A Lesson From the Past
Remember the Maine?
MARCH 01, 1994 by WILLIAM J. ELLENBERGER
Admiral H. G. Rickover was eccentric, an iconoclast, often at odds with his peers and superiors in the Navy. But his perfectionism gave us our nuclear propulsion Navy. Our first nuclear submarine, U.S.S. Nautilus, went into service in January 1955. The Polaris fleet followed in 1960. Rickover named them for patriots beginning with George Washington and including Daniel Boone, Will Rogers, George Washington Carver, and others. Why this disregard for Navy tradition of naming submarines for marine life? Despite the demands of his profession Rickover had two avocations: history and the education of American youth. By naming the Polaris fleet for patriots he sought to keep their names and deeds before the public, especially young Americans. He wrote a book, Eminent Americans: Namesakes of the Polaris Submarine Fleet, in which his wife assisted in the biographical research.
His interest in American history was renewed in 1974 by a newspaper article recalling the destruction of the battleship Maine. The journalist questioned again whether the sinking was due to an external or an internal explosion and quoted the Chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Steam Engineering as saying that the explosion was in one of the ship’s ammunition magazines. The admiral decided to review the findings of the Board of Inquiry and other relevant information, and to apply modern technological analysis to determine the probable cause of the explosion. Navy technical laboratories performed tests and experiments for him. After relating the tests to the written record, he concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support the Board of Inquiry’s conclusion that the Maine was destroyed by an external mine. Moreover, there was now significant evidence of the likelihood of an internal explosion. Two related factors supported this: the bituminous coal used by the Navy often caught fire in the coal bunkers due to spontaneous combustion, and only a thin steel wall separated some of the bunkers from the ship’s ammunition storage.
Had modern technological analysis been available and applied in 1898 the meaning of “Remember the Maine” could have been significantly different. Admiral Rickover stated the lesson as follows: “. . . we can no longer approach technical problems with the casualness and confidence held by Americans in 1898. The Maine should impress us that technical problems must be examined by competent and qualified people; and that the result of their investigation must be fully and fairly presented to their fellow citizens.” Now, almost two decades later, his further warning bears repetition and emphasis: “With the vastness of our government and the difficulty of controlling it, we must make sure that those in ‘high places’ do not, without most careful consideration of the consequences, exert our prestige and might. Such uses of our power may result in serious international actions at great cost in lives and money—injurious to the interests and standing of the United States.”
The admiral was thinking of military consequences, but his words are applicable in a broader spectrum, namely science and technology in government. Had his methodology been applied by government agencies concerned with our ecology and environment we would not have had the unscientific, unwise decisions regarding alar, asbestos, PCB, dioxin, and “acid rain,” to name but a few, that have been so detrimental to our national economy.
—William J. Ellenberger
To the Editor:
In “Sexual Harassment: What Is It?”-The Freeman, June 1993, Wendy McElroy says that “Racism is difficult to define, yet few people would deny its existence.” She is too kind. For it is easy to define “racism” in such a way that it becomes a word for a kind of obviously unacceptable behavior. “Racism” is thus to be defined as advantaging or disadvantaging people for no other and better reason than that those people happen to be members of one particular racial set.
Difficulties and confusion arise because so many people want both to commend positive discrimination and quotas as anti-racist, notwithstanding that these are in the sense defined paradigmatically racist; and to denounce various individuals and institutions as racist notwithstanding that these individuals and institutions have not been guilty of that obviously obnoxious form of behavior.
The Rule of Law
The internal effects of a mutable policy are still more calamitous. It poisons the blessings of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule which is little known, and less fixed?
A New Freeman Feature: Mark Skousen’s “Correction, Please!”
Mark Skousen’s monthly Freeman column, “Correction, Please!” makes its debut on page 145, settling into a regular spot preceding the book review section. Read him each issue for a lively rebuttal of popular myths and fallacies in today’s media.