Hyman G. Rickover Quotes

Hyman George Rickover, 1900 – 1986

Born: 27 January 1900, Mak
Died: 8 July 1986, Arlington, Virginia

Rickover’s family fled tsarist pogroms, moving to Manhattan’s East Side in 1905 and the Chicago suburb of Lawndale two years later. While at John Marshall High School, Rickover held a full-time job delivering telegrams, which introduced him to the congressman who appointed him to the US Naval Academy. He worked on a destroyer and battleship before returning to the academy to earn an MS in Electrical Engineering, with additional work at Columbia University. He volunteered for submarine duty but was turned down due to age, a former commanding officer intervened. He was sent to Pearl Harbor to organize power plant repairs for USS California, then led the Electrical Section of the Bureau of Ships. In 1946 he was part of the Navy team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, again only through the intervention of a former commander, to begin designing a nuclear propulsion system. The design of a safe and powerful reactor that would fit in a submarine required overcoming many technical obstacles, a problem Rickover tackled with energy, but without tact. He made admiral in 1958, over the next three decades he ruled the nuclear program, personally interviewing every officer involved with the design and construction of the nuclear powered ships, as well as every officer assigned to them in service. He sailed on the maiden voyage of most, possibly all, of the nuclear vessels launched. The same rigid command that was a success during the first half century of his career became more of a problem at the end, he was forced to retire in 1982 after 63 years in the Navy. He is, and probably always will be, the longest serving member of the US armed forces. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal (twice), the Distinguished Service Medal (three times), 61 civilian awards, 15 honorary degrees, and the Enrico Fermi Award. Long a critic of American education, Rickover founded the Center for Excellence in Education in 1983. Following a stroke, he died at home.

Hyman G. Rickover quotes:

A system under which it takes three men to check what one is doing is not control; it is systematic strangulation.
    Hyman G. Rickover – US Naval Post Graduate School address (16 March 1954)

Above all, we should bear in mind that our liberty is not an end in itself; it is a means to win respect for human dignity for all classes of our society.
    Hyman G. Rickover – “Thoughts on Man’s Purpose in Life” lecture to Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs (1982)

All men are by nature conservative but conservatism in the military profession is a source of danger to the country. One must be ready to change his line sharply and suddenly, with no concern for the prejudices and memories of what was yesterday. To rest upon formula is a slumber that, prolonged, means death.
    Hyman G. Rickover – US Naval Post Graduate School address (16 March 1954)

Any one detail, followed through to its source, will usually reveal the general state of readiness of the whole organization.
    Hyman G. Rickover – The Rickover Effect biography by Theodore Rockwell (1992)

As a guide to engineering ethics, I should like to commend to you a liberal adaptation of the injunction contained in the oath of Hippocrates that the professional man do nothing that will harm his client.
    Hyman G. Rickover – The Rickover Effect biography by Theodore Rockwell (1992)

Everything new endangers something old.
    Hyman G. Rickover – The Rickover Effect biography by Theodore Rockwell (1992)

Free discussion requires an atmosphere unembarrassed by any suggestion of authority or even respect.
    Hyman G. Rickover – US Naval Post Graduate School address (16 March 1954)

Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience.
    Hyman G. Rickover – “Doing a Job” speech at Columbia University (1982)

How the hell are you supposed to know what God wants you to do with your life, eh?
    Hyman G. Rickover – The Rickover Effect biography by Theodore Rockwell (1992)

Human experience shows that people, not organizations or management systems, get things done.
    Hyman G. Rickover – The Rickover Effect biography by Theodore Rockwell (1992)

I am not proud of the part I played in it. I did it because it was necessary for the safety of this country. That’s why I am such a great exponent of stopping this whole nonsense of war. Unfortunately limits — attempts to limit war have always failed. The lesson of history is when a war starts every nation will ultimately use whatever weapon it has available.
    Hyman G. Rickover – Testimony to Congress (28 January 1982)

I believe it is the duty of each of us to act as if the fate of the world depended on him. Admittedly, one man by himself cannot do the job. However, one man can make a difference…. We must live for the future of the human race, and not for our own comfort or success.
    Hyman G. Rickover – The Rickover Effect biography by Theodore Rockwell (1992)

I do not have regrets. I believe I helped preserve the peace for this country. Why should I regret that? What I accomplished was approved by Congress — which represents our people. All of you live in safety from domestic enemies because of security from the police. Likewise, you live in safety from foreign enemies because our military keeps them from attacking us.
    Hyman G. Rickover – “Thoughts on Man’s Purpose in Life” lecture to Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs (1982)

I have a son. I love my son. I want everything that I do to be so safe that I would be happy to have my son operating it. That’s my fundamental rule.
    Hyman G. Rickover

If you’re going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you, but the bureaucracy won’t.
    Hyman G. Rickover

In Greek mythology, Antaeus was a giant who was strong as long as he had contact with the earth. When he was lifted from the earth he lost strength. So it is with engineers. They must not become isolated from the real world.

Hyman G. Rickover

quoted by Theodore Rockwell in The Rickover Effect (1992)
It is a human inclination to hope things will work out, despite evidence or doubt to the contrary. A successful manager must resist this temptation.

Hyman G. Rickover

quoted by Theodore Rockwell in The Rickover Effect (1992)
It is necessary for us to learn from others’ mistakes. You will not live long enough to make them all yourself.

Hyman G. Rickover
It is said that a wise man who stands firm is a statesman, and a foolish man who stands firm is a catastrophe.

Hyman G. Rickover

quoted by Theodore Rockwell in The Rickover Effect (1992)
It troubles me that we are so easily pressured by purveyors of technology into permitting so-called ‘progress’ to alter our lives without attempting to control it—as if technology were an irrepressible force of nature to which we must meekly submit.

Hyman G. Rickover
Knowing more about the public effects his work will have, the engineer ought to consider himself an “officer of the court” and keep the general interest always in mind.

Hyman G. Rickover

quoted by Theodore Rockwell in The Rickover Effect (1992)
More than ambition, more than ability, it is rules that limit contribution; rules are the lowest common denominator of human behavior. They are a substitute for rational thought.

Hyman G. Rickover

US Naval Post Graduate School address (16 March 1954)
Nature is not as forgiving as Christ.

Hyman G. Rickover

quoted by Theodore Rockwell in The Rickover Effect (1992)
Nothing so sharpens the thought process as writing down one’s arguments. Weaknesses overlooked in oral discussion become painfully obvious on the written page.

Hyman G. Rickover

quoted by Theodore Rockwell in The Rickover Effect (1992)
Optimism and stupidity are nearly synonymous.

Hyman G. Rickover

US Naval Post Graduate School address (16 March 1954)
Sit down before fact with an open mind. Be prepared to give up every preconceived notion. Follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads, or you learn nothing. Don’t push out figures when facts are going in the opposite direction.

Hyman G. Rickover

US Naval Post Graduate School address (16 March 1954)
Success teaches us nothing; only failure teaches.

Hyman G. Rickover

US Naval Post Graduate School address (16 March 1954)
The Devil is in the details, but so is salvation.

Hyman G. Rickover

quoted by Theodore Rockwell in The Rickover Effect (1992)
The man in charge must concern himself with details. If he does not consider them important, neither will his subordinates.

Hyman G. Rickover

quoted by Theodore Rockwell in The Rickover Effect (1992)
The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.

Hyman G. Rickover

The Quakers have an excellent approach to thinking through difficult problems, where a number of intelligent and responsible people must work together. They meet as equals, and anyone who has an idea speaks up. There are no parliamentary procedures and no coercion from the Chair. They continue the discussion until unanimity is reached. I want you guys to do that.

Hyman G. Rickover

quoted by Theodore Rockwell in The Rickover Effect (1992)
The tools of the academic designer are a piece of paper and a pencil with an eraser. If a mistake is made, it can always be erased and changed. If the practical-reactor designer errs, he wears the mistake around his neck; it cannot be erased. Everyone sees it.

Hyman G. Rickover

“Paper Reactors, Real Reactors” (5 June 1953)
Those involved with practical reactors, humbled by their experiences, speak less and worry more.

Hyman G. Rickover

“Paper Reactors, Real Reactors” (5 June 1953)
Thoughts arising from practical experience may be a bridle or a spur.

Hyman G. Rickover

US Naval Post Graduate School address (16 March 1954)
To doubt one’s own first principles is the mark of a civilized man. Don’t defend past actions; what is right today may be wrong tomorrow. Don’t be consistent; consistency is the refuge of fools.

Hyman G. Rickover

US Naval Post Graduate School address (16 March 1954)
When doing a job — any job — one must feel that he owns it, and act as though he will remain in that job forever.

Hyman G. Rickover

quoted by Theodore Rockwell in The Rickover Effect (1992)

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