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Admiral Hyman Rickover Dead at 86

July 9, 1986
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Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear Navy and developer of the first nuclear power plant in the world, died Tuesday at the age of 86 at his home in Arlington, Va. from complications due to strokes suffered over the past year.

Rickover, the first Jewish Admiral in the U.S. Navy, was the longest-serving officer in the U.S. Navy and led a career marked by controversy and contradictions.

As head of nuclear propulsion for the Navy between 1949 and 1982, Rickover worked diligently to build a fleet of missile-carrying nuclear submarines, each capable of destroying every major city in the Soviet Union.

Yet, upon his retirement in early 1982, by the request of the Reagan Administration, he told Congress he was not proud of his role in the arms race and warned that nuclear war was likely.

He was known for his strong personality which caused him to have both many friends and many enemies. But Rickover was always admired by powerful supporters in Congress. The Admiral also had a reputation as a tireless and selfless public servant who denounced military contractors for wasting tax money. However, the Navy Department last year censured him for accepting gifts from defense contractors valued at $68,703 in the years before his retirement. Rickover denied any wrongdoing.

Born in Poland on January 27, 1900, Rickover was brought to Chicago by his parents at the age of six. He recalled his early years in Poland at a gala for his 83rd birthday in Washington.


“I was born in Poland, then a part of Russia, and was not allowed to attend public schools because of my Jewish faith,” he told the nearly 500 people at the dinner, including former Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

“However, starting at age four, I attended a religious school where the only learning was from the Old Testament, in Hebrew. School hours were from sunrise to sunset, six days a week.

“My father emigrated to the U.S. shortly before 1900, and saved enough money from his work to send tickets for my mother, my sister and me. My mother packed as much of our possessions as she could carry in a sheet, including bedding and ten days’ supply of kosher food.”

In America, he began working as an errand boy for Western Union and was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1919. He graduated in 1922 and was commissioned an ensign that year. After sea duty and study of electrical engineering at Annapolis and Columbia University, he served aboard submarines for three years.


The small-framed, gaunt Admiral overcame hurdles as a Jew and held increasingly important staff and command positions in the U.S. Navy. Rickover also served with the Atomic Energy Commission at Oakridge.

Against considerable opposition, Rickover persuaded the U.S. Navy in 1947 to begin construction of nuclear powered submarines and was placed in charge of the project which launched the first one, Nautilus.

Later on, Rickover created the U.S. nuclear submarine fleet which helped revolutionize atomic era defense. He received two Congressional Gold Medals for his outstanding service to the U.S.

According to a close friend of Rickover, Dr. Mordecai Hacohen, first vice president of the Bank Leumi Trust Company of New York, when the Admiral visited Israel in 1981 and met with the-then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, “he came out of the meeting a reborn Jew and his whole past came back to him.”

He then established the Rickover Science Institute which every summer arranged for four or five Israeli top science students to join 50 top students from the U.S., one from each state, in meeting with U.S. scientists and to study advanced programs in electronics and computer science. A few months ago he had resigned as head of the Institute. While Rickover did not follow in the Orthodox tradition of his parents, Hacohen described him as “a good Jew at heart.”

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