The Navy’s tradition of honoring past American Presidents by naming aircraft carrier after them is alive and well. The USS Ronald Reagan, the Abraham Lincoln, and the Gerald Ford are all symbols of the projection of American naval power all over the world. There’s just one exception, one that goes unnoticed by many, mainly because it’s supposed to.
The USS Jimmy Carter is named after the 39th President of the United States, but it’s a nuclear submarine. And there’s a great reason for it.
Carter dreamed of attending the U.S. Naval Academy even as a three-year-old.
Like many 20th Century Presidents before him, Carter was a Navy veteran. Unlike Nixon, Bush 41, or President Ford, Carter’s contributions to the Navy didn’t happen primarily in wartime, however, it happened after the Second World War. Carter, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was immediately appointed as an officer aboard a Navy submarine, the USS Pomfret. He served aboard a number of submarines, mostly electric-diesel submarines, until it was time to upgrade them. All of them.
While the United States was embroiled in the Korean War, Carter the engineering officer, was sent to work with the Atomic Energy Commission and later Union College in Upstate New York, where he became well-versed in the physics of nuclear energy and nuclear power plants. He would use that knowledge to serve under Admiral Hyman Rickover, helping develop the nuclear Navy. Carter would have to leave the active Navy in 1953 when his father died and left the family peanut farm without an owner. In less than a year after Carter’s departure, Rickover’s team would launch the USS Nautilus, the world’s first-ever nuclear-powered submarine and the first ship in a long line of nuclear ships.
The USS Nautilus
According to President Carter, Rickover was of the biggest influences on the young peanut farmer’s life. Carter’s 1976 campaign biography was even called Why Not The Best? – after a question Rickover asked the young naval officer while interviewing to join the nuclear submarine program.
Rickover asked Carter what his standing was in his graduating class at Annapolis and when Carter replied, Rickover asked him if he did his best.
“I started to say, ‘Yes sir,’ but I remembered who this was and recalled several times I could have learned more about our allies, our enemies, weapons, strategy and so forth. I was just human. I finally gulped and said, ‘No sir, I didn’t always do my best.”
“Why not?” asked Rickover. It was the last thing the Admiral said during the interview.
Rickover (far right) with then-President Carter and his wife Rosalyn, touring a U.S. nuclear submarine.
Later, of course, Carter would become Hyman Rickover’s Commander-in-Chief, having taken in everything he learned from Rickover about nuclear energy and the U.S. Navy. The nuclear sub would become one of the pillars of American national security.
As President, Carter would restrict the building of supercarriers due to their massive costs, instead favoring medium-sized aircraft carriers, much to the consternation of the Navy and defense contractors. It would make little sense to have Carter’s name on a weapons program he discouraged as President – kind of like having Andrew Jackson’s face on American currency even though the 12th President was opposed to central banking.
But the Navy had to do something for the only Annapolis graduate to ascend to the nation’s highest office and serve as the Leader of the Free World. So naming the third Seawolf-class submarine after the former submarine officer and onetime nuclear engineer made perfect sense. The USS Jimmy Carter is the most secret nuclear submarine on the planet, moving alone and silently on missions that are never disclosed to the greater American public.