One of the few really interesting educational sites on Connecticut’s shoreline is the Submarine Force Library and Museum, located in Groton, near General Dynamics’ Electric Boat yards. Permanently moored on the Thames River, hard by Naval Submarine Base New London, is the world’s first nuclear sub, the fabled USS Nautilus, which is open to the public and worth a day’s visit.
The result of an audacious, some might have said crazy, plan to put the new technology of a nuclear reactor on a submarine, the Nautilus permanently changed naval warfare and global strategy, leading less than six years after its 1954 launch to the first of the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, the USS Enterprise. No longer would naval ships be limited by how much oil (or coal) they could carry. As of 1954, the U.S. Navy had developed the capability essentially to keep its ships at sea indefinitely. Since the launching of the Nautilus exactly 60 years ago, the U.S. Navy has safely operated hundreds of nuclear-powered vessels, and never, as far as is known, lost one to a nuclear accident. And none of this would have been possible without the determination of one irascible, difficult, hated genius: Admiral Hyman G. Rickover.
In a career spanning an incredible 63 years — the longest in U.S. naval history — Rickover battled the Navy, the defense industry, the media, and nearly everyone else who crossed his path. The ultimate of outsiders, he was born in a small Jewish shtetl in eastern Poland in January 1900, emigrated with his family to Chicago, and became one of the handful of early-20th-century Jews to enter the United States’ military academies, winning a slot at Annapolis in the class of 1922. Rickover quickly became an engineering officer, his specialty for the rest of his career, and he was picked in 1946 as one of the first naval officers to work on the new field of nuclear power generation. His role as godfather of the Navy’s nuclear program gave him unparalleled control over the development of what was perhaps America’s most asymmetric military advantage during the Cold War.
Dozens of books have been written on Rickover, but no video documentary had been made, until now. Rickover: The Birth of Nuclear Power premiered last week on PBS, just in time to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the launching of the Nautilus. It is a laudable effort, and tells a fascinating story, but what should have been an in-depth look at one of the greatest engineering challenges in modern history and the transformation of modern military strategy devolves into a typical Washington-style focus on personalities, ego, and ultimately power.
The story of the creation of America’s nuclear navy is by its nature a complex one, but the film’s script stays too much at the level of generalities, eschewing a detailed treatment of either its human subject or the technical issues. The narration in particular is often melodramatic and simplistic. What should be the centerpiece of the movie, the development of the Nautilus, is treated essentially as a deus ex machine: Just 30 minutes into the film, the world’s first nuclear submarine is seemingly effortlessly launched. There is almost no discussion at anything beyond a rudimentary level of the mind-boggling difficulties this project entailed, and certainly almost none of the drama of the engineering feats that made it possible comes through.
Instead, the film spends close to half its two-hour running time on dramatizations of Rickover’s life and times, mostly barebones scenes in Rickover’s office, that add little to the viewer’s understanding of the triumphs and challenges that attended the program. A far better use of time could have been made with more newsreel footage, adding to the interesting interviews of some of Rickover’s close associates that enliven the production. Instead, the story of Rickover comes across as a soap opera, focused mostly on battling personalities instead of pathbreaking technological developments. Moreover, the decision to go back and start telling Rickover’s personal biography after the movie is nearly a third over means that the viewers have had no sense of who this man is during the 30 minutes they watched him putting together the Nautilus program.
For the historian, Rickover: The Birth of Nuclear Power also fails to provide much context for its story of atomic power until much too late in the storytelling. While the film does discuss the shock of Sputnik, a broader sense of the unique dangers of the Cold War, the promise of nuclear power, the race for military supremacy in the nuclear age, and the like would best have been provided early on, so as to underscore the importance of what Rickover was doing. As it is, the viewer is given little reason to have any real interest in this extraordinary accomplishment, nor an appreciation of how it led to another arms race — this one under the sea — and the expansion of ballistic-missile forces away from bombers and land-based silos.
Unfortunately, the compelling story of the growth of the nuclear navy is all but glossed over (again, except for personalities, in this case Rickover versus the Kennedy-era secretary of defense, Robert McNamara), and a sudden shift to Rickover’s role in promoting and then criticizing civilian nuclear power feels incomplete and disjointed. The film moves unevenly from the Nautilus to President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program, and Rickover’s role is shown more in pieces than in a seamless whole. The viewer who has no prior knowledge of Rickover’s life gets almost no understanding of his continued control of the Navy’s nuclear program. Instead, the audience is thrust suddenly into Jimmy Carter’s anti-nuclear administration and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident of 1979, followed by Rickover’s fall from grace during the early Reagan administration. Instead of spending its time on footage of Ralph Nader and anti-nuke rock concerts, the film could have usefully contrasted America’s civilian nuclear-power program with the Navy’s spotless record of nuclear operations.
The triumph of Hyman Rickover is a story that deserves a wider audience, and the filmmakers deserve credit for rescuing Rickover from undeserved neglect just a few decades after his death. Yet Rickover: The Birth of Nuclear Power could have been a documentary companion to Richard Rhodes’s magnificent book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Instead, it lets pass untouched much of the extraordinary scientific, engineering, and operational heroics that have in no small part made America’s military unparalleled in modern history.
— Michael Auslin is a frequent contributor to National Review Online.