DIANE SAWYER: He’s the Navy’s most famous and most cantankerous admiral. Hyman George Rickover, the father of the nuclear submarine, was censored last month for accepting gifts from a naval contractor, General Dynamics, over a 16-year period. The gifts totaled more than $67,000 but it seems that the company was wasting its money. Before he retired, Rickover declared war on General Dynamics. He accused them of trying to cheat the government. When we first broadcast this interview, the investigation of the admiral and the gifts had just begun, but the 84-year-old Rickover was undaunted. He was much the same as he had been in 1957, the last time he submitted himself to an unrestricted personal interview – combative, challenging, deliberately provocative.
ADMIRAL HYMAN RICKOVER: No, I never have thought I was smart. I thought the people I dealt with were as dumb, were dumb, including you.
SAWYER: I’ll tell you, to be called dumb by you is to be in very good company, Edward R. Murrow, for one. I think you said he asked you stupid questions.
AD RICKOVER: Oh yeah, he – well, I told him the same – I told him he was asking stupid questions and he agreed. He says, well, what questions should I ask? And I told him.
AD RICKOVER (previous interview): You’re looking for easy solutions. The trouble with you is you want easy answers, but you don’t know the proper questions.
EDWARD R. MURROW: All right, you go ahead and phrase the question and then phrase the answer.
AD RICKOVER: Perhaps the question should be, what should be the role of educated or intellectual people in the United States? Now does that sound like a better question?
MURROW: That’s a fine question.
SAWYER: In an interview or on a ship, Hyman George Rickover likes to take command. Even at 84, the admiral can inspect a submarine with the agility of an ensign. In Rickover’s mind, these are his submarines. He designed the reactor, he trained the men. One out of four admirals commanding ships today was trained by Rickover. His nuclear empire became known as ‘Rickover’s Navy,” and it ran solely Rickover’s way. And you just thought that the rules of the Navy were silly?
ADMIRAL RICKOVER: I don’t know about – I never read the rules. I prohibited – I – we never had a Na – book of Navy regulations in my office. I prohibited it. One time some guy brought it in and I told him to get the hell out and bum it.
SAWYER: Because you wanted them to think?
AD RICKOVER: I wanted them to think. If they knew what their job was, they didn’t need a book of regulations.
SAWYER: How can you run a navy if everybody in it acts like you do? If everybody considers himself-
AD RICKOVER: Well, I don’t – I – I never told the others how to act. I acted my own way, my own genius.
SAWYER: But you know they said that you were unaccountable.
AD RICKOVER: I was a hundred percent accountable. If anything had ever gone wrong with a nuclear ship, to whom would – who would they have pointed their finger at? What – what they mean is I would not do all the things they asked me to do. I did the things I thought was right.
SAWYER: But that’s not working within the system. Isn’t that what the military is about, working within the system?
AD RICKOVER: I – my job was not to work within the system. My job was to get things done and make this country strong.
SAWYER: What he got done was this: the Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, launched in 1952, the machine that would change military strategy forever. His submarine could stay underwater for months. Rickover stunned the world by building the Nautilus from scratch in only five years, leaving the Russians far behind. Many people called him the best engineer the Navy ever had. Today there are 141 ships in the nuclear fleet, but once there was just the man and his obsession – with science, not saluting; with engineering, not command. What drove you down into the body of the ship to learn about why the cranks cranked and the –
ADMIRAL RICKOVER: Well, for Chrissake, what the hell is there about standing up and saluting and dressing up in uniform? You can put dummies to do that job.
SAWYER: That’s why you became an engineer?
ADMIRAL RICKOVER: Well –
SAWYER: Naval engineer?
ADMIRAL RICKOVER: I was in the Navy and I could do more and I could learn more. I couldn’t see myself just standing officer, the deck-watchers and saluting and all that nonsense.
SAWYER: But why did you really – why did you work so hard?
AD RICKOVER: I was getting paid for it.
SAWYER: No. Why did you work so –
AD RICKOVER: I would have worked hard at any job. No job I ever undertook that I didn’t work hard on.
SAWYER: Why? Why did it all matter to you so much?
AD RICKOVER: Because that’s what being a human being is, to do the best you can under any circumstances.
SAWYER: What is at the heart of leadership? Is it in personality? Charisma?
AD RICKOVER: No. For example, I have the charisma of a chipmunk. So what the hell difference does that make?
SAWYER: It was certainly not his personality that won Rickover three Distinguished Service Medals and, to celebrate the Nautilus, a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York – a long way from the tiny town in Russian-occupied Poland where Rickover was born, the son of a tailor; a long way for the boy who landed at Ellis Island at the age of six and grew up in a ghetto in Chicago, and won an appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He was terrified he wouldn’t make it. He became the class grind.
Did you ever go out on dates?
AD RICKOVER: No.
SAWYER: Did you ever go to dances?
AD RICKOVER: No.
SAWYER: Did you ever go to the movies?
AD RICKOVER: On Saturday night occasionally. I studied. Girls didn’t – I – I was so busy trying to get by, stay alive, that I didn’t worry about girls. You can get along without girls. Yeah. Don’t wink at me.
SAWYER: Was it a very snobbish atmosphere?
ADMIRAL RICKOVER: No. Sure everybody got hazing there at that time. I got probably somewhat more than the average. So what? I was mature.
SAWYER: Why did you get more than other people, you think?
ADMIRAL RICKOVER: Because I was Jewish. They didn’t have any – very rare for a Jew to go to the Naval Academy. You know an interesting thing that later on, many years later when I had high rank in the Navy, one or two of those – I was going to use the word bastard – came around and asked me for favors for them, those who had treated me that way. I wouldn’t do it.
SAWYER: You remembered them?
AD RICKOVER: Of course. The most pleasant thing was in becoming an officer and going to a ship and seeing the mature, adult attitude in which one was treated as compared to that lousy boys’ school.
SAWYER: Today that lousy boys’ school has a science building named for Rickover; inside, models of his submarines and the testing devices he invented. Rickover science and a Rickover superstition: it’s supposed to be good luck to rub his nose, the one on the statue. And how about the Rickover stories? The admirals who run the Naval Academy remembered being grilled by Rickover when they applied for admission to his nuclear sub school.
OFFICER: One young man there came in with long hair and he told him he had to choose between the long hair and the program. And he walked out and said, ‘My girlfriend likes this ponytail.”
AD RICKOVER: Fine. That was the end. The little son of a bitch should have gotten cut it all off and gotten a wig.
SAWYER: I heard that you had people come in and they sat – you sat them down in chairs in which some of the legs were shorter than the others.
AD RICKOVER: No, no, no. Only two. I’d saw off six inches from two –
SAWYER: Oh, just two.
AD RICKOVER: Only two, and it – it was difficult because they kept – it was a shiny chair and they kept sliding off. So it was – they had to maintain their wits about them while they were asked these questions while they were sliding off the chair.
SAWYER: And what about those that you brought in and made stand in the broom closet?
ADMIRAL RICKOVER: Well, they came in, they gave stupid answers. So I thought I’d give them a chance to think. I’d put them in there for a couple of hours, three hours, and it gave them plenty of time to think.
SAWYER: But what were you trying to do with these young men who came in to you?
ADMIRAL RICKOVER: I was trying to draw out of them what they had potentially in them.
SAWYER: A young ensign from Georgia eluded the broom closet, but couldn’t escape Rickover’s demand for excellence. But did you hate him a little?
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: There were a few times, yeah, when I hated him, because he demanded more from me than I thought I could deliver.
SAWYER: James Earl Carter hated him, revered him and became his Commander in Chief. Is anyone his boss?
PRESIDENT CARTER: I never really felt like his boss, although he would say that I was. I’m not sure that he ever acknowledged it really deep down in his heart.
SAWYER: Carter and four other Presidents would intervene to keep Rickover on active duty 20 years past his retirement date. The Navy was not pleased. It had been trying to retire Rickover as far back as the year he launched the Nautilus. His fellow officers were tired of his abrasiveness and contempt for regulations, but Rickover had taken care to build alliances in the White House and on Capitol Hill. In a public relations tour de force, he cultivated members of Congress by asking their wives to sign the keels of his submarines, and by taming his launches into lavish photo opportunities for his congressional supporters. He valued their protection. They valued his blunt testimony.
CONGRESSMAN: What do you think is the – is the – is the prospect, then, for nuclear war?
AD RICKOVER: Well I think we’ll probably destroy ourselves. So what difference will it make? Some new species will come up that might be wiser than we are. I do not believe in divine intercession. In the eyes of the Lord, we are not the most important thing in the universe.
SAWYER: The Reagan Administration finally forced Rickover to retire in 1982. Nearly everyone said he was too old. But after 64 years of service, he didn’t even receive the courtesy of a call.
AD RICKOVER: My wife told me, it’s on the radio that you’re fired. ‘Mat’s how I found out about it, yeah. ‘That’s how the Navy notified me, my wife hearing it on TV-
SAWYER: Were you surprised when the Reagan Administration told him goodbye?
PRESIDENT CARTER: No, because the defense contractors were out to get Rickover for a long time. He was an embarrassment to them and he was part of a one-man watchdog.
AD RICKOVER: There was over a billion dollars worth of claims by shipbuilders which I thought were false and I fought it. Now, it’s quite a complete coincidence, but within a month or two months after I left – left, most of that money was given to the shipbuilders. Of course, that’s a coincidence.
SAWYER: The shipbuilders did hate him because he refused to pay them and because he demanded perfection. He said they didn’t know ships from horse droppings. And now, Rickover has been charged with taking presents from the shipbuilders. A former executive from one contractor, General Dynamics, was the first to reveal that Rickover had been given gifts, a lot of them, some of them expensive.
ADMIRAL RICKOVER: Oh, they gave me little plaques, they gave me all kinds – one time I think I even got a small diamond, in the time I was married. But the question that ought – I did. I took – so did others. I don’t deny it. But the question that ought to be asked is, did I favor General Dynamics or any other contractor? The question is whether it influenced you.
SAWYER: But how can an – an American citizen know whether it influenced you or not?
ADMIRAL RICKOVER: I didn’t – I didn’t think about the views of the American citizen. I was governed by my own thoughts.
SAWYER: In fact Rickover requested a lot of the gifts so he could give them to members of
Congress who supported his subs, expensive gifts and not just the key chains he picked up off his desk.
Why do you think this has come out now?
AD RICKOVER: On account of claims –
SAWYER: General Dynamics?
AD RICKOVER: I accused them of false claims.
SAWYER: General Dynamics?
ADMIRAL RICKOVER: General Dynamics. And I always stuck to it.
SAWYER: And you think this is just a little revenge they’re trying on you?
ADMIRAL RICKOVER: I don’t care. They’re not taking any revenge on me. I have my own conscience. Do you think I was crooked when I was in office? Do you think the public thinks so because I got things like this?
SAWYER: But do you worry that, at the end of this long career, that something like this has been raised and your ethics are questioned by the press?
ADMIRAL RICKOVER: Well I don’t – it doesn’t bother me, it doesn’t bother me. I think God knows what I did and I don’t care what the contractors or you think.
SAWYER: What Rickover admits to caring about is American education. Over the years he has given $100,000 of his own money to educational projects, and now he’s raised some $200,000 for a foundation of his own, the Rickover Science Institute, which brings 60 gifted students to Washington each summer for intensive study. What is it that you think the gifted children. most need that they’re not getting in the school system?
AD RICKOVER: They need the exercise of their brains. They need not to be kept in apathy, not to let their parents run around and have a good time. The primary function of parents in this world is to raise their children to the best of their ability. They’re not doing it.
STUDENT: Okay, well I agree with you in that we need to invest more money –
AD RICKOVER: Well, thank you very much. (Laughter)
SAWYER: And sometimes the educator can’t resist being the admiral again.
AD RICKOVER: You’d better talk up because the audience is not hearing what you’re saying. Start all over again and talk up. (Laughter) Yeah, use all your equipment. C’mon!
SAWYER: If Rickover is hard on parents and kids, he’s also hard on an institution he fathered civilian nuclear power. This is the plant at Three Mile Island. Rickover built the first civilian nuclear plant. He says nuclear energy will be necessary for the future because Americans are squandering their resources. But he worries that the plant technicians are not being properly supervised and he worries where the nuclear discovery will lead.
PRESIDENT CARTER: One of the most remarkable things that he ever told me was when we were together on the submarine and he said that he wished that a nuclear explosive had never been evolved. And then he said, ‘I wish that nuclear power had never been discovered.’ And I said, ‘Admiral, this is your life.’ He said, ‘I would forego all the accomplishments of my life, and I would be willing to forego all the advantages of nuclear power to propel ships, for medical research and for every other purpose of generating electric power, if we could have avoided the evolution of atomic explosives.’
SAWYER: What is the biggest threat in the use of nuclear weapons? Is it the Russians?
AD RICKOVER: It’s always somebody else, of course. But you might think maybe it’s both the fault of both of us.
Where do I sign, here? Why – why don’t you write your initial? People will always remember how you look. They’ll never forget.
SAWYER: You won’t even – you won’t even accept the bureaucracy of signing your name –
AD RICKOVER: I never have, even in the na – in the military, I’ll do that.
SAWYER: You don’t agree with the rule?
AD RICKOVER: I – I ag – any rule that I like I agree with.
SAWYER: Rickover runs four miles a day and works eleven hours arranging fund-raisers and speeches – here with the director of his foundation, Joann Digennaro. He’s also working on a book, a kind of summation. ‘Me text will be taken from these notebooks – 100 volumes of thoughts and ideas Rickover has written and collected through his lifetime.
AD RICKOVER: It says Dean Acheson said –
SAWYER: And among the volumes, a glimpse of the private Rickover, a man few people other than his second wife Eleanor know: the love letters he wrote to his first wife fifty years ago. This is you on a submarine –
AD RICKOVER: Yeah, what did I –
SAWYER: And you were – read this to me. This is so terrific.
ADMIRAL RICKOVER: Here, I’ll read it to you. ‘Forgive me for not writing more, I am so tired. Above all though, there is the clear thought of you and of my love. Your vision is ever fresh, smiling and lovely. Your likeness and alertness contrasts with my drowsiness. Good night. I shall fall asleep with thoughts of you as my lullaby.’ Is that a good (indistinct)?
SAWYER: The letters his first wife wrote back are gone. Rickover says he burned them in despair the night she died. Do you believe there’s an afterlife?
AD RICKOVER: I don’t know. I’ve never talked with any of the people there. I don’t know. Never met any yet.
SAWYER: You don’t think it likely there’s a heaven and a hell?
AD RICKOVER: I don’t give any thought to that. I think you make your heaven and hell right on ” earth. You should – you should act on this earth as if it were heaven.
SAWYER: A footnote on those gifts that got the admiral in such trouble. The Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, said that the censure of Rickover should not overshadow his many achievements. It was just that a Navy admiral should be held to a higher standard. In response, Rickover issued a public rebuttal of the charges. He has also called Secretary Lehman one of the biggest fools the Navy ever had.