discharging radioactivity into the environment long before the issue ever crystallized in the public eye. We stopped solely because Admiral Rickover could perceive the inherent principles …”

This book explains how he did it. It provides tips for reformers, applicable to every kind of organization. It is one of the best books about managing I have read, although it does not give one of the usual cookie-cutter recipes. Rickover would have scorned such a thing. Rickover gave us something beyond price, more valuable even than the nuclear navy. He proved that reform is possible against event the strongest institutional opposition. What he did in the decades after WWII, a group of reformers (even if they are not giants) can do today.

Rickover’s most important gift to us: removing our largest excuse for inaction.

From the publisher

Against the Tide is a leadership book that illustrates how Adm. Hyman Rickover made a unique impact on American and Navy culture. Dave Oliver is the first former nuclear submarine commander who sailed for the venerable admiral to write about Rickover’s management techniques. Oliver draws upon a wealth of untold stories to show how one man changed American and Navy culture while altering the course of history.

The driving force behind America’s nuclear submarine navy, Rickover revolutionized naval warfare while concurrently proving to be a wellspring of innovation that drove American technology in the latter half of the twentieth-century. As a testament to his success, Rickover’s single-minded focus on safety protected both American citizens and sailors from nuclear contamination, a record that is in stark contrast to the dozens of nuclear reactor accidents suffered by the Russians.

While Rickover has been the subject of a number of biographies, little has been written about his unique management practices that changed the culture of a two-hundred-year-old institution and affected the outcome of the Cold War. Rickover’s achievements have been obscured because they were largely conducted in secret and because he possessed a demanding and abrasive personality that alienated many potential supporters. Nevertheless, he was an extraordinary manager with significant lessons for all those in decision-making positions.

The author had the good fortune to know and to serve under Rickover during much of his thirty-year career in the Navy and is singularly qualified to demonstrate the management and leadership principles behind Rickover’s success.

Other posts in this series about military reform

  1. Why does the US field the best soldiers but lose so often?
  2. Why the US military keeps losing wars.
  3. Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done.
  4. Officers can reform our military and make America stronger! – Only the will to do so is lacking.

For More Information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts reforming America (steps to a new politics), about military reform, and especially these about our senior generals…

  1. Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership — by GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
  2. Do we need so many and such well-paid generals and admirals? — by Richard A. Pawloski (Captain, USMC, retired).
  3. Why the Pentagon would rather hire a jihadist like bin Laden than reformer Donald Vandergriff.
  4. A step to getting an effective military. We might it need soon.
  5. How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
  6. Why does the military continue to grow? Because the tail wags the dog. — by Danny Hundley (Colonel, USMC, retired).
  7. Overhauling The Officer Corps. — by David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).
  8. The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military. – reports by POGO and Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired).
  9. William Lind looks at our generals, sees “rank incompetence”.
  10. How did the US Army’s leadership problem grow so bad? — by Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired).

Two more great books about military reform

To understand the depth of the hole our military has dug itself, I recommend reading Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance by Martin van Creveld. It describes how some militaries do this well – and how we do it.

Even better for average reader is Donald Vandergriff’s Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions. From the publisher.

Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow's Centurions
Available at Amazon.

“An Industrial Age model continues to shape the way the Army approaches its recruiting, personnel management, training, and education. This outdated personnel management paradigm ― designed for an earlier era ― has been so intimately tied to the maintenance of Army culture that a self-perpetuating cycle has formed, diminishing the Army’s attempts to develop adaptive leaders and institutions.

“This cycle can be broken only if the Army accepts rapid evolutionary change as the norm of the new era. Recruiting the right people, then having them step into an antiquated organization, means that many of them will not stay as they find their ability to contribute and develop limited by a centralized, hierarchical organization. Recruiting and retention data bear this out.

“Several factors have combined to force the Army to think about the way it develops and nurtures its leaders. Yet, Vandergriff maintains, mere modifications to today’s paradigm may not be enough. Today’s Army has to do more than post rhetoric about adaptability on briefing slides and in literature. One cannot divorce the way the Army accesses, promotes, and selects its leaders from its leadership-development model. The Army cannot expect to maintain leaders who grasp and practice adaptability if these officers encounter an organization that is neither adaptive nor innovative. Instead, Army culture must become adaptive, and the personnel system must evolve into one that nurtures adaptability in its policies, practices, and beliefs. Only a detailed, comprehensive plan where nothing is sacred will pave the way to cultural evolution.”

4 thoughts on “Admiral Rickover’s gift to us: showing that we can reform America”

  1. The Man Who Laughs

    Thanks for the recommendation. I first read about Hyman Rickover in a book about submarines I read as a boy. The book wasn’t primarily about him, but it made clear that he had created the nuclear submarine force. The fact is that the USS Nautilus changed naval warfare as much as the appearance of the HMS Dreadnought. I built model kits of the Nautilus and the George Washington way back then.I’ll have to read this.

  2. Nearly every day I see an article about a new naval commander being releaved for some reason. The ship crashes last year. What is going on?

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      We do not know the cause, but the military is — at long last — beginning to implement one of the top recommendations of reformers: hold senior officers accountable. For too long horrible — even outright corrupt — behavior was swept under the rug. No longer.

      It’s a classic example of unreported good news. It does not fit the narrative of journalists, so the pattern is ignored.

  3. Pingback: A path to desperately needed reform of the US military - Fabius Maximus website

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