Inconceivable – It was just a plastic toy anyone could buy for $2.98


A most unusual executive session

This story is about the transcripts from a Congressional committee meeting of a most unusual nature. It was held on April 9, 1960 on board the USS George Washington.

Some interesting notes:

  • The boat was underway, the depth was 400 feet at the time and had just conducted a practice missile shoot.
  • Classification of information was one of the side discussions that occurred towards the end of Admiral Rickover’s testimony.
  • Most of the testimony remains classified even now. Originally, this entire report was also but is now searchable on various publicly accessible web sites in this version.
  • The subject of the plastic model of the George Washington was a very sore subject for Admiral Rickover. I will let him explain in his own words below. As I was reading the testimony and the response from one of the Congressmen, a scene from the movie Princess Bride kept coming into my head. See if you can catch why.



Senator ANDERSON. This is an executive session hearing of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. We meet today aboard the U.S.S. George Washington more than 400 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. We are over 55 nautical miles from New London, Conn.

The U.S.S. George Washington, commissioned December 30, 1959, is the first of a number of Polaris firing nuclear-powered submarines which will give to the United States added strategic striking power. Earlier today the committee participated in the commissioning of the Patrick Henry, the second such missile-firing submarine. Others will follow.

Five years ago, on March 20, 1955, the Joint Committee held a hearing aboard the U.S.S. Nautilus in approximately the same location we are now. At that time, the Nautilus was the world’s only nuclear- powered submarine. Today the U.S. Navy has 10 in commission. The United States is proud of this accomplishment. Each of these nuclear submarines and those that will follow, including nuclear-powered surface ships, represent a tribute to the dedication, the very capable dedication, of Admiral Rickover and his fine team of nuclear specialists.

With the George Washington we have further evidence of fine team work. We see the results of the nuclear propulsion system under the direction of Admiral Rickover joined with the results of the Polaris missile system under the direction of Admiral Raborn. The combined leadership of both of these capable men has thus given the U.S. Navy another first.

Our hearing today is to receive testimony from Admiral Raborn and Admiral Rickover as to their work and to see for ourselves how well the Polaris missile-submarine program is progressing. We have toured the submarine and observed the crew at their stations during its operation. We observed the actual firing of dummy missiles while underway and the men at their battle stations.

I believe I speak for all the members of the committee when I say I am very much impressed by both the submarine itself and the men who man it. The captain, Comdr. James B. Osborn, is to be congratulated.

Admiral Raborn, I would like to call upon you at this time to review for the committee the Polaris program and then we will hear from Admiral Rickover.


(Skip to Admiral Rockover’s Portion of the testimony)


Admiral Rickover. The Polaris missile is not my business, but Admiral Raborn neglected to tell you one important thing: That the Polaris missiles are prepared for firing by Navy crews and not by civilians. … I believe it is the only missile system where, in the test phase at Cape Canaveral, naval personnel do this job. I think that’s fine because it’s building up an in-house capability. This is what we have done for our nuclear plants from the very beginning.

Senator ANDERSON. Would you bring us up to date, starting with the Nautilus, the Skipjack, and telling us about this ship now, without the missile.

Admiral RICKOVER. The function of this ship is to fire missiles; the machinery plant exists to serve that purpose. Now, you might ask what is the purpose of the Polaris submarine? It is “to strike fear and terror in the hearts of the enemy.” Long ago, in the days before missiles, there used to be a question in the officers’ promotion examination in naval ordnance: “What is the purpose of the Navy’s various projectiles?” One officer who had been up too late the night before answered: “To strike fear and terror in the hearts of the enemy,” and he got by with that.

Congressman HOSMER. There is a remarkable nameplate up here on #” head. It states the ship was authorized after the keel was

Senator ANDERSON. Wasn’t the ship originally planned as an attack submarine and later changed?

ADMIRAL RICKOVER. The first three Polaris submarines were originally laid down as attack submarines. In order to expedite the Polaris program, they were shifted to the Polaris type.

Congressman PRICE. This ship was originally the attack submarine Scorpion, wasn’t it?

Admiral RICKOVER. Yes, sir; this was £ the Scorpion, one of the three changed over. That is why it has been possible to complete the first Polaris submarine so fast.

Congressman HOSMER. Parts of this ship were the Scorpion?

Admiral RICKOVER. Yes, sir; all parts except the middle missile section.

Congressman PRICE. That explains the difference why the keel was laid before the Polaris ship was authorized?

Admiral RICKOVER. Yes, sir.

Senator ANDERSON. When we were in the Skipjack a year ago you brought us up to date on the safety of these nuclear submarines. Do you want to tell us a little bit about the safety now?

Admiral RICKOVER. Yes, sir; the safety of our nuclear submarines is a very important matter. To assure safety obtains both during the construction period and during the testing and operation periods we use the AEC laboratories and their personnel as necessary. The AEC scientists and engineers are directly involved from the very day the ship is authorized. We have AEC laboratory representatives right in the shipyards to help us. We started a new procedure with nuclear submarines where, instead of the shipbuilder operating the plants during the testing period, we require the ships force to do so.

I believe Admiral Raborn is doing the same with the testing of the Polaris missiles.

The nuclear propulsion plant is very complicated; we felt it was far more important for the ships force, who will have to operate the plant at sea, to do the operating at the shipyard than it was for the shipyard employees to do so. This new procedure has now been adopted for all nuclear-powered ships. In addition, we have brought to bear all the talents available in the AEC and its laboratories to help build, test, and operate these nuclear ships. This procedure, however, runs afoul of the standard Navy system because it is new. There are some elements in the Navy who would like to throw this whole thing back into the system, which means the scientists and engineers from the AEC laboratories would be required to work directly through the Navy supervisor of shipbuilding. This would be very difficult to do and in all probability would not work satisfactorily. So I am faced with the continuous problem of assuring the safety of these ships and getting all the help I can from the Atomic Energy Commission, £ at the same time the Navy keeps telling me to throw it all into the routine Navy system. I am afraid that with this sort of sniping we will just not #: able to watch safety as closely or as directly as is necessary. Then we will start having trouble with safety. There is a very small margin between a reliable, safe reactor plant, and one which does not work properly and so is a menace.

In the system we now use, the scientists and engineers from Atomic Energy Commission laboratories join with the crews of the ships and with the shipyard people to supervise the testing and to assure that everything goes all right. If a problem or a question arises we get additional qualified people from our AEC laboratories to help us.

There is no redtape, they come right away. We can also run tests on the AEC land prototypes or on the computers and critical facilities.

It is an outstanding example of fast, close cooperation between two agencies of the Government. The Navy doesn’t have facilities and people like this and they can’t order the AEC people to do the work. It is and must be a cooperative effort. But it is very difficult, particularly in a military organization to get any new or unusual system adopted or even to keep an existing and successful one alive. The tendency of any bureaucracy is always to derogate and frustrate everything new or unorthodox and move it back into the old system. This is a big problem we constantly face.

Congressman WESTLAND. Admiral, would you care to discuss the security problems? –

Admiral Rickover. Ever since Mr. Westland saw the plastic model of the Polaris submarine, which can be bought at any dime store, he questioned the propriety of releasing such information. I told him that I not only had nothing to do with the release but that I had recommended against it, because such information is extremely valuable to a foreign power. That information was handed out by the Navy. In fact a sheet of instructions accompanying each of these $2.98 models states that it is built in strict £ with official Navy blueprints; that the Electric Boat Co. furnished complete and accurate data; that it is a complete and authentic accurately scaled model incorporating all the interior details of the actual submarine. If I were a Russian I would be most grateful to the United States for its generosity in supplying such information for $2.98.

Congressman WESTLAND. Is that right? Is the scale right?

Admiral RICKOVER. Yes; it is right. Of course, there are some deviations, but there is much that is correct.

Senator ANDERSON. Why do we keep it classified if a child can buy it for $2.98? Why can’t we talk about it. We are not supposed to say much about the things we know about the submarines. We don’t deal with how deep they go. We don’t deal with how fast they go. I don’t think those are nearly as important as the actual design. If the actual design is released why do we worry about whether we go below 400 feet or go faster than 20 knots an hour?

Admiral RICKOVER. I agree with you, sir. This is the sort of thing our military services do in a mistaken attempt to build up public opinion for their particular projects. My own experience has been that much of this sort of publicity does no good. The people one must convince are the Budget Bureau and Congress, not the boys and girls who buy the models.

Congressman WESTLAND. You don’t believe that that $2.98 job should be for sale, do you?

Admiral RICKOVER. I certainly do not, sir. Further, it is very difficult to get our manufacturers not to advertise and show pictures of various pieces of equipment they build for these ships. Mr. Westland and I had a discussion about this matter and he suggested I talk with Congressman Moss with the object of devising a method whereby we could prevent publicizing this sort of information, yet not have undue classification. This is a serious problem; we should have a more realistic rule on classification to take care of it.

Today we must do much of our work—particularly manufacturing Some of our components—on an unclassified basis. This is because we use existing industrial facilities which also make valves, boilers, pumps and the like for other people. We couldn’t possibly meet the requirements of the Armed Forces Security Manual for guards, fences, personnel clearances, safes, and so on for all of our equipment made in these factories without inordinately adding to the cost. The alternative under existing rules is to establish large duplicate classified facilities at Government expense just for our work. This would cost millions of dollars so I deliberately chose not to do that. I want to use all the flexibility of our existing industrial capability without needless Government expense.

But because we can’t classify those factories we are told by some people that we can’t control or limit in any way what is shown or published about our equipment. We are even told we cannot prevent it being licensed for manufacture by foreign companies, even though it is clearly identified as the same design as the equipment used in the U.S.S. Skipjack or George Washington, as the case may be. I don’t believe that is the intent of our people or of Congress; I think we can work out a sensible compromise which will provide adequate security for these items and still permit us to do our work without additional large expenditures of Government funds.

Congressman PRICE. This information was released and made available to the toy manufacturer because it didn’t reveal any reactor technology. Was just as important information revealed?

Admiral RICKOVER. Yes, sir; the dimensions of the ship were revealed, including the relative size of the reactor compartment and the machinery compartment. I was asked to release this information. I wouldn’t do it. But a great deal of information has been released on the details of our machinery plants. I refused to make this public but it was released anyway.

Congressman PRICE. Do you tell a lot of information when you give the size of the reactor compartment?

Admiral RICKOVER. Yes, sir; you certainly do.

Senator ANDERSON. If one model has fallen into the hands of the Russians, or someone similar, why is it bad now to sell additional copies? They got all they want from that one.

Admiral RICKOVER. You are correct, sir; there is no point to withholding the sale of additional ones.

Senator ANDERSON. It is too bad we sold the first one.

Congressman WESTLAND. The only question is whether or not they know that it is as good as it is.

Admiral Rickover. Of course there are some errors in it. But a ship designer can look at that model and quickly learn a great deal. He can spend 1 hour on that model and tell he has millions of dollars worth of free information. It also gives him an idea of how many men he could put into the ship and all sorts of other things. I just wouldn’t do a thing like that. I see no reason why we should slave away and spend a lot of money and use up a lot of our talent and then just turn it over to a potential enemy. I’ll ask you a question, sir: Can you conceive the Russians doing a thing like that? I certainly would like to have similar information on their submarines.

Congressman WESTLAND. It is inconceivable. The whole thing is inconceivable to me.

Admiral RICKOVER. That’s the answer right there, sir.

Congressman PRICE. Getting back to the fact that even though it doesn’t reveal any information on the reactor itself, it does give some information on reactor technology—aren’t you more concerned that those toys are of the Polaris than they are of any other ‘ submarine and that it gives away your whole arrangement on the Polaris?

Admiral RICKOVER. Yes; I personally am aghast that this was done, but our internal military controversy is so great that there is a tendency for each service wholeheartedly to fight the others in order to achieve its own objectives. You know that most of the leaks result from this interservice fight, I am sure.

Senator ANDERSON. I wonder if either or both, rather, of you would comment on this question of testing. How important is future testing in achieving an improved warhead for Polaris— (Remainder of question classified.) –

Looking at Russian submarines that followed the early US Boats confirms that the Soviets probably did buy a few of the plastic models. Many of their early Nuc boats strangely resembled US submarines.

Mister Mac

4 thoughts on “Inconceivable – It was just a plastic toy anyone could buy for $2.98

  1. Excellent article! I was on the SSB(N)617 Gold Crew USS Alexander Hamilton when I met my wife to be. My first visit to her home in 1971 I noticed one of her brothers had built the Revell model of the 616 and was amazed at the time that it revealed all that it did. Thanks for your blog – great work! Bob Mt1(SS)DV 1967-73

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