George Washington was originally named USS Scorpion (SSN-589). During construction, she was lengthened by the insertion of a 130-foot-long missile section and renamed (another hull under construction at the time received both the older name and hull number and became the ill-fated USS Scorpion), but inside the forward escape hatch remained a plaque bearing the name USS Scorpion. Because the missile compartment design would be reused in later ship classes, the section that was inserted into George Washington was designed with a deeper test depth rating than the rest of the boat.
USS George Washington sailed from Groton 28 June 1960 for Cape Canaveral, Florida, where she loaded two Polaris missiles. Standing out into the Atlantic Missile Test Range with Rear Admiral W.F. Raborn, head of the Polaris Submarine development program, on board as an observer, she successfully launched the first Polaris missile from a submerged submarine on 20 July 1960. At 1239 George Washington's commanding officer sent President Eisenhower the message: POLARIS - FROM OUT OF THE DEEP TO TARGET. PERFECT. Less than 2 hours later a second missile from the submarine also struck the impact area 1,100 miles down range.
George Washington then embarked her Gold crew, and 30 July 1960 launched two more missiles while submerged. Shakedown for the Gold crew ended at Groton on 30 August and the submarine got underway from that port 28 October for Charleston, South Carolina, to load her full complement of 16 Polaris missiles. There she was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation, after which her Blue crew took over and embarked on her first deterrent patrol.
The submarine completed her first patrol after 66 days of submerged running 21 January 1961 and put in at New London, Connecticut. The Gold crew took over and departed on her next patrol 14 February. After the patrol she entered Holy Loch, Scotland, 25 April 1961. Four years after her initial departure from Groton she put in to refuel, having cruised some 100,000 miles.
USS George Washington was shifted to the Pacific and was homeported in Pearl Harbor. On 9 April 1981, the submarine surfaced underneath Nissho Maru in the East China Sea about 110 miles south-southwest of Sasebo, Japan. The 2350-ton Japanese freighter sank in about 15 minutes. Two Japanese crewmen were lost; thirteen were rescued. The submarine suffered minor damage to its sail.
The accident strained U.S.-Japanese relations a month before a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki and President of the United States Ronald Reagan. Japan criticized the United States for taking over 24 hours to notify Japanese authorities, and demanded to know what the submarine was doing surfacing only about twenty miles outside Japan's territorial waters. Neither the submarine nor a P-3 Orion circling overhead made any attempt to rescue the Japanese ship.