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Against the Tide

Against the Tide by Rear Adm Dave Oliver, USN, Retired. Naval Institute Press, 2014, 178 pp. 


Against the Tide is an aptly named survey of the leadership qualities and professional values of Adm Hyman Rickover, the long-esteemed visionary and architect of the Navy’s nuclear submarine force. As written by his subaltern, Rear Adm Dave Oliver, USN, retired, Admiral Rickover is portrayed as an unconventional figure whose often-controversial leadership and interpersonal style rankled subordinate and president alike but undeniably yielded long-lasting impacts on the Navy’s submarine force and America’s Cold War nuclear deterrent. From the outset, Oliver states the book is not intended as a biography of Rickover but, rather, a sampling of the shaping forces which gave rise to his vision for the Navy’s nuclear enterprise and a distillation of the management principles that emerged from his years at its helm. While some potentially rich detail is omitted from the description of Rickover’s complete professional history, Oliver presents a succinct account of a man ahead of his time in his vision for the potential of nuclear power, its applications for operational use at sea, and the organizational culture changes necessary to run a warfighting enterprise with no tolerance for error. 

On an individual level, Rickover was notable in numerous ways, having been the longest-serving man in the history of the naval service at the time of his retirement, with a six-decade career spanning World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. However, his storied career began vastly different than those of his beribboned contemporaries, having been seemingly sidelined during key tests of wartime mettle during World War II. While Rickover held positions distant from the sound of the guns, his mind teemed with ideas for organizational management, with his experience pruned and shaped by the lessons of navigating the political and bureaucratic narrows of Washington, DC. As the war ended, Rickover’s service was notable but undistinguished compared to the martial feats of his contemporaries in the Pacific, and the light of his career appeared to wane during the postwar drawdown. However, this seemingly fallow period bore fruit in 1948, when President Truman formed the Atomic Energy Commission and Rickover was tapped to advise the group on how nuclear power would be leveraged for operational use in the Navy. In this instance, Oliver highlights Rickover’s proof that an officer’s effectiveness is not always proven in the crucible of combat but, rather, can also be manifest in his ability to envision, create, and manage an enterprise with truly strategic impact. 

The irony of Rickover’s success as the chief designer of the Navy’s nuclear submarine enterprise is that it did not stem from the blind faith in machinery and engineering so commonly found during the military-industrial swell of the 1950s and 1960s. Rather, Rickover espoused a seemingly contrarian view, emphasizing the intellect, judgment, and performance of his personnel first. Only after one had demonstrated excellence in these areas could he be admitted to the elite circle of the nuclear submarine force, given its engineering complexity, uncompromising operational standards, and unforgiving working conditions. To staff such a force at its inception, Rickover went against the traditional wisdom of valuing experience over all else, on occasion selecting submarine novices ahead of diesel submarine crews with wartime experience. His rationale for such decisions was rooted in his emphasis on the ability to assess and solve complex problems in situations of strategic importance while safely operating the submarine, its reactor, and nuclear weapons in wartime. Given the operational emphasis on deterrence rather than direct confrontation, Rickover favored the uncorrupted judgment and logical thought of the newcomers, vice his perception of combat-tested (and potentially risk-prone) diesel submarine veterans from World War II. Such decisions harken to the tough balance required by Rickover’s management style, with subordinate commanders expected to boldly and courageously employ their submarines to established limits, while simultaneously balancing this boldness with an uncompromising deference to nuclear safety, thus presenting an interesting contrast for the reader. 

Rickover’s unique and sometimes controversial management style is truly the heart of Against the Tide, with the lessons varying widely but firmly rooted in his nonnegotiable personal traits of personal responsibility when in command, attention to detail (particularly in the realm of nuclear safety), and the mastery of one’s professional craft. While seemingly simple principles, Oliver effectively conveys that a failure to uphold these fundamental rules can have a profoundly harmful impact on any organization, whether endangering the lives of a submarine crew or placing the survival of one’s business in jeopardy. Expanding beyond personal traits, Oliver does present Rickover’s leadership style as bordering on micromanagement, with his taking a personal interest in the evaluation, selection, and placement of every officer in the nuclear submarine force and paying constant attention to their performance throughout the duration of their career. However, Oliver does present this oversight though a nostalgic lens, with Rickover’s severity a natural byproduct of a devoted and exacting mentor. Further, Oliver intimates it was this toughness which girded Rickover for organizational culture battles within the submarine community and across the Navy, with his success largely dependent upon his keen understanding of people and firm grasp of interorganizational realpolitik. 

The brevity of Against the Tide makes the book an accessible venture into the mind and actions of Hyman Rickover and the genesis of today’s nuclear submarine force. However, the reader would have benefitted from a deeper analysis of Rickover’s formative years, particularly his early shipboard experiences and following command at sea. While Oliver alludes to these eras in passing, the book largely centers on Rickover’s successes during his years as a senior officer, leaving the treasured lessons his early years relatively untouched. This critique aside, the book is a fascinating account of a lesser-known Cold War luminary, with its unique vantage point offering lessons for all students of leadership, military, and civilian alike. 

Maj Walter J. Darnell III, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

 
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