Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Wilson, Charles Erwin (1890–1961)

U.S. secretary of defense (1953–1957) and president of General Motors (1941–1953). Born on 18 July 1890 in Minerva, Ohio, Charles Wilson earned an electrical engineering degree in 1909 from the Carnegie Institute of Technology. He began his business career at Westinghouse Electric Corporation, where he was involved in the engineering of military radio equipment during World War I. He joined General Motors in 1919 and eventually became its president in 1941. During World War II, he oversaw the company's massive production of military equipment.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower selected Wilson as secretary of defense in January 1953. Wilson's experience running a large corporation with significant dealings with the Department of Defense was viewed as an asset. During his nomination hearing, however, his business background led to controversy, including his initial refusal to sell his General Motors stock and a statement he made that was famously simplified to "What is good for General Motors is good for the country."

Wilson shared Eisenhower's goals of maintaining a strong defense while also reducing the defense budget and reorganizing the armed forces. This was reflected most clearly in the New Look military policy, which relied upon nuclear deterrent forces and strategic airpower in place of mass conventional forces. To implement this, Wilson gradually reduced the defense budget and shifted the defense emphasis to the U.S. Air Force, leading to tensions with the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy. This policy transformation was most clearly seen in his 1956 decision to give the air force control over intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) while sharply limiting the army's role in strategic missile forces.

Wilson resigned his post in October 1957 and returned to the private sector. He died in Norwood, Louisiana, on 26 September 1961.

Michael A. George


Further Reading
Geelhoed, E. Bruce. Charles E. Wilson and Controversy at the Pentagon, 1953 to 1957. Detroit. MI: Wayne State University Press, 1979.; Leighton, Richard M. History of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Vol. 3, Strategy, Money, and the New Look, 1953–1956. Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, Historical Office, 2001.
 

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