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When a quote is not (exactly) a quote: General Motors

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Back in 2006 I was asked about one version of a well-known quotation – What’s good for General Motors is good for America. The answer was a lesson in how quotes can be tricky and are not always what you think they are.

Charles Wilson sitting turned to another gentleman with the naval officer on the right
Charles Wilson (far left) of the General Motors Corporation at an early meeting of the Automobile Council for War Production, 1941 (FSA/OWI Collection/ Library of Congress)

This is a quote that has been repeated often enough that many have come to believe that is what General Motors President Charles E. Wilson actually said. But after some investigation, it turns out that what he actually said was more nuanced.

The story behind the misquote goes back to 1953 when President Eisenhower nominated Wilson to be Secretary of Defense. There were concerns about Mr. Wilson. Some felt he might lack the objectivity needed as Secretary of Defense. Not only had he had been president of GM, which had a large number of defense contracts, he also owned a large amount of the company’s stock. The confirmation hearings were held before the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 15th and 16th and proved to be a little heated. After some delay, Wilson reluctantly agreed to sell his shares and was confirmed.

General Motors Building Detroit, Michigan has 4 towers
General Motors Building Detroit, Michigan. 1921. (Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress)

Over the course of the hearings there was a lot of back and forth between Wilson and the Senators, but in the hearing transcript there was an exchange related to the quote in question:

“Senator Hendrickson. Well now, I am interested to know whether if a situation did arise where you had to make a decision which was extremely adverse to the interests of your stock and General Motors Corp. or any of these other companies, or extremely adverse to the company, in the interests of the United States Government, could you make that decision?

Mr. Wilson. Yes, sir; 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 quite considerable.” (p. 26)

At the time, what Wilson was reported to have said caused a bit of a sensation – it did sound a bit arrogant – but it turns out the validity of the supposed quote was in question even at the time as indicated by an article in the January 23, 1953 New York Times:

“Some of those present do not recall that Mr. Wilson made the widely quoted remark that “what is good for General Motors is good for the country, and what is good for the country is good for General Motors.” ” (p. 9)

It is easy to see how the quote got muddled, but going back to the original sources cleared the confusion right up.

Comments (4)

  1. Excellent sleuthing Ellen.LC’s collections and expert staff can help clear these misquotes up. Excellent advice- go to the source! I definitely miss getting these type of detective work questions. Cheers!

  2. Wow. That has got to be one of the biggest plugs in all of history. I’m sure this quote was used as some sort of marketing tactic. No wonder GE was able to pull off a $139 billion bailout thanks to US taxpayers.

  3. So a quote in 1953 was made to facilitate a bailout 55 years later? The age of reason has gone..

  4. @#3 Mike:

    how is it that you draw a connection between a historical quote made ca 60 years before GM was bailed out? That’s just bizarre thinking man.

    And if you want to really think about it, in a non wacko way, what was good for GM in the bailout turned out to be good for the USA in many ways.

    The US government recovered its investment with a profit. The company was preserved and continues to pay taxes. The jobs were preserved and the employees and plants pay taxes.

    So what was the downside besides violating some purest economic view twisted by the nonsense in atlas shrugged?

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