JFK Visited Hanford 50 Years Ago, Trying to De-Escalate Cold War

Sep 26, 2013

Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy stepped off a Marine helicopter into the dry heat of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington.

He was there to see the massive new N Reactor. The reactor was the first to produce both plutonium and power in the U.S. The visit was also part of Kennedy’s efforts to de-escalate the Cold War.

Credit Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Hanford worker Bill McCullough remembers Sept. 26, 1963 clearly when Kennedy came to visit. 

“It was a very hot day, and we hit bumper to bumper traffic,” he said.

McCullough’s 1958 Chevrolet Nomad was stuck behind a long line of cars with no wind, no A.C. The whole family was roasting: He, his wife and six children, two of whom were twins, just 4 months old.

“We never believed too much in babysitters; we always took our family every place,” McCullough said.

McCullough says it was a notable day because for the first time ever, families of Hanford workers were able to see the secretive site.

“We were just tickled to death to have the notoriety, if you will. Here’s something, the first ever, ever, ever in the world to make power out of a nuclear reactor. It was an honor to be a part of it,” he said.

Credit Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Kennedy’s message was aimed at de-escalating the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis had just happened a year earlier.

“It may be possible for us to find a more peaceful world. That is our intention,” Kennedy said. “But I want you to know that the efforts that you have made and invested, the talents which have been at work here I think on several occasions; have contributed to the security of the United States and in a very large sense the peace of the world.”

Michele Gerber is a Richland-based historian.

Credit Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.

“He made sure we had the red telephone line, the hot line, between his office and the premier of the Soviet Union so there couldn’t be any mistakes, an accidental pushing of buttons,” he said. “He was really trying to dial back the Cold War, and to become, essentially, a Renaissance man. Where before that he was very war-like, very hawkish.”

But dedicating this massive war machine at Hanford didn’t jive with Kennedy’s new policies. By having the N-Reactor also produce electricity, Kennedy was able to portray the reactor as something more peaceful. 

“So coming here was just about the turning point,” Gerber said.

Kennedy was assassinated just eight weeks after the Hanford visit. Historian Gerber says now 50 years later, Hanford is a messy museum on the Northwest landscape. The nearby Columbia Generating Station still produces nuclear energy, but the N Reactor was mothballed in 1987. Most of the plutonium made on the site was to help build the nation’s arsenal for war. But Kennedy’s visit gave this nuclear town some hope of a peaceful future.