posted on Nov. 11, 2003
Charles E. Wilson
Charles E. Wilson

Charles E Wilson was Secretary of Defense in the Eisenhower Administration from 1953-57.

"The problems of the United States can be summed up in two words: Russia abroad, labor at home." -- Charles Erwin Wilson, Secretary of Defense under Eisenhower and President of General Motors - the single largest maker of armament in World War II.

For a biography of Wilson, including political cartoons from the 1950s, see: [1].

From 1909 to 1919 Wilson was an electrical engineer with Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in Pittsburgh from 1909 to 1919. In 1926 he became president of Delco Remy Corp, a GM subsidiary. He was vice president of GM from 1929 to 1939, executive vice president in 1939, and president in 1941. Controversy erupted when Eisenhower selected Wilson as his Secretary of Defense in 1953:

Wilson's nomination sparked a major controversy during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, specifically over his large stockholdings in General Motors. Reluctant to sell the stock, valued at more than $2.5 million, Wilson agreed to do so under committee pressure. During the hearings, when asked if as secretary of defense he could make a decision adverse to the interests of General Motors, Wilson answered affirmatively but added that he could not conceive of such a situation "because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa."

[Compare this to the controversy sparked by Cheney's War Profiteering.]

Internal reorganization was only one of several major changes during Wilson's tenure, foremost among them the "New Look" defense concept.

The major features of the 'New Look':

  1. greater reliance on nuclear weapons, utilizing the advantage the United States had over the Soviet Union in such weapons;
  2. elevation of strategic air power, the major means to deliver nuclear weapons, to a more important position (not an expansion in the number of Air Force wings but rather development and production of better equipment);
  3. cuts in conventional ground forces, based both on reliance on strategic and tactical nuclear weapons and the expectation that U.S. allies would provide ground troops for their own defense;
  4. an expanded program of continental defense, which, along with strategic air power, would serve as a principal ingredient of the New Look's deterrence program; and
  5. modernization and enlargement of reserve forces, enhancing the military manpower base while reducing active duty forces.

The New Look of the 1950s under Eisenhower is not unlike the neocon vision articulated in the 2000 PNAC document - which, as it is being implemented by George W. Bush, has

  1. turned the attention of the public from conventional warfare to nuclear threat;
  2. this threat, in turn, purportedly justifies the expansion of the socalled 'security perimeter' of the U.S., the line in the sand that the enemy dare not cross at the pain of suffering extreme violence at the hands of the U.S. military. 'Better Baghdad than Boisie' is Rumsfeld's current slogan when discussing where that line needs to be drawn;
  3. seeks to legitimize the use of tactical nuclear weapons (and depleted uranium);
  4. promotes an extension of current strategic air power through the militarization of 'space' and 'cyberspace', the 'new commons';
  5. proposes a modernization of the military, to take advantage of new technology;
  6. and advocates the use of 'surrogate troops'.

In 2003, The USA currently maintains around nine and a half thousand nuclear weapons. [2]

In the 1950s, the Army was threatened by the New Look:

[It] questioned the wisdom of reliance on "massive retaliation" and strategic air power to the neglect of other force elements. Secretary Wilson reportedly observed that the United States "can't afford to fight limited wars. We can only afford to fight a big war, and if there is one, that is the kind it will be."

"It was at this point, in January 1954, that John Foster Dulles delivered a landmark address on massive retaliation just in time, for the ANP [nuclear propelled aircraft] project. In it the secretary of state threatened the Soviet Union with all-out nuclear punishment for any transgression. The prospect of an aircraft that could strike the USSR from within the United States itself received renewed attention and even priority as tensions increased within the nuclear context." [3]

It was Wilson, who, as President of the largest maker of armaments and also Secretary of Defense, pioneered the intimate partnership (later to be dubbed the 'Military Industrial Complex' by Eisenhower), between Big Business and the Military. For this partnership to work, it would require what amounted to a state of permanent war - the socalled 'Cold War' - which is not unlike the endless war that George W. Bush's 'War on Terrorism' promises to be.

'Charles E. Wilson ... was so happy about the World War II economic situation that he suggested a continuing alliance between business and the military for a 'permanent war economy.'

That is what happened. When, right after the war, the American public, war-weary, seemed to favor demobilization and disarmament the Truman administration (Roosevelt had died in April 1945) worked to create an atmosphere of crisis and cold war. True, the rivalry with the Soviet Union was real-that country had come out of the war with its economy wrecked and 20 million people dead, but was making an astounding comeback, rebuilding its industry, regaining military strength. The Truman Administration, however, presented the Soviet Union as not just a rival but an immediate threat. - Howard Zinn [4]

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