Cold War

Cuban Missile Crisis

The history of Hanford is the history of the atomic age, both the promising and the chilling. Although we no longer think in terms of the “Cold War” of the 1960s and 70s, the threat of nuclear destruction that Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought to the world hangs with us today, part of the legacy of Hanford.

Although the Hanford Site was initially established as a component of U.S. involvement in WWII, following the end of the war, it became a key factor in a new "war"—the Cold War. While the roots of the Cold War can be traced back to at least the early 1900's, the end of WWII marked the beginning of an escalation in the world power struggle between communism and capitalism. (This is, of course, an oversimplification of what the Cold War was all about. One starting point to learn more about the causes of the Cold War can be found on The History Guide web site at What is interesting about the Hanford Site is that, in addition to fueling the Cold War arms race, key events in the Cold War can be traced here. In March of 1947, the Truman Doctrine brought the U.S. firmly into the Cold War, marking a period of greatly increased defense spending and involvement in world events. This resulted in a higher demand for Hanford plutonium and began a period of rapid construction on the Hanford Site, which continued through the middle of 1949 when the formation of NATO and other events led to the feeling that the U.S. and its allies were in a position of power, and 'threats' from the Soviet Union were somewhat abated.

However, in September of 1949, the Soviet Union successfully tested its own nuclear weapon, well ahead of when American scientists thought it would have the capability. This led to President Truman ordering the expansion of atomic plants, as well as research into the hydrogen bomb—bombs using plutonium from Hanford. This second round of rapid expansion at Hanford lasted through 1955.

The third round of expansion at Hanford began with the election of Dwight Eisenhower as President. President Eisenhower was concerned about the level of military spending and was able to significantly cut spending, especially on conventional forces and equipment. One reason he felt that spending could be cut was through the development of the "massive retaliation" policy, i.e., through the threat of massive nuclear bombing being delivered by the newly developed long-range ballistic missiles.

So, as you look down the river at the various generations of reactors, you can see world events unfolding—the Truman Doctrine, the formation of NATO, the end of the American policy of 'isolationism,' the Marshall Plan, the invasion of South Korea by North Korea, the rise of Mao Tse-tung and Nikita Khrushchev, the space race and the launching of Sputnik, the period of "McCarthyism," the spy trials of Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the eras of "massive retaliation" and "mutually assured destruction, and many other world-changing events.  All of these are etched into the banks of the Hanford Reach.