Due to his stockholdings in General Motors (valued at that time at over $2.5 million), Wilson was a controversial pick as Secretary of Defense. Though he finally agreed to sell his holdings, his standing in office was tarnished, in many ways due to a common misquote of his answer to the question of whether or not he could make a U.S. defense decision which would adversely effect General Motors. His response was "yes", but that he couldn't forsee this happening "because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa." Commonly, he is quoted out of context, saying only, "What's good for General Motors is good for the country." Despite this, he was voted into office by the senate, 77 to 6.
His qualifications for office come primarily from his managing of General Motors' massive defense production during World War II. Upon taking office, he viewed the Department of Defense as an entity which should be run as a business.
During this time of relative peace after World War II and before the rise of serious nuclear threat, Wilson was able to focus on reoganization of the Department of Defense, most notably the "New Look" concept launched in July, 1953.
The New Look was a policy of more defense for less money by focusing on the advantages the United States had over it's enemies. The main points of the New Look concept were to utilize nuclear capabilities, improvement upon aircraft and expansion of it's use as a delivery system for nuclear weapons, reducing the number of conventional ground troops based on the assumption that nuclear weaponry and aircraft would be a adequate replacement (as well as the understanding should a war be fought in an allied country, that country would provide it's own ground troops), focusing on a strong permiter defense system for the United States, and expansion of reserve forces to maintain the number of available soldiers overall while reducing the number of those on active duty.
But although the New Look policy allowed for a reduced defense budget in a time where the United States was top-dog in it's weapons capabilities, many were worried that once mutual nuclear detterence was achieved (once Russia and the United States could wipe each other out with nuclear weapons), the tenets of the New Look plan would be impossible and counter-productive, and conventional methods of warfare would be necessary to win.
To counter this legitimate flaw within the New Look plan and quell the complaints of the military, Wilson, in 1956, defined roles within which the separate branches of the armed forces could make their own decisions. For example, Wilson granted the Army the use of small aircraft and surface-to-surface missiles (with a range of not more than 200 miles) for maneuvers within combat zones, the Air Force was given responsibility for providing tactical air support to the Army by way of wide-area defense and attack interception, and the Navy was allowed the use of sea-based air defense systems. As well, the Air Force was granted the sole authority to use land based intermediate ranged ballistic missiles (IRBM), and the Navy given sole authority to launch sea-based IRBMs. These roles helped to beef up the non-nuclear defense capabilities and ensure each branch's readiness for a limited war.
During his course in office, Wilson generated much controversy by making such statements as referring to the White House as "Dung Hill", and to those who enlisted in the National Guard during the Korean War as draft dodgers, which detracted from the public opinion of his service.
Wilson made known his decision to leave office shortly after Dwight D. Eisenhower was nominated for a second term as president, and left officially on October 8, 1957 to focus on his family. Four years later, on September 26, 1961, he died in Norwood, Louisana.
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