Father of the Nuclear Navy — Marc Wortman
Father of the Nuclear Navy — Marc Wortman
His development of nuclear submarines changed the course of the Cold War … Yet Admiral Hyman Rickover — the “Father of the Nuclear Navy” — is largely unknown. Historian Marc Wortman joins host Charles Mizrahi to discuss how this unconventional engineer revolutionized U.S. naval power and the role this nuclear technology still plays today.
- An Introduction to Marc Wortman (00:00:00)
- Father of the Nuclear Navy (00:02:16)
- Submarine Warfare Before Nuclear Energy (00:6:36)
- Rickover’s Revolutionary Idea (00:15:23)
- Sputnik and the Cold War (00:27:31)
- Rickover’s Influence (00:32:25)
- Nuclear Warfare (00:43:39)
Marc Wortman is a historian, award-winning journalist, and author. His work is featured in Vanity Fair, Smithsonian and Time. And he’s appeared on CNN, NPR, and the History Channel. Wortman is also the recipient of several writing prizes. His books have been named in The Daily Beast’s “Best Long Reads” and in The Wall Street Journal’s “Books of the Month.” His latest book (below) profiles the “Father of the Nuclear Navy.”
Before You Leave:
MARC WORTMAN: There was no nuclear power industry at all when Rickover got started. He built an entire industry.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is Marc Wortman. Marc is the recipient of multiple awards for his journalism and has written for Vanity Fair, Smithsonian, Time, Air & Space and other publications. He’s also the author of several award-winning books. His latest book is Admiral Hyman Rickover: Engineer of Power. Known as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” Admiral Hyman George Rickover remains an almost mythical figure in the United States Navy.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I recently sat down with Mark and we talked about how Rickover’s development of nuclear-propelled submarines and ships transformed naval power and Cold War strategy — which still influence world affairs today. Marc, thanks so much for coming on the show. I greatly appreciate it. I was really looking forward to it.
MARC WORTMAN: Really? Well, thank you, Charles. It’s an honor to be here.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: All right. So the name of the book, folks, is Admiral Hyman Rickover: Engineer of Power by Marc Wortman. And I want to tell you, first of all, it’s a great read. You got this down to like 200 some odd pages in a pretty small, compact book. There’s one thing before we even can get into it. How come there were no pictures in here?
MARC WORTMAN: Yeah, well, I wish there could have been. So this book is part of a series — Jewish Lives. The series runs everyone everywhere from King David right up to Sigmund Freud, Groucho Marx, Barbra Streisand, Moshe Dayan, various religious leaders. And they all follow a pretty specific format. And unfortunately, that format doesn’t permit anything except a cover photo and the photo on the frontispiece.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah.
MARC WORTMAN: But it also keeps price down. It’s a $26 book. That’s good. And how many books can you get for $26?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I don’t know, I buy Kindle, so I really have no idea. But all right, let’s get right into it. Admiral Hyman Rickover … Now, this guy is beyond fascinating. I think you said he’s the only person to ever create an energy form. Did I get you right on that? That’s what you wrote in the book?
MARC WORTMAN: Yes. So if you think across the entire span of human history, you have the myth of Prometheus capturing fire, you have the various inventors who created the steam engine. But really, after that, I can’t come up with anybody else in history who invented a new form of practical power. And when he took the kernel of the universe — the atom — and figured out how when you split it and it gives off heat, that you could capture that heat and use it to boil up water and drive a steam engine effectively? There’s nobody else in history. It’s unbelievable. And yet how many people even know about Hyman Rickover?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. So, I jumped to the gun here because I’ve been waiting to speak to you. But I’m just going to give a two-second overview and then you’re going to take it from there. Here you have a guy who is just a firecracker — Jewish, got into the Navy in 1918 or so, when there weren’t many Jews even able to get into Naval Academy, had a very tough time of it. He weighs 125 pounds and he’s about what, 5’2″ tall?
MARC WORTMAN: Little bit taller than that. But yeah, he was a wisp of a guy.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wisp of a guy — just finds a way to piss off everybody in the U.S. Navy. But when he leaves, he ushers in the nuclear-powered submarines that many of us take for granted, and changed the course of warfare and changed the course of the Cold War. Is that more or less accurate?
MARC WORTMAN: You’ve encapsulated it well. This was a guy who came into the Navy when the Jews were decidedly not welcome. He made enemies in the Navy. Everywhere he went, he was a fighter. He was the definition of pugnacious. He battled with the Navy and he carried out a revolution from inside of it, and forced the Navy to come into the 20th century. You know, he used to say: “If the Navy had its choice, they’d still be going in sailing ships.” And he got them, against their will, to create a new form of energy to power submarines and nuclear carriers. And as a result, created an entire new level of strategic warfare. Basically, these submarines are right now at this very instant 1,000-plus feet under the ocean, somewhere on deployment for months at a time. And they are essentially an unstoppable weapon.
MARC WORTMAN: You know, Putin at the start of his invasion of Ukraine said: “I’m going to put my nuclear forces on alert.” Well, Putin may be an evil guy, but he’s not one who wants to commit suicide. And as long as our submarines are out there, anybody who would dare to use nuclear weapons would be committing suicide. And during the Cold War, the Soviets couldn’t keep up with our submarines. And they attempted to, they spent a fortune. They essentially bankrupted themselves trying to equal American technology.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. So, before you keep going … Because this is something that I had no idea about. And I think many of our listeners don’t. There’s two things. One is, to take the most powerful energy in the world — in the universe — and encapsulate it into a small area on a ship to power. It’s science fiction. That’s what this man did. But before that. Tell me … Prior to Hyman Rickover’s brilliance in turning our Navy into having nuclear subs, a sub could only go down for so long and go so fast and there were just tons of problems and risk factors. So walk us through that. What was submarine warfare like prior to the nuclear subs?
MARC WORTMAN: Yeah, you’re making a great point there — which is that we think of submarines, if you’re old enough to remember Run Silent, Run Deep, you know submarine warfare in World War II: the U-boats out patrolling against the convoys, the attacks on them, the American submarines that went right into the Japanese harbors and attacked Japanese ships. These were incredibly brave men operating these submarines because, in effect, they were surface ships that could submerge.
MARC WORTMAN: Now on the surface, they ran on diesel or oil. They charged up batteries. They had these big mattress-sized batteries inside the submarines. And then for short periods, measured in hours, they could submerge and they could go slowly underwater. They could get themselves into an attack position. They could attack and then flee. But they were noisy. They were easily spotted. They were easily killed — which the U-boat commanders eventually discovered once the U.S. could find them in the Atlantic during World War II. But submarine forces on a per-capita basis lost more men than any other service branch in World War II.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And to be on a submarine, it was a volunteer-only position. Right?
MARC WORTMAN: Yes, it was a dangerous, dangerous business. So when you create an energy source…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Before you get into that, let me dwell on this, because I didn’t appreciate the amazing innovation and how this man changed the nature of warfare and the security of our country. He just really took nuclear energy into the next phase — or really not the next phase, there was no phase prior. The only phase prior was blowing up stuff. So a submarine prior to even World War II — and prior even to that — they were noisy, as you said, they could only submerge 200 some odd feet or so? Or a little more?
MARC WORTMAN: You know, around that, probably. Probably they could have a test depth closer to 400 or 500 feet.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But they couldn’t go there that long because the pressure would be enormous and pop the ship. OK. So you have that, you have a cylinder underwater going really slow, making a lot of noise. And the only defense they have, really, is once they shoot their missiles, there was really no defense. Depth charges come blow them out of the water. And my question is this: When a submarine is under the water — submerged — why does it have to go back up to charge the batteries? And when it’s up on top, how vulnerable are they?
MARC WORTMAN: Good question. So when you are underwater, you’re running on that battery. Battery charge will exhaust itself — just like our electric vehicles now. But they were the equivalent of hybrid vehicles now. They would come back onto the surface, and once on the surface, you can get oxygen into the motor so that you can run that motor off of diesel fuel. And that motor is simultaneously charging the battery backup.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Got it.
MARC WORTMAN: So that you get enough charge that you could submerge again when the time came for an attack or to flee.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. Now, a submarine, just by that definition, had to have a fuel source. Because they could exhaust their diesel pretty quick. They couldn’t go out and stay submerged or at sea for months and months at a time, right? They needed a fuel source to refuel in the middle of the ocean, wherever they were, just to keep patrolling or doing whatever they were doing. Right?
MARC WORTMAN: Yeah. Well, and that was also true of aircraft carriers. So any kind of ship, you had to have either a friendly port where you could put in and refuel. And in the middle of a war situation, you don’t know whether you have a friendly port that’s going to be available. Or you had to have an oiler that could travel alongside of you or come and find you. And then, at the speed at which you could continue, transfer oil to the ship, to the submarine that’s traveling alongside you — which in itself is a fairly complicated operation.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Complicated operation in the sense of you’re in the middle of the Pacific Ocean — in the middle of patrolling — and you’re out of fuel. You have to call off the patrol, even if in the midst of warfare. There’s a series of problems where you don’t have energy. You know, it’s like going into a swimming pool and you can’t swim that well. You can only go to the middle for a second and then get right back. It’s like swimming away with your hand on the side because your range is so limited due to your fuel source — or lack thereof.
MARC WORTMAN: Yeah. But the submarines in particular still had a pretty fair range with their load of diesel fuel. I mean, during World War II, German submarines were able to steam across the Atlantic, get right to America’s shores and attack American shipping, and then steam back.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, but my point is, most of the time it was spent above on the surface. So you are extremely vulnerable as a submarine. What do you have a machine gun on top? There’s nothing you can do. You’re dead.
MARC WORTMAN: Yeah, they had minimal defenses. And during World War II, once we had aircraft that could reach the mid-Atlantic, German U-boats at that point were in real trouble. Once we had radar to spot them and aircraft to track them down, that was the end of Germany’s ability to destroy American shipping.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Shipping the supplies, the merchant ships … The wolfpack was no longer, that was one of their biggest psychological threats as well as economic threats. I don’t know how many zillions of tons went to the bottom of the sea because of the wolfpack.
MARC WORTMAN: Yeah. Before we were able to take out those wolfpacks, it was a horrific situation. Nothing more terrifying than being in a convoy, going across sea and seeing your comrades blown up on the horizon.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. OK. So now we have the cylinders that have … How many men are on these ships, 40 or 50? On the submarines.
MARC WORTMAN: More than that. A crew of a submarine, you’re talking about…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: In World War II.
MARC WORTMAN: In World War II, they would have about as many as 120 men.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Oh, OK. You have 120 men aboard. And you are running slow. Most of the time you spend on the surface, and all the limitations — it was hot, it was smelly, it was difficult. You couldn’t go down that deep. A whole bunch of issues. Now, here’s this guy. He’s an engineer by training. And he comes and he upends everything. He draws a new page. His inspiration — from what I learned from you — is he sees the atom and says: “We can take this and use it as a fuel source, instead of diesel, instead of battery, and have these submarines stay submerged way deeper and way longer on this” — really it seems like a magical energy source — “and give us an amazing edge.” Speak to that.
MARC WORTMAN: Yeah. So, first of all, think about the situation when you’re coming out of World War II. The concept of nuclear fission is Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You know, these bombs that can incinerate a city. And Rickover is saying: “We can engineer that same energy source in a controlled way. Harness that power, put it inside a vessel, put that vessel — or a container — put that container within a hull.” This is something that is shooting off radiation at levels that — if you get exposed to that radiation for more than two or 3 minutes, your life will be over. And he’s saying: “We’re going to take that. We’re going to stick it inside of a hull. That hull is going to be something that is going to be able to submerge, not for hours at a time, but for months at a time.”
MARC WORTMAN: People just thought, well, this is a great idea. Conceptually, we’d, of course, love to see this. But this is not going to happen. This is fantastical. And if it does happen, it’s just going to be a toy. It’s not really going to be something that has a practical effect on the Navy, on warfare, on maritime affairs, on strategic affairs. And Rickover, who sort of burned with the fire of the atom, he said: “No, not only is this going to happen, this is going to be a practical machine that is going to change the way the Navy works.” And he was ready to fight to get that done.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Let’s put this in perspective. At the time, the Cold War is raging. Sputnik was launched. The fear and terror over the United States and the feeling that we were being left behind with this beeping, basketball-sized satellite rotating around our earth freaked people out. This was going to be our response to Sputnik, in a sense — it turned out to be. But it was so important to our defense and just the psychological makeup of the United States to know that we have something that the Soviets don’t — in a big way.
MARC WORTMAN: We’re sort of jumping ahead a little bit here — the United States launched the USS Nautilus in 1954. It went to sea in 1955. In the summer of 1958, the Nautilus at that point had already set every record for submerged operation
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So let’s go through. So the Nautilus is the first nuclear submarine. It’s the first one, it’s not the battery diesel kind of thing. This is the new age. We take nuclear energy manufactured in this steel container, in the hull of a submarine with people in tight quarters, that if one thing goes wrong, they are dead from radioactivity or it blows up — a whole bunch of issues. Just throw out to me some amazing records that the Nautilus is able to accomplish.
MARC WORTMAN: Well, if we can reel it back just a little bit, just to think about what it took to build that reactor. So there was no nuclear power industry at all when Rickover got started. He built an entire industry. Just to tell you one example of what he had to accomplish, the United States had about 86 pounds of refined zirconium when he started work. You know, we think about these zirconium bracelets and all the other things that are made out of zirconium now. Zirconium, it turns out, is very good for shielding against radiation. Rickover needed tons. He needed tons of zirconium. And he needed it within a year and a half in order to build his reactor in the timeframe he set for getting it done. He set up an entire new industry that was able to take zirconium that had previously cost $3,000 a pound and reduce the cost to $5 a pound. And to produce tons of it so that he could make his reactor.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And when you say reactor done only for the submarine, you’re basically saying any nuclear reactor we have now that is producing energy throughout the world, was all from the brilliance of Admiral Rickover?
MARC WORTMAN: Everything that has derived since in the nuclear power industry came directly out of what Hyman Rickover did during about a five-year period in the early 1950s.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, I read that in your book, and I’m saying to myself … First of all, I just put the book down. It’s not only unbelievable, it’s one of those things that if you told me … OK, I knew who Admiral Hyman Rickover was — father of the nuclear sub — that’s all I really knew. But the way you present it as a creator of energy and everything that started there, everything throughout the world, all the nuclear reactors, everything — the whole concept of using nuclear energy was this man’s brilliance in a small window of time, by a guy who was so hated by so many because he knew how to push everyone’s buttons. And I think you’re right that his goal every day was to make enemies, not friends. You know, he just went out of his way to piss people off. He pissed the chain of command off, he pissed the Navy off. Just as an aside, he wore a suit instead of a Navy uniform. And everything that we have is because of his brilliance. Do I have that right?
MARC WORTMAN: I think that’s quite fair to say that. Of course, over the years, there have been many changes and advances in the science, in the engineering. Prior to Rickover, there were the beginnings of efforts to make nuclear reactors. The Navy itself had an early program investigating the possibilities. It was put on hold during World War II. The first nuclear reactor was built underneath the stands of the University of Chicago football stadium by Enrico Fermi in 1943. But this thing was as big as a house, and you’re thinking about reducing it down, making it safe.
MARC WORTMAN: Rickover said: “I have a son. I love my son. I want my nuclear reactor to be safe enough that my son can go on one of these submarines and be safe.” That was his basic philosophy, and that that was a really important philosophy in itself. You know, the reactor is potentially incredibly dangerous. We’ve seen that at Chernobyl. We’ve seen that most recently in Japan with the tsunami.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Three Mile Island as well.
MARC WORTMAN: And Three Mile Island going back. And Rickover said it is essential that the sailors who were on board these ships be safe. And it’s not just for the sake of their lives, as important as that is. It’s also because as soon as we create something that people perceive as too dangerous to come in to their ports, it starts to lose value. In the almost 70 years since the launch of the USS Nautilus, the United States Navy has operated nuclear reactors under the most harrowing conditions — 1,000 feet-plus under the sea, on surfaces where 50-foot waves are breaking and operating millions of miles and millions of hours of the reactor time. And there has never been a nuclear accident.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Astounding.
MARC WORTMAN: People don’t realize this. The Navy presently operates 98 nuclear reactors. It’s the largest nuclear reactor operator in the world. And there have never been any accidents at those. And that’s because Rickover created a submarine force and a nuclear navy for which both safety and quality and training were paramount.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So I’m looking it up here. We have 71 nuclear subs. I hope my data is right. Does that sound about right to you?
MARC WORTMAN: It does. We also have 11 — I believe it’s 11 — nuclear carriers. We also have multiple training reactors.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But before you even get into that, I just want to give context to this for our listeners. The United States has 71 nuclear subs. Russia has 33. UK has 11. France has ten. China has three. India has two. So if you add up second, third, fourth and fifth place — and then some — they don’t even equal to what we have. And it’s one of the most amazing weapons at our disposal as you as you can tell us and share with us more. I think it was the Nautilus that went, in 1954, went under the polar caps?
MARC WORTMAN: That was in August 1958. So you spoke about Sputnik…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah.
MARC WORTMAN: The Soviet Union had launched a satellite into orbit. And what immediately created a moment of sheer terror within the United States was this idea that suddenly they could potentially launch nuclear weapons by rocket to into Europe, into the United States, against our allies. And, of course, we’re going through that now with North Korea and the potential for that to happen. Well, our answer under President Dwight Eisenhower was to send the Nautilus to make the transit from Alaska to Greenland under the polar ice — something that had been dreamed of but had never been accomplished before.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I want you to expand on that. How first of all, how deep is that?
MARC WORTMAN: Under the ice, it can go as much as 3,000 feet deep. But the real danger is that the ice varies in thickness. And there are jagged points that can come down. And if you’re sailing too close to the ice under the water there and you hit it, it could cause serious, even irreparable harm. It was as big a deal, in its way, as sending a man to the moon.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. Now, that’s how amazing this is. From just a few years earlier, where they were going no more than 300 to 400 feet deep. Well, I think 400 was really stretching it. That’s when you had the most pressure. So let’s call it, these things were operating 300 feet at best. So in just a few years, you’re now going 1,000 feet-plus under a place that no one on planet Earth has ever gone below — which is beneath the polar caps. And could you just share with us why that shook the Soviets in their boots? The geographic location from North Pole, Greenland.
MARC WORTMAN: Yeah. So what that means is that this essentially undetectable vessel can go under the ice and go right up to the northern shores of the Soviet Union, where the Soviet Union has their major bases for their navy.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And they didn’t hear a sound. They would never have picked up any of this.
MARC WORTMAN: Yeah. So there, you can bring an American vessel carrying torpedoes at that point, potentially special operations forces. And, most significantly, what it pointed to was eventually we were going to be able to load missiles onto these submarines. And these submarines could, if they are at that point within range of Soviet population centers or military bases, those missiles then provide a strategic threat to the Soviet Union.
MARC WORTMAN: So this became our answer to Sputnik. And it basically ended the idea that one side could launch a first strike against us. And when the Soviets got their own submarines, that we could launch a first strike against them, although we could talk about it. I’ve talked to many, many submarine captains who’ve told me: “We knew where they were. They didn’t know where we were.” But it created the third leg of the triad — land, sea and air — that assured the deterrence.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So this happens 1958, the Nautilus. I think it even surfaced in New York. I think I remember seeing something to that effect.
MARC WORTMAN: After the transit of the North Pole — which electrified the world — there was an announcement that took place at the White House. And we talked about the hatred of Rickover. Well, so, everybody who was associated with making this happen, except for the one guy who truly made it possible, was invited to the White House for this big announcement. Rickover is not brought in. And later on, I read that the acting chief of naval operations, who at that time specifically did not invite Rickover because he hated the man. He said: “If I ever catch Rickover in a dark alley, it’s going to be a knife fight.” Well, this was his knife fight. And he didn’t invite Rickover.
MARC WORTMAN: Well, Rickover was a political animal. He knew he had people who would back him to the hilt. They just happened not to be in the Navy. They were in Congress. Congress got wind of this. Congress went bananas. They gave him a second gold medal — the second person in all of the United States history to get a Congressional Gold Medal. The White House, because of the politics that were blowing up on them, they gave him a second star — increased his admiral rank. And then Eisenhower designated him as his personal representative to the parade celebrating the Nautilus.
MARC WORTMAN: So it sailed into New York Harbor to big fanfare. They had a parade down Broadway. And Rickover was in the lead car as the White House personnel representative. A quarter million people along there screaming out: “Way to go, Ricky!” And he turned, as he often did, he turned what looked like a real debacle for him personally, he turned it into a triumph.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, I don’t want to go into every detail that but, this guy … It looked like always the end of his career, and he served 63 years in the United States Navy?
MARC WORTMAN: Yeah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Has anyone even come close?
MARC WORTMAN: So Omar Bradley of World War II fame was on duty longer — had an Army career as long as Rickover’s Navy career. But unlike Bradley, Rickover actually served from the time he got into the Naval Academy in 1918 under Woodrow Wilson — so the end of the First World War — through to the beginnings of the end of the Cold War, under Ronald Reagan. 63 years to 1981, it’s a longer stretch of actual active duty service than any military officer in United States history.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, just absolutely amazing. And one thing that many people don’t know, even if people do know about Admiral Hyman Rickover, one of his famous officers went to the heights of power.
MARC WORTMAN: Yeah, well, a number of them did.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Well, only one sat in the Oval Office.
MARC WORTMAN: Only one sat in the Oval Office. That’s right. So Jimmy Carter was a nuclear-trained submarine officer back in the early 1950s. He’s one of the earlier nuclear-trained officers. He was bound for being an executive officer on a submarine when his father died. And so he resigned his commission at that point. Rickover was famous for his interviews of candidates to become nuclear officers. They were very tough interviews. And some people reacted badly to them. Carter came away from it when Rickover asked him: “Did you always do your best?” And Carter, who was a very earnest fellow, realized, he said: “No, I hadn’t.” And Rickover said to him: “Why not?”
MARC WORTMAN: And that became the basis for Carter’s campaign autobiography called Why Not the Best? And Carter said that no man had greater influence on his life than Rickover. And when Carter got to the White House, even before he got to the White House, I ran into some notes that Carter wrote to him — I found them in an archive — before he even announced that he was running for office, back when he was governor of Georgia. And he invited Rickover to be an advisor. And Rickover actually didn’t really even remember Carter. But Carter said: “You had more influence on me than anyone other than my father.”
MARC WORTMAN: But Rickover — once Carter got to the White House — was welcomed in the Oval Office any time. He served as a confidante, an advisor, something of a mentor. Carter even went over to Rickover’s his apartment to celebrate his birthday there. He went out on one of Rickover’s submarines and said: “This is the greatest engineering triumph in human history.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: By the way, folks, the book is around 250 some odd pages. I’m not even doing it justice because we didn’t even speak that much about what type of person Hyman Rickover was, the adversity he faced, the management style he had, the perseverance, the persistence, having everyone chomping at his feet, trying to destroy him. And he just persevered. We didn’t even get into that. So that why I want you to buy the book. But what strikes me so, when I read this, is how much I didn’t know about nuclear energy, nuclear reactors, the amazing leap in a five or six-year period from nuclear energy being a dream, from a destructive … What was it Oppenheimer said? “I am…”
MARC WORTMAN: “The destroyer of worlds.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, from a destroyer of worlds to where Rickover saw something that even people today — Europe mostly … And the problem is, if they had nuclear energy, they wouldn’t be in the situation they’re in now, worrying about getting oil and gas from the Russians. But the safety of it and the ability to transform energy in a way that nothing has ever done or will be done. A cheap, efficient way to control. People are freaking out 75 years later. Now, I just can’t even imagine in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, anyone saying: “Let’s take this and put it into a small container, relatively, and put it in a tightly packed submersible, and put people around it.” If you think about it that way, it’s just, you’ve got to be crazy. If someone told you that, you’d think they’re talking science fiction, you’re talking Jules Verne 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
MARC WORTMAN: Yeah. And in fact, people in the Navy started calling the first commander that Rickover designated for the Nautilus “Captain Nemo,” in a derogatory way because they didn’t believe that this stuff was going to happen.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: The first submarines called the Nautilus, right, after Jules Verne. I want to tell you, Marc, you did an amazing job here because the book is long enough to include everything, but not short enough to leave you wanting more. You have a tremendous amount of footnotes in here, which I love. Really notes in the back here. How long does it take you to research? My gosh. How many archives did you have to go through? What did this take you, several years?
MARC WORTMAN: It did. It was a three-year project from start to finish. It involved going to archives scattered around, Navy archives at the Submarine Force Museum, Naval War College, the Navy Department Library in Washington, the National Archives. But it ended up being a labor of love. You know, I started this knowing sort of that basic thing — father of the nuclear navy. But. What I didn’t know was what it took to become the father of the nuclear navy. And in fact, why I called it Engineer of Power instead of father of the nuclear nav. Because this was a guy who didn’t just engineer a technology. He engineered an entire industry. He engineered an entire political environment. He engineered an entire educational setup to make it possible to have…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Can I add one more thing? He engineered something … Which, the Navy was considered — I think you wrote in time of Truman or Eisenhower — why did you need a Navy anymore? They’re outdated. Put nuclear bombs through the Air Force. The Air Force is going to do it. The Navy? Let’s fade it out.
MARC WORTMAN: Yeah. Exactly that. After World War II, it was not clear what — in a world with atomic bombs — the role of the Navy could be. Because you couldn’t put atomic bombs on airplanes flying off a carrier deck.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Why is that? They’re too heavy, right?
MARC WORTMAN: They’re too heavy. They’re massive. They’re gigantic. And then just think about the idea of carrying an atomic bomb within a ship. You hit that with a conventional warhead, just think about what you would do. So, yeah, it really wasn’t clear what role the Navy was going to have when the Air Force took command of our strategic warfare resources.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. Before I let you go … The movie — I think it was Crimson Tide.
MARC WORTMAN: Hunt for Red October?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I think it was Crimson Tide I’m talking about, where you could have a — I don’t know if this was fiction or not, maybe I’m confusing my movies. Which one was with Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington? That was Crimson Tide, right? The Hunt for Red October was with Sean Connery, where they’re searching for the Soviet, the rogue ship. Now in Crimson Tide, I don’t know how true this is, and I want you to share this and give me your insight.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Just the premise, the quick beginning of it, without talking too much about the movie, is there is unrest in the Soviet Union at that moment. This submarine is going down, they surface to get orders and the orders are to launch a nuclear strike. But before they get all the codes or whatever the confirmation of it, the antenna is knocked off. And the whole tension of the movie is, do we follow orders and shoot first strike with nuclear weapons from the submarine? Or do we wait and reestablish contact and confirm? Gene Hackman was the Navy guy and and Denzel Washington was the XO. My question is — I don’t know if you can answer this or not — was that like just for movie’s sake or do captains of nuclear submarines have a first launch capability?
MARC WORTMAN: So in other words, can they launch without orders?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Or they get orders, are they able to … Is there any safeguard? Because I remember the movie made it seem — and this could be Hollywood — that a rogue captain of a nuclear sub without any orders, other than word from the president — I’m not sure for what it was, but they said they changed it, so I’m not 100% sure how Hollywood it was … Let me rephrase the question and strike everything I’ve said. How much power does a captain of a nuclear sub have to launch nuclear weapons? How does that work?
MARC WORTMAN: Now, I don’t know the specific sequences, but no individual on their own can give the order to launch. There has to be multiple individuals who concur to launch any kind of nuclear weapon. This is true for land, sea and air. This, of course, if you think about any number of Hollywood films going back to Failsafe and Dr. Strangelove. But, you know, this is always the fear — that there is some kind of automated or otherwise uncontrolled launch of strategic weapons. Nobody in and of him or herself has the ability to do that.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I guess there was an article back in 1986. I’m looking it up here, there was an article by an Australian scholar that was quickly, I see here, disavowed by the Navy — which said that “U.S. submarine commanders under some conditions can fire nuclear weapons without presidential permission, creating a situation where an atomic clash would likely begin at sea.” And then the Navy responded that “all nuclear weapons are carefully controlled and no ship or submarine captain can launch or fire a nuclear weapon without specific authorization from the National Command Authority, which is the president or his successor if he’s disabled.” So I guess this was Hollywood taking that and making a scary movie.
MARC WORTMAN: There are specific codes that have to be transmitted to the site. And then, even at that point, the individual captain cannot make the decision to launch without the concurrence of other officers on board.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right, in the movie was he was threatening other officers with a gun to their head to put the launch code up. But then again, it was Hollywood at its best.
MARC WORTMAN: You know, there is every reason to worry about the proliferation of these weapons. But the worry is not that some rogue individual within the Navy Air Force will make the decision unilaterally of “I’m going to start a nuclear war.” You know, that’s not going to happen. But simply by virtue of having so many of these weapons, you create a situation in which accidents of one form or another are within the realm of possibility.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Before I let you go, I’m just going to look this up because this totally fascinates me. And in all that you did, you started me thinking about nuclear subs and just the technological marvel that they are. “Nuclear subs can operate underwater for 3 to 4 months at a time and easily span seas.” And this was coming from, you just said, a few hours back in World War II or so. So, you know, 3 to 4 months. And you said it’s a couple of hundred feet, 200, 300, 400 feet maybe max. Now they can go down as far as 300 meters, 984 feet.
MARC WORTMAN: Oh, they can go deeper than that.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Deeper than that. So this is an old article here. It’s amazing. Yeah. I’m sure the Navy’s not going to tell us exactly how deep they can go. And I’m looking here, the speeds. They can get up to speeds of…
MARC WORTMAN: They can go 30 knots.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah.
MARC WORTMAN: Most of this stuff is classified.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yes, I’m sure they’re not going to put it on the web for me to see.
MARC WORTMAN: Yeah. Actually, the Soviet Union invested phenomenal amounts of money to build titanium submarines that could go incredibly deep, much deeper than our submarines — which don’t have that capability. But that was fool’s gold. That was money wasted because their titanium submarines are so noisy. We knew exactly where they were. And, you know, you want to see something that’s truly a comparison basis? Go look up the record of accidents within the Soviet and Russian navy — nuclear accidents — and compare that to the U.S. Navy.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I think there were seven or eight or something in the Russian, and we had zero. Just amazing.
MARC WORTMAN: And that doesn’t even count the sailors. These Russian submarines are notorious for radiation leaks that may not kill people immediately, but where they have to rotate sailors out so often because they’re getting overexposed to nuclear radiation and their health starts to deteriorate. I mean, it’s an awful situation for their Navy. And speaks world to what Rickover accomplished. That’s because of Hyman Rickover.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Amazing. All right. So, by the way, just to extend on that, you know, an immigrant who came to this country at barely six years old with his mom. And they almost had to go back from Ellis Island. And here he is. It’s just amazing what he creates with all the adversity against him. So, folks, the name of the book is Admiral Hyman Rickover: Engineer of Power by Marc Wortman. I highly, highly suggest this book. I read this book, it’s about 200 some odd pages. I read it all yesterday, Marc. And I wanted this fresh. And I’m going through this. You start with this book and you just think of context, and so many things that you bring up.
MARC WORTMAN: I don’t even want to go into it, buy the book, folks. There are so many little tidbits of knowledge in here, of what kind of brilliant guy this man was in terms of work ethic, in terms of honesty, in terms of getting what he wanted, sometimes really walking a tightrope of being legal. But he got it done. He got it done. He took the initiative. This is called moxie. It’s called grit.
MARC WORTMAN: Yeah, or chutzpah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Chutzpah — nothing better than that. Marc, continued success to you and fantastic book. Thanks so much for being on the show.
MARC WORTMAN: Charles, thank you so much. I really enjoyed this.
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