Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Charles E. Wilson (1953–1957): Secretary of Defense

Charles Erwin Wilson was the secretary of defense under President Eisenhower from January 28, 1953 to October 8, 1957. Wilson graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1909 and began working for Westinghouse Corporation, designing the first motor for auto starters. During the First World War, he designed equipment for military use. After the war, he became chief engineer to Remy Electric Co.

Wilson rose to become president of Delco-Remy Co. in 1926 and vice president of General Motors from 1929 to 1939. He is famous for his 1952 declaration to the Senate Armed Services Committee that "for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors, and vice versa."

During his tenure as the secretary of defense, Wilson managed the military as though it were a business. He was initially hesitant to bring about change without conferring with the President, so much so, that Eisenhower reputedly said, "Charlie, you run defense. We both can't do it, and I won't do it. I was elected to worry about a lot of other things than the day-to-day operations of a department." Wilson later brought about a programmatic shift in the armed forces in preparation for modern warfare, including expanding research and development, cutting the size of the standing army, and boosting readiness for a nuclear conflict.

After his resignation, which he had intended after four years, Wilson returned to business interests, chiefly General Motors, though he would also serve as chairman of Michigan's advisory committee to the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights.