The launch of the USS George Washington

June 9th, 1959, was a significant date in the history of the Cold War, because it was on that day that the USS George Washington was launched. The Soviet Union had acquired an early lead in long range missiles, largely because they gave it huge priority and spent a large proportion of the budget on their military. The US response was to develop a new technology, the submarine launched ballistic missile. The Polaris nuclear-armed missile would pop to the surface before its rocket motor ignited to send it to its target.

Rather than wait until new submarines designed to carry it could be built, the US Navy basically inserted a new 130ft missile section into the hull of an attack submarine under construction. Admiral Hyman Rickover played a key part in this move, which saw the Polaris system combat ready at least two years before it would otherwise have been. The submarine was renamed the George Washington, and seven months later lest-fired two Polaris missiles while submerged. Despite all their effort and financial sacrifice, the Soviet advantage was nullified because no first strike by them could now eliminate the West’s retaliatory response.

The US did this again when the Soviet’s deployed their SS20 medium range missiles. Launched from trucks hidden in forests, they again threatened a strategic advantage, but again the US responded with a technological leap in the shape of the Ground Launched Cruise Missile and the Pershing II. The BGM-109 GLCM (called “glickum” after its initials) was a small, pilotless flying machine, powered by a turbofan engine. The point was that, while subsonic, it flew so low that it was undetectable, and had a sophisticated guidance system that allowed it to veer around obstacles and fly to within metres of its target with its single nuclear warhead. Both weapons were deployed in Europe, and led the Soviets to sign the agreement limiting medium range missiles. Again, new technology had nullified their advantage.

When the US announced the Strategic Defence Initiative, dubbed “Star Wars,” it again threatened a technological leap that would render the Soviet missile arsenal obsolete. Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB station head who was an undercover Western agent, reported that the Soviets could not compete technologically or financially with such a project, and were determined to reach an agreement with the US that specifically prevented it. When President Reagan refused to abandon the project, the Soviets folded, and the Iron Curtain came down. But it was the launch of the USS George Washington 60 years ago that started the process that led there.