Admiral Hyman Rickover was a reader. An above average student at the U.S. Naval Academy, he relied on books to fill the gaps in his knowledge.1 In a speech titled “Thoughts on Man’s Purpose in Life,” he emphasized the importance of reading, saying, “I count reading, and its associated skill, writing, among the most significant of all human efforts. Good writing, after all, is simply the result of enormous reading.”2 He remained a reader throughout his long life.
Fortunately, his personal library is now stored in the special archives in Nimitz Library on the Naval Academy Yard. A small but diverse collection of titles, these books and periodicals offer a glimpse into the admiral’s reading habits.3 What makes this collection fascinating are his marginalia—the scribbles, comments, and occasional criticism—that fill the pages.
Rickover’s library reflects his three lifelong interests: education, history, and politics. Surprisingly, his books on technology, nuclear power, and innovation—and even the Navy—are rarely marked up, offer little commentary in the margins, and have no dog-eared pages. Rather, many of the volumes in which he left marks were books that fulfilled his lifelong effort to remain an educated citizen, something he repeatedly emphasized as the task of every American because he believed the media and politicians were not a sufficient substitute for knowledge.4
A Tool for His Mind
A personal library, particularly one carefully created and kept, reveals something about its owner. The markings its owner makes among the pages tell us about his or her interests, amusements, or even frustrations. As a reader, Rickover was a practical man—he read for knowledge; his archived library favors nonfiction, with only a few works of fiction. Pages of his books are full of underlining, and dates and names are often circled. He made pencil marks along important paragraphs, sometimes double lines or checkmarks for pages and paragraphs that interested him greatly. In one or two instances, he typed a summary of a book and inserted the typed pages into the book with a paperclip to hold it fast. Rickover also would underline sentences or text he wanted to use in a speech, essay, book, or congressional testimony. These were noted by the small scribble of the word “use” in the margin.
Yet, his most important lifelong reading habit was to create an index of everything in a book that interested him. His typical process was to mark up the pages that caught his attention. Then, at the end of the book, often on the back of the hardcover board, he would create a column listing every page number he had annotated. On fewer occasions, he would summarize some key points of those pages on the book’s back cover. For instance, his copy of William Manchester’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory 1874–1932, is heavily annotated in the last pages of the book.5 Indexing allowed him to quickly pick a book from his library, turn to the last page, and reference his marginalia to see if there was a fact worth remembering or a quote worth repeating.
Always a Critic
Combative and driven in life, the admiral suffered no fools and demanded that everyone give their best. Anything less was unacceptable, and mediocrity was poison. Unsurprisingly then, Admiral Rickover argued with the authors he read. His penciled commentary among the pages is entertaining—and at times, scathing. Rear Admiral Henry Eccles received one of Rickover’s sharpest spears. Admiral Eccles, a combat veteran of World War II who would later be associated with the Naval War College, teaching and writing on combat logistics, international relations, and military theory, wrote a book titled, Military Power in a Free Society. In less than 300 pages Eccles covers a huge swath of topics, from nuclear powers and civil-military relations to discussions on limited war.
In Rickover’s copy of Military Power, as was his custom, he noted a few pages that interested him, this time on the front page of the book. But then, he summarizes his distaste for the book on the title page. In his cursive scrawl he writes: “This book takes 250 pages to say what could be said in 10 pages or less. This can only mean that the author is fascinated with words.”
He went on: “[Eccles] has read many books. He has noted every tome he liked. He has assembled all of them into a book. The book has no continuity. It manages to confuse the reader with unrelated snippets of information.”6
Not done, Rickover then took aim at the high priest of naval theory, Alfred Thayer Mahan. Eccles uses a Mahan quote in the beginning of his book. The quote reads: “The search for the establishment of leading principles—always few—around which considerations of detail group themselves, will tend to reduce confusion of impression to simplicity and directness of thought, with consequent facility of comprehension.”7 Rickover underlined parts of the quote and then took Mahan to task, noting, “It takes all these fancy words to say: ‘learn your job.’ If a general went through all this crap before he could make a decision, he would surely lose. No one who has ever accomplished anything has used this method.”8
Eccles and Mahan were exceptions; no other authors received full, clear broadsides of criticism. Rather, Rickover’s habit was to pepper the margins with question marks when a writer’s words made no sense. The writers who bored him or could not get to the point received the word “blah” scribbled next to the offending paragraph.
As Rickover got older, the books in his library reveal a reader who went from aggressively underlining and scribbling in the margins to correcting grammar. It was not uncommon to come across a few titles in his library published in the 1980s—in the twilight of his life—with pages of pencil marks editing sentences. Often, he would cross out unnecessary sentences or excessive words, acting as editor.
Books as Gifts
A significant portion of Rickover’s library is composed of books that were given to him. Often inscribed by the author or a colleague or friend, many of these volumes lack pencil marks or any indication they were ever read or even opened. However, there are a few notable exceptions. The most famous of these is Rickover’s copy of Robert F. Kennedy’s memoir Just Friends and Brave Enemies, dated 11 December 1962. A collection of his reflections on his international travel and speeches, it is inscribed in black pen: “For Admiral H. G. Rickover, With the highest regard of an admirer. Robert F. Kennedy.”9
Kennedy, then U.S. Attorney General, had only two months before he helped his brother, President John F. Kennedy, stave off war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In the back of the book, Rickover indexed six pages. On one page, a quote stood out for Rickover. In a speech Kennedy gave to the Free University of Berlin in February 1962, he spoke of freedom and the need for free nations to make wise choices for the possibility of their society’s progress. Freedom, he said, “by itself is not enough. Freedom is a good horse . . . but a horse is to ride somewhere.”10 Rickover’s characteristic pencil mark appears, a vertical line in the left margin, noting his interest in the quote.
The other book gifted to him that deserves mention is Rabbi Philip Bernstein’s, What the Jews Believe. Rickover, born a Jew in Tsarist Russia, in what is now Poland, was prickly when asked about religion. “It’s none of your damn business!” he often said.11 His personal life and his personal beliefs were not the public’s concern; only the work and his results mattered.
Yet in Bernstein’s book, and in no other gifted religious text, Rickover made pencil marks.
The book gets only two marks, but they are interesting, for Rickover married two women in his life, both Christians. First, on page three, Rickover captures a sentence in which Rabbi Bernstein tells readers his book is not going to argue the supremacy of one faith over another, in this case Judaism over Christianity. Thus, Rickover notes in brackets: “An ancient Rabbi said, ‘There’s a place in God’s kingdom for the righteous for all nations.’’’12
Next, on page four, Rickover marked a much larger paragraph in brackets and included a pencil mark, down the margin, parallel to the paragraph:
If Christians were asked about their beliefs, most of them could refer to authoritative catechisms, creeds, and confessions. But the Jew has no such answer to give. For there is no creed which all Jews accept. . . . Religion for the Jew is primarily, though not entirely, a way of life here and now. . . . Its chief reward is the good life itself. Most Jews have asserted to the judgment of an olden rabbinic teacher, who, after describing our earthly life as an antechamber, added, “One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than the whole life of the world to come.”13
In 1984, Diane Sawyer interviewed Rickover for the television show 60 Minutes. Asked if there was a heaven and a hell, Rickover replied: “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.”15
Often, an author’s words draw readers’ attention and can articulate deeply held beliefs or reinforce those beliefs. For Rickover, the belief in duty and a job well done, always, was sacred.
A Model for All Readers
It is a treasure to read someone’s marginalia. Like a journal, these are often private thoughts. They are marks and comments that fill the pages of books that draw’ attention to something the books’ owner believed was worth remembering.
After reading Rickover’s marginalia and reviewing the remaining titles of his library, one can make some broad generalizations that echo the numerous biographies, essays, and interviews published about the “Father of the Nuclear Navy.” Duty, self-improvement, freedom, persistence, tenacity, brevity, and the knowledge of placing and finding oneself in the world are consistent themes that are underlined, circled, and commented on.
There are three lessons for modern sailors found in Rickover’s marginalia—lessons beyond the historical importance and insights he offers in the markings he makes in the text. First, a personal library made of physical books will always be valuable. Electronic readers, while convenient, did not replace paper. The physical object allowed him to easily return to works that interested him. A personal library, however big or small, should be a professional tool for every sailor.
Second, Rickover’s library shows a man who had some specific interests, but he was interested in many diverse subjects, from science to history to education to sociology. For Rickover, sailors and citizens are responsible for full and continual lifelong learning. Reading lists are useful, a focus on military titles is helpful and entertaining, but Rickover would have emphasized that, above all, readers should surround themselves with smart people and ask them what they should know and what they should read. Famously, Rickover introduced himself to the father of the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller, saying, “I am Captain Rickover—I am stupid.” Always learning, he relied on books and other talented engineers and scientists to help him realize and create the U.S. nuclear navy and a culture of technical excellence.
Finally, Rickover took the time to read. Well before social media or email or streaming video, he bemoaned that many Americans and sailors were easily distracted. There will always be distractions at sea and ashore—maybe more today than ever before. Yet, Rickover, if he were alive today, would say lack of time is no excuse for not reading and reading deeply and widely—particularly for flag officers.
Rickover was not a genius, but a complex and driven man. A reader always, and a model for every sailor as to what self-determination and a few hours with the written word can do for one’s mind and profession.
ν Commander Nelson is an intelligence officer stationed at the Office of Naval Intelligence. He is a graduate of the Naval War College and the Navy’s Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island.
1. Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, Genius and Controversy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 53.
2. ADM Hyman G. Rickover, USN, “Thoughts on Man’s Purpose in Life,” GovLeaders, 10 February 1977.
3. Rickover’s remaining personal library came from his office at the Navy Yard. From an undated memo from the Naval Academy Museum’s associate director/senior curator to the director: “In 1990, the Naval Academy . . . acquired boxes of books and papers which had been in Admiral Rickover’s transition office at the Naval Historical Center. This material was originally delivered to the Museum, but it was later transferred to Nimitz Library.”
4. Rickover, “Thoughts on Man’s Purpose in Life.”
5. ADM Hyman Rickover, USN, margin notes in William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory 1874–1932 (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1984), end pages.
6. ADM Hyman Rickover, USN, margin notes in RADM Henry Eccles, USN (Ret.), Military Power in a Free Society (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1989), front matter.
7. Eccles, Military Power in a Free Society.
8. Rickover, marginalia, in Eccles, Military Power in a Free Society.
9. ADM Hyman Rickover, USN, inscription in personal copy of Robert F. Kennedy, Just Friends and Brave Enemies (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), front matter.
10. Kennedy, Just Friends and Brave Enemies.
11. Marc Wortman, Admiral Hyman Rickover: Engineer of Power (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022), 260.
12. ADM Hyman Rickover, USN, margin notes in Rabbi Philip S. Bernstein, What the Jews Believe (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1962), 3.
13. Bernstein, What the Jews Believe, 4.