In the mid-1950s the Navy changed course. For one thing, it had a launch platform that met the test of survivability - the nuclear-powered submarine. Driven by Hyman G. Rickover, an engineering officer of genius and irascibility, the Navy had built its first nuclear-powered submarine, Nautilus, operational in 1955. An expert at bureaucratic politics, Rickover had built a nuclear power coalition that included his own Navy staff, the Atomic Energy Commission (in which he also held office), Congress, and the Westinghouse and General Electric corporations. Rickover saw "his" nuclear submarines as weapons to attack ships but a new Chief of Naval Operations, Arleigh A. Burke, saw the nuclear submarine as a missile carrier for submerged strikes at land targets. The Navy, however, did not have a missile, since it had worked primarily on the "Regulus" cruise missile for both warships and surfaced submarines. In 1957 Burke redirected the Navy IRBM program toward a solid-fueled missile that could be launched from a submerged submarine. For the missile he followed the Air Force model and created a Special Projects Office, whose staff, the AEC, and the Lockheed Corporation produced the 1,500-mile "Polaris" missile by 1960. Because the missile had a limited payload and accuracy, its warhead could destroy only an area target. Nevertheless, the relative invulnerability of the launch platform made the fleet ballistic missile (FBM) an attractive addition to the deterrent force.
Babcock & Wilcox, an engineering firm, would also play a role in the construction of the Nautilus and also of later generations of nuclear-powered submarines. Continuing to develop Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM's), the Navy simultaneously refined the designs of SSBN's - nuclear-powered submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles. The classification SSBN is derived from "Ship, Submersible, Ballistic missile, Nuclear powered."
The White House and the Russians assisted Burke. To review the effectiveness of America's nuclear posture, the Science Advisory Committee to the Office of Defense Mobilization had established a special "security resources panel" in April 1957. When this group, known as the Gaither Committee, made its report the following November, the "Sputnik crisis" gave its study special importance. The Gaither Committee report emphasized the nation's vulnerability to a nuclear attack and the pitiable state of its air defense and civil defense programs. The only thing that stood between the United States and atomic Armageddon was SAC's bombers. The Gaither Committee did not think SAC should bear the burden alone. When the Navy in 1957 proposed that it develop three missile submarines, the administration authorized five submarines and moved the operational date forward from 1962 to 1960. Rickover cooperated in supporting the construction of fleet ballistic missile submarines, as long as they were nuclear-powered. In 1960 the first George Washington-class fleet ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) went on patrol with sixteen "Polaris" sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).
Rickover, as noted above, was well-connected not only within the military, but in the private sector, and in the civilian government. Historian Ted Widmer writes:
Hyman Rickover had one of the most storied military careers of the twentieth century. Born in Poland in 1900, he emigrated with his family in 1905, at the time of anti-Jewish pogroms, and grew up in New York and Chicago, where he graduated from John Marshall High School and won admission to the United States Naval Academy. So began a remarkable naval career encompassing sixty-three years of active duty, marked by administrative ability, tireless work, and extremely independent judgment. Rickover served on submarines in particular and over the course of the 1940s and 1950s became the legendary "Father of the Nuclear Navy," known for his technical expertise, his strategic wisdom, and his personal interest in interviewing thousands of officer candidates. One of them, Jimmy Carter, later claimed that Rickover was the greatest influence on him after his parents. Rickover gave President Kennedy a plaque that he displayed on his desk in the Oval Office, featuring the words of an old Breton fisherman's prayer: "O God, Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small."
Rickover not only instructed JFK about missiles and nuclear-powered vessels, he also, surprisingly, instructed the president about education. Both men shared a background in the U.S. Navy, Rickover as a career officer, Kennedy as a veteran of WWII in which he served for almost four years.
Rickover was fascinated by education and the role it played in bettering society. In 1960, he published Education and Freedom, which announced that "education is the most important problem facing the United States today" and called for a "massive upgrading" of academic standards. Two years later, he published a detailed comparison of American and Swiss schools, arguing that the United States was inferior in nearly every respect.
As an example, Rickover, in conversation with the president, compared their respective upbringings. These White House discussions were electronically recorded. Reading such talks, one must remember that the repetitions and sentence fragments were not intended to be read as polished prose. In a conversation, transcribed by Widmer, the admiral says to JFK:
I'll tell you, you can take two opposite extremes, you can take my case and you can take your case. In your case, you had parents who recognized that money can do you a great deal of harm. And they took care to see, dammit, that it did not. That's because you had intelligent parents. In my case, I was brought up where, a lot of times we didn't have enough to eat; you had to go out and fight, and so one recognized the importance of school. I think it's something like that. Now when you get in between, that's where you have your problems.
Gaining JFK's interest by using such personal examples, Rickover points to the role of the parents; they must teach the child to value education.
Your parents were exceptional in this respect. That vast majority of parents who have children now [unclear] are just trying to do everything they can to make everything easy. In that way they are really defeating what they are trying to do.
The admiral espouses, in a phrase, "tough love." It may not be easy, but a parent needs to allow the child to face difficult circumstances and wrestle with those difficulties. Only in this way will the child learn to be strong and learn to overcome.
Because everything is made easy for them. Some of them get to expect, your parents will take care of you. So you have youngsters going off and getting married. And fully expecting that the parents, you know, will come to their support. And they do. I can give you any number of cases like that, where the parents would have done much better for their children to throw 'em out. There comes a time in every animal life - and human being is a form of animal life - when you have to fend for yourself. This is where the trouble is. Today you can make these arguments today and society will support you. That never used to be the case before. This is the problem we have to face, and we have to try to get around it.
In 1931, Rickover decided to convert to Episcopalianism; his Jewish background had been more cultural than spiritual. He remained Episcopalian to the end of his life. He saw the question of education not only as a personal matter, but as of strategic interest to the nation. He retired in 1982 and died in 1986.