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The Ordeal Of Engine Charlie
How one of our most enlightened business leaders became the symbol of corporate ruthlessness
February/March 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 1
Drucker assumed that Wilson would implement such a scheme immediately. But Wilson was wiser in the ways of unions. He told Drucker: “ I am never going to put it into effect. I grudgingly yield to a union demand for it when I have to.”
“You mean your associates in GM management wouldn’t go along with it unless they had to?” Drucker asked.
“No,” Wilson answered, “my associates will accept my lead in labor relations. . . . But the union leaders won’t go along unless it’s a ‘demand’ we resist and they ‘win.’”
It would be 1955 before the seed that Wilson had planted with his contacts in the UAW turned into a full-fledged union demand for SUB. When it did, the company “reluctantly” agreed to a plan that its own president, in fact, had developed.
Likewise, Wilson developed plans for a pension system to supplement Social Security. Drucker warned him that such a system, if the funds were invested in the stock market, would result in workers’ being the owners of American business in a few decades. “Exactly what they should be,” Wilson told him.
If life were fair, Wilson would be a hero among liberals. Instead, he is hated for a remark he never really made.
At the Pentagon Wilson was fundamental in bringing the military fully into the atomic era and developing the doctrine of using “massive retaliation” to protect the country rather than the far more expensive conventional means. In his first year he slashed the budget by five billion dollars and trimmed forty thousand employees from the Pentagon payroll.
If life were fair, liberals would hail Charles E. Wilson as a hero. And yet he is today remembered largely for a remark he never really made.
On January 15, 1953, he testified at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The hearing was closed to the public and press, a much more common occurrence in those days than now, and Wilson was expecting no trouble. “I’ve got a feeling that I’m going to be pretty pleased and surprised at how easily those boys can be handled,” he told reporters.
Well, welcome to Washington, Charlie.
Wilson was giving up a six-hundred-thousand-dollar salary to serve his country at twenty-two thousand dollars a year, and he probably thought that was sacrifice enough. He also owned forty thousand shares of GM stock, and selling it would cost him a small fortune in capital-gains taxes. But GM was the nation’s largest defense contractor, so keeping it would be a clear conflict of interest. Even Republican senators gave him a hard time about it.
Sen. Robert C. Hendrickson, Republican of New Jersey, asked Wilson if he could make a decision that would be in the interests of the country but extremely adverse to those of GM.
“Yes, sir,” Wilson replied briskly, “I could. I cannot conceive of one because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa. The difference did not exist. Our company is too big. It goes with the welfare of the country. Our contribution to the nation is considerable.”
Wilson could hardly have imagined that this rather inelegant bit of Washington bomfog, uttered behind closed doors, would earn him a place in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations . But thanks to liberals horrified to find themselves out of power after twenty years and largely replaced with businessmen, it did exactly that.
They simply twisted what Wilson had said, into “What is good for General Motors is good for the country,” leaked it to the press, and repeated the lie endlessly, making Wilson sound like some latter-day corporate version of Marie Antoinette.
As his story clearly shows, he was anything but.