The United States Navy ordered a class of nuclear-powered submarines armed with long-range strategic missiles on 31 December 1957, and tasked Electric Boat with converting two existing attack submarine hulls to ballistic missile-carrying boats to quickly create the deterrant force. To accomplish this conversion, Electric Boat persuaded the Navy in January 1958 to slip the launch dates for two Skipjack-class fast attack submarines, the just-begun Scorpion (SSN-589) and the not-yet-started Sculpin (SSN-590). On 12 February 1958, President of the United States Dwight D. Eisenhower signed funding for three ballistic missile submarines.
The George Washingtons were essentially Skipjackss with a 130-foot missile compartment ("Sherwood Forest"), inserted between the ship's control navigation areas and the nuclear reactor compartment. In the case of the lead ship, George Washington (SSBN-598), that is literally the case: the keel already laid by Electric Boat at Groton, Connecticut for Scorpion was cut apart and extended to become the keel for George Washington. Then Electric Boat and Mare Island Naval Shipyard began construction of one other boat each from extended plans.
USS George Washington (SSBN-598) began the first strategic deterrant patrol on 15 November 1960, and USS Patrick Henry (SSBN-599) departed for patrol on 31 January 1961. George Washington returned from patrol on 21 January 1961, coming alongside the tender USS Proteus (AS-19) at New London, Connecticut. Patrick Henry returned from patrol on 8 March 1961, also tying up alongside Proteus, which was now in Holy Loch, Scotland, beginning the use of Holy Loch as a refit and upkeep anchorage.
The George Washingtons carried the Polaris A1 missile on their patrols until 2 June 1964, when George Washington changed out her missiles for Polaris A3s. The last of the class, USS Abraham Lincoln (SSBN-602) swapped out her A1s for A3s on 14 October 1965.
In the early 1980s, to make room within the limitations imposed by SALT II for the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Robert E. Lee had their missiles removed and were reclassified as attack submarines, a role in which they served for several years prior to decommissioning.