The Dawn of the Polaris Age – Pittsburgh and Bettis in 1960

The Dawn of the Polaris Age

“Those of us here today may not live to write this history, but we must be determined to shape it.”


Every once in a while, you find yourself in a historic spot and feel a little like there isn’t enough time to really understand the surroundings. Well, at least I do anyway. That happened the other day. The Navy League was supposed to be hosting a lunch for all of the local Sea Services commands and our original destination had a problem with a water line break. That caused us to go to another location called the William Penn Hotel Terrace Room.

I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and had seen most of the impressive buildings as a kid. But for some reason, the William Penn had never made it to my list. In retrospect, I am sad it took 65 years to find it. It’s been there since 1916 so there was no real reason I couldn’t have found it before,

When you enter the lobby, the historic presence surrounds you in a flood of expansive art deco and regal appointments. The people were very nice but I had a feeling I should have worn a three piece suit instead of my normal attire. By normal attire, I mean Retired Navy Submariner polo shirt and Navy Jacket. The Hostess at the Terrace room was genuinely nice and sincerely thanked me for my service. I told her it was an honor to serve great Americans like her and she smiled widely as she led me to the group.

What a place to eat. The food was amazing and the mural above us on the back wall was overpowering. It was a scene from the early days of Pittsburgh and showed George Washington on his horse (in a wildly inappropriate uniform for the period) talking to Major Forbes surrounded by early settlers in front of Fort Pitt.

I was in awe the whole time I was there. To be fair, I have eaten in some of the finest dining rooms in Paris and around the world but none made me feel like I was so humbled than this event.

And no wonder. As of 2016, every seated president since Theodore Roosevelt had visited the hotel, including President Barack Obama.

I may have actually been seated in one of the seats that President Ronald Reagan sat in when he had lunch there.

The hotel has been a fixture in Pittsburgh since the day it was opened. It was not a surprise then to find that a very important speech was given there by the Vice Chief of Naval Operations in 1960.

This speech recognized Pittsburgh’s (and the Bettis Atomic Plant’s) unique contribution to the nuclear Navy that was being built at a rapid pace at the time. Admiral Russell captured the essence of Americanism as he explained why this buildup of new technology was so important. The words are just as true today nearly sixty years later as they are today.

There are some great Cold War golden nuggets buried throughout the speech.

But the warnings he gave about not falling prey to the falsity of socialism and communism remain true today.

If I were in charge of public education, this would be a mandatory reading assignment.




Washington 25, D. C.                      NO. 585-6



OXFORD 7–616



Members and guests of the Pittsburgh Chapter, Military Order of the World Wars; – I am honored to be the guest speaker upon the significant occasion of your annual Armed Forces Day dinner.

That you, on this occasion, would ask a sailor to come inland to the beautiful city of Pittsburgh, gives me pleasure indeed. I know that Pittsburgh is famous for a lot of things, the fortuitous presence of coal in the surrounding area, – the great waterways of the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio Rivers, the railroads, the conditions which developed the great steel industry here. But to me, a sailor, particular significance attaches to Pittsburgh, because it was here in the Bettis Plant of Westinghouse that the propelling machinery of the first atomic submarine, the NAUTILUS, was designed and fabricated.

Pittsburgh may well be proud of the early pioneering and continuing achievements of the Bettis Laboratory in the field of atomic power. Our country’s acknowledged leadership in this field is a result of the vision, knowledge, and energy of such men as those associated with Bettis, and the unswerving determination of a dedicated naval officer, Admiral Rickover.

It is hard to describe what a tremendous revolution was brought by the appliance of atomic power to the propulsion of submarines. Two World Wars have soon the effectiveness of the submarine as a weapon to contest the control of the sea, to deny the indispensable use of the sea to maritime nations at War. But the submarines Of World Wars I and II were really surface ships with the ability to dive and stay submerged for comparatively brief periods. Always they had to return to the atmosphere for air to run diesel engines to recharge storage batteries.

Atomic power, the harnessing of the locked-up energy of atomic nucleii, changed all that and brought the true submarine. The small package of unbelievable potency made possible by the controlled fission of uranium, provided power, almost unlimited power, not only.” to propel the submarine at high submerged speeds, but also to run the auxiliary machinery of refrigeration, air conditioning, distillation of fresh water from salt water, cooking and all the other things necessary to sustain life in a submerged submarine completely separated from our earth’s life-giving atmosphere for literally months.

Here is a field in which our country is an undisputed leader, a field to excite the most vivid imagination; here is a pioneering after the fashion of Our American forefathers.

If ever you look with doubt upon American destiny, if you need to renew your faith in young American manhood-–talk with CDR. Ander son and his crew, who, in NAUTILUS, made the first crossing of the North Pole from the Pacific to the Atlantic under polar ice in the summer of 1958; – talk with CDR Calvert, who surfaced the SKATE at the North Pole the following winter to scatter the ashes of Sir Hubert Wilkens to the Arctic winds, thus to fulfill the lifelong ambition of that famous explorer to reach the North Pole by submarine; – talk to Commander Nicholson and his men, who took SARGO under the ice in the Bering Sea on the 22nd of January of this year and brought her out again after 31 days and 6000 miles of exploration under the ice to the North Pole and back; talk to Captain Beach … and his men of the TRITON, who just recently completed an historic voyage of 41,000 miles, circumnavigating the globe while remaining submerged for 84 days.

In these submarine technical triumphs, Pittsburgh has played a significant part, for Bettis Plant has been in the forefront of atomic power development.

I should like to mention another technical achievement which happened almost three years ago, and which was to have a far reaching effect on our National outlook.

On October 5, 1957, the Soviet Union electrified and shocked the world by launching and putting into orbit the first man-made satellite, Sputnik I. This event caused many Americans for the first time to view with alarm the growing technical competence of the Soviets and pointed up to peoples the world over, the seriousness of the communist challenge to the Free World. Although our own military planners and our intelligence agencies had been aware of the growing technical competence of the Soviets, we in the U.S. were proceeding methodically with the Vanguard, Explorer, and other satellite projects.

There was an immediate stirring from the complacency into which we had drifted and the beginning of a great debate on whether we had let the Soviets overtake us technologically.

Around the world, young nations which had only recently gained their independence, and older nations which were striving for economic and social progress looked at the United States more critically and asked themselves if our nation had lost its position of world leadership.

In the United States, we looked at ourselves with the same critical thought. A feeling of inferiority swept across the country and we cast about in all directions to fix the blame for this state affairs.

The truth of the matter was we had grown accustomed to thinking ourselves as being a nation so scientifically superior that we were not prepared to recognize the growing technical competence of the communist.

It was a time for calm determination and for shoring up of our basic strengths. Today is such a time also, and every one of us is involved. We must have an unalterable faith in our future and in our own capabilities. We must recognize the communist challenge as a formidable one, but one which need not give rise to hysteria.

To understand the present situation, one needs to look briefly t the past. Communists have not changed greatly the basic ideology of Karl Marx. The Soviets quite apparently still regard the world as divided into two unalterably hostile camps, – the Communist Bloc on the one hand and what they term the capitalistic nations on the other, Although we tried to dismiss this basic tenet and win unqualified cooperation by our own example toward Soviet Russia when she was our ally in WWII, the Soviet post-war behavior destroyed our wishfully growing trust and implanted an appreciation of danger in the unfolding communist conspiracy.

Accepting charter and membership in the United Nations, Soviet Russia did not disarm as did the other allies, but instead used her military power to absorb into her totalitarian empire those counties which her armies had occupied. She drew tightly across their outward frontiers the Iron Curtain; thenceforward, anything which happened behind the curtain was pronounced merely a domestic affair. Under Communist rules, only what lay outside the curtain could be considered an area for diplomatic maneuver.

The formerly free countries which now exist under the communist dictatorship, whose monolithic governments follow the Moscow party line, form an imposing list, and among them every precaution is taken to make their communization irreversible. Deviations from party edict bring prompt measures of discipline. Moves toward freedom are savagely repressed, as in Hungary and Tibet.

The Free Nations in the world today are faced with a communist creed which is inherently aggressive. It permits no disengagement, but requires continual probing for every weakness and for every opportunity to advance the cause of world revolution and the installation of a communist dictatorship. The communist party member believes implicitly and fanatically that the party is destined to rule the world. He preaches the inevitability of success to spread defeatism in the opposition. He believes that any means to better the cause is a proper, and fair means.

In this conspiracy to dominate the world, the United States has been singled out as the great obstacle to communist success, and we thus find ourselves as a nation and as a people in a competition the intensity of which eclipses anything in our history.

The competition is, admittedly, for men’s minds, and embraces the total inventory of human endeavor – military, economic, political, diplomatic, scientific, and spiritual. In such a competition, where do we stand in comparison to the Soviets? Are we equipped with a positive, dynamic program of our own which we can point out to the world as a means to a better life, or are we merely against communism and for maintaining the status quo?

The truth is that what we are for is the active, positive force for change in the world. This country’s historic and continuing success in practical democracy and widely shared industrial progress has for years been an explosive force inspiring dozens of other countries. We must continue to identify ourselves and our way of life with the economic and political aspirations of those people who are striving for change.

We have a system which is vastly better than communism – and we should shout its virtues through the streets and from the house tops.

What we stand for, and what we seek for people all over the world is in harmony with the basic motivations, drives, needs and aspirations of human beings everywhere. What totalitarian communism stands for is artificial and in direct defiance of these basic characteristics of human nature.

For example, consider freedom. The urge to be free is a basic trait of human nature. Why is imprisonment a common form of human punishment? The prisoner gets food, shelter, leisure, and certainly a high form of security, – yet the loss of freedom offsets all this and the condition becomes one of severe punishment. Why, throughout history, have men in hundreds of battles faced death rather than give up national or personal freedom? It is because freedom is a natural desire of mankind. Our system is in harmony with man’s natural desire to be free.

Marx looked at the capitalist world and concluded that workers would submit to a dictatorship of the proletariat in order to throw off what he regarded as their economic slavery. In the outcome, as exemplified by events in the Soviet Union, the workers lost both political and economic freedom; instead, all political and economic power became lodged solidly in the hands of a small ruling bureaucracy.

We are for institutions which create and advance freedom; the structure of communism has anti-freedom built into it, for it takes out of the individual’s hands and places in the government’s hands all economic and political power.

Another basic human trait is the sense of property. A child possesses toys, a man his house and land. Communism undermines the concept of private property, puts all economic power in the state, then tries to invent all manner of substitute incentives and satisfactions for the natural pride and satisfaction of ownership.

A sense of justice is another fundamental human characteristic. The child’s cry of “that’s not fair”, the adult’s phrase “justice demands” are universally understood.” Communism consciously downgrades justice and makes it subsidiary to the ends of the state. There is brittle artificiality in communist efforts to find a party line replacement for simple justice.

One can enumerate many other human traits submerged in the artificiality of the communist ideology – as , for example, the urge of the human to achieve individuality, – his desire for home — family – religion.

Yes, our system is fundamentally better by far than the communist system, and we must ensure that the people of the world know it. We must be careful to preserve our system and enhance its functioning by our energy, initiative and willingness to work.

Awkward as the communist system may appear to us, nonetheless, it can and has produced results – results which come when people are driven by the machinery of total control in dictatorship. The directness of control, the act that penalties — severe penalties – are imposed for poor individual performance, as well as rewards for superior performance, the ease and quickness with which efforts can get redirected, all contribute to produce results – results |particularly in special fields where government has directed, concentration of effort.

So I return to my basic tenet that we are in competition of an intensity unequalled in our history. If there is a lesson which we should learn from the communists, it is discipline, – self-discipline, the willingness to work hard, and the holding of an unshakeable faith in our strength and ºn our future.

Having thus recognized the threat and the challenge, it logically follows on this Armed Forces Day that we look at that part of our national strength which is military, that we take stock of our military forces in being . . . and the conditions they must be prepared to meet. –

The first condition which our armed forces must be ready to meet is that of all-out nuclear war, – a war so devastating to either side that neither would stand to gain, and, therefore, something both might wish to avoid, but yet something for which we must be fully prepared… prepared not only to deter the enemy from starting such a war, but also to insure inescapable retaliation in the event he did.

Second is the condition of limited war–either limited in objective, or area–as in Korea, Vietnam, or the Taiwan Straits. … limited wars which may vary in size from a skirmish, to a large war involving many nations, as in Korea, and limited to conventional weapons in some cases, or involving nuclear weapons in others.

Third and finally, is the condition of “Cold War” or the use of military “persuasion” without violence–a show of force, met by having the right forces at the right place at the right time to checkmate aggression on the spot.

Our Armed Forces must be prepared to meet all these conditions and not just one of them. Our ability to do this, utilizing all military services in joint and supporting roles together, produces the overall posture of our required military strength today. We must recognize that the components of these balanced forces may be modified, from time to time to meet present or calculated future conditions or as the result of technological developments in new weapons which make existing systems and weapons obsolescent.

I should like to tell you first a little about each of the services and then describe the command framework under which the military components from the Services unite to form the military teams under our Unified Combatant Commanders.

At present, our Army with a total military personnel strength of 870,000 in fourteen divisions, has streamlined its formations and its tactics, bringing into being Pentomic divisions, the Strategic Army Corps, and battlefield capability with a variety of modern weapons. Recognizing that timeliness of arrival in limited war is often more effective than subsequent weight of arms, our Strategic Army Corps consists of both infantry and airborne divisions.

Our Air Force, with 830,000 personnel and 18,200 air craft, supplies an elite bomber force of 46 wings to the Strategic Air Command, and 21 wings to the Tactical Air Command, plus 56 interceptor squadrons of high performance fighters to the combined Canadian-United States North American Air Defense Command. While the manned bomber is still the mainstay for heavy clear attack, the Air Force has made rapid progress in long range rockets with the ATLAS missile becoming operational last October, and with the TITAN to achieve operational status this fall. These will be followed by the MINUTEMAN missile – one in which the handiness of a solid propellant will lend itself to mobile mounting.

Organically a part of the Naval Establishment as “soldiers of the sea”, our Marine Corps numbers 175,000, in three divisions and three Marine Air Wings. –

Our Navy’s personnel strength is 619,000, to man some 860 ships and 7,200 aircraft.

Naval tasks have never been heavier than they are today. The United States is allied with some 42 nations in defensive pacts against aggression. A very important U.S. Military Aid Program assists many of our allies to arm themselves for self-defense. With memberships in NATO to the east, the RIO PACT to the south, and SEATO to the west, we are allied with a ring of free nations around the communist bloc.

All save very few of those nations border on the sea, and all depend heavily on the sea for mutual support. The oceans and seas of the world form a great international area in which military forces can disperse or from which they can concentrate to exert military power where and as it is required.

To support the southern flank of our NATO allies in Europe, a powerful balanced naval fighting force, the Sixth Fleet, cruises he Mediterranean Sea, and is an important component of the Unified Command in Europe. It can meet aggression with a quick strike from the skies, from the surface, or from under the sea; it can go to the aid of a beleaguered ally with an amphibious landing of Marines (there is always one Marine battalion, or more, embarked with the fleet); or it can protect the vital sea lanes with anti-submarine and anti-air warfare.

Fleets with similar capabilities are: – the Second Fleet in the Atlantic; the First in the Eastern Pacific; and the Seventh in the Western Pacific. The latter operates in waters off Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. These fleets can augment one another in times of tension, and are moved to potential trouble spots over the international waters of the high seas. Each fighting ship is a floating orbit of the sovereign territory of the United States.

Just as balance is required between the services in effecting our overall defense posture, so must the Navy maintain balanced forces within naval components of the Unified Commands in order to perform the many tasks required in using the seas for offensive, defensive and logistic purposes.

For the most part, individual ships that make up our Fleets are multi-purpose and mutually supporting. Versatility is a built-in capability.

Our modern aircraft carriers are excellent examples of such versatility. Manned aircraft flying from the deck of a carrier supply the means of gaining and maintaining air superiority in any area of operation… of finding and attacking targets with discernment and discrimination, afloat and ashore, with a variety of weapons from machine guns to rockets and nuclear bombs… of appearing off the coast of a harassed friendly nation and by presence giving confidence and stability to our friends and pause to our enemies.

It should be emphasized that the carrier and its aircraft can do these things only as an element of a balanced fleet–it cannot do them alone. . .

We have been fortunate in “modernizing” certain of our World War II carriers, by adding angled decks and other modifications, and have thus obtained additional years of usage from them. But… there is a limit to up-dating old equipment.

In order to maintain our balanced forces and the ability to control the seas, halt aggression, and deter crises, it is essential that we obtain a new jet-age attack carrier to replace one of our older ESSEX types, and that we begin construction this year with authorization for such a carrier included in the fiscal year 1961 budget.

Another vital element of our balanced naval forces, soon to join our mobile air bases at sea, are our mobile ballistic missile bases.

This fall, 1960, our first nuclear-powered Fleet Ballistic Submarine, armed with the POLARIS missile, will deploy to sea, and a second submarine will become operational before the end of the year. Each one of these mobile missile bases will carry sixteen powerful ballistic missiles–missiles with a range of twelve-hundred miles.

Missiles of this range, launched from submerged submarines, will be able to reach practically every vital area of the continents of Europe and Asia. Operating beneath the surface of the sea, constantly on the move, these seaborne missile carriers will be a retaliatory system of minimized vulnerability. Combined with our mobile carrier air bases, they represent a sea-based offensive capability of unprecedented power and utility.

With these mobile, sea-based deterrent forces complementing our land-based power, our Nation can continue to be in a position to deliver devastating destruction on any aggressor, should he choose to initiate nuclear warfare.

With this quick picture of the building blocks of military forces, let me pass on to a short review of how these forces are put together under the unified command plan.

First let me say with some emphasis that multi-service command not new. In World War II, we had joint command over the forces from the several services in every theater, and combined international command in many. This pattern of command was preserved in the post war period and should not be confused with the organic separation of e Air Force from the Army to form a third military department in 1948. The latest improvement in the architecture of the structure of our high command came, most recently, when our Congress passed the Defense Reorganization Act of 1958. The changes then placed into effect are good and they are working.

Greater power was placed in the hands of the civilian head of a Department of Defense – the Secretary of Defense. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were placed directly in the operational chain of command over the eight national unified or specified combatant commanders. The Joint Chiefs of Staff comprise a body at the head which sits a chairman appointed by the President from one of the services, and whose members are the Chiefs of Staff of the Army, Air Force, Commandant of the Marine Corps and Chief of Naval Operations. The unified or specified combatant commanders are the Commanders-in-Chief of the following, — the U.S. Forces in Europe, the Atlantic, Caribbean, Alaska, the Pacific, Strategic Air Command, Continental Air Defense, and, when activated, the U. S. Forces in the Middle East. In most of these commands, the unified commander has components of Army, Air Force, and Navy, including Marines, – with -component commander for each. The unified command system as most recently recast under the Reorganization Act of 1958 has been functioning smoothly for about a year and a half.

-Having sketched our current military strength, and the organization which controls it, I would say in closing that it takes a great deal more than military power to build strong, free institutions. However, to insure a political climate in which these can flourish adequate military power is an indispensable ingredient.

In the years to come, we hope and expect that people everywhere will achieve undreamed of levels of political freedom and economic £ogress. As this comes to pass, history will tell, I am sure, that much was due to the moral fiber of the American people, their longing for a better way of life for all men, and their determination to use their strength and resources in the cause of freedom.

Those of us here today may not live to write this history, but we must be determined to shape it. “

As I said, I would be pleased if every school child in America had to read and write a report on the significance of the Admiral’s speech.

Maybe a few elected officials should as well.

Mister Mac




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6 thoughts on “The Dawn of the Polaris Age – Pittsburgh and Bettis in 1960

  1. In January of 1964 I was assigned to new construction of the USS George Bancroft SSBN 643 at electric boat shipyard in Groton Ct.
    I was a nuc electrician assigned to the Green crew (a mixture of blue and gold crew members). We were sent to Mckeesport, Pennsylvania for special nuclear training at Bettis Atomic Laboratory . We were provided room and board in a private home. In our room was a message from a previous crew member telling us to go to a specific downtown. My roommate and I went to the bar and were asked for ID. When we showed our Naval ID cards the female bartender immediately yelled out “I got an electricians mate here….blow the operator not the generator!” “Free drinks to new Navy men tonight!” That was my welcome to the Pittsburgh area. I shall never forget it. Oh and Bettis was really great!

  2. Please note BAPL and KAPL are the correct names for Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory and Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory Bettis in West Mifflin PA and Knolls in Schenectady NY
    I worked for Naval Reactors and had great friends and co-workers at Pittsburgh Naval Reactors.whose responsibility is to oversee operations at Bettis

    1. Thanks for your feedback. I grew up in McKeesport (actually just outside of the city) and my Uncle Jack was one of the original machinists that worked at Bettis. If you ever write a story on your own blog about the facilities you mention, I am sure that you will correctly label them. As for me, I am just an old retired Chief Warrant Officer that posts stories from my point of view. I think most folks that grew up around here know what Bettis means even if they are not quite sure what they do. Probably better that way.

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