Donald Wilson

Obituary of Donald Wilson

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Donald M. Wilson, the last surviving member of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExCOMM), a specially created policy group that advised President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, died Tuesday, November 29th at his home in Princeton. NJ. Wilson, who retired from Time Inc. in 1989 as Vice President-Public Affairs, was 86-years old and lived in Princeton, N.J. with his wife of 54 years, the former Susan M. Neuberger. The cause of death was a stroke following years of struggle with Alzheimer¹s, his wife said. As deputy director of the United States Information Agency, Wilson represented USIA in ExCOMM, in place of the then-ailing director, Edward R. Murrow. Wilson advocated releasing reconnaissance photographs of Soviet missile sites being built in Communist Cuba, secretly taken by an American U-2 spy plane. Wilson reasoned the pictures might convince a skeptical British press and others that the confrontation between the two Superpowers could escalate into nuclear war. Publication of the classified photos was approved by ExCOMM and was credited with turning the tide of British press opinion decisively in favor of the U.S. Wilson was a news correspondent for Life magazine, a Time Inc. publication, before joining Sen. John F. Kennedy¹s presidential campaign staff as assistant press secretary. President Kennedy appointed him deputy director of the USIA under Edward R. Murrow, the distinguished radio and TV journalist. Wilson was added to ExCOMM several days after the crisis started, to ensure that the vast amount of government information disseminated daily by USIA accurately reflected U.S. policy. Wilson was instrumental in organizing an ad hoc network of high-powered commercial radio stations in Miami, Key West, Atlanta, Cincinnati and New Orleans that could be heard by the Cuban people at night when the signals were clearer. On October 22 President Kennedy revealed in a broadcast speech that the U.S. would quarantine Soviet missile shipments and retaliate against the Soviet Union should nuclear missiles be fired from Cuba. Earlier that day the radio station owners and managers were asked by the White House to carry President Kennedy¹s speech and all complied. As well, Voice of America, an arm of USIA, broadcast reports in Spanish every evening during the crisis. Monitoring world press reaction afterward and finding doubt about U.S. claims of the extent of Soviet provocation, Wilson recommended publication of the spy plane photos. Subsequently, in his writing and public speaking, he often considered this period of government service the apex of his career. The Cold War crisis commenced when Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev, contrary to his earlier assurances, began shipping to Cuba launch equipment and nuclear missiles with a range of up to 2,400 statute miles. The U.S. already had in place intermediate range (1,500 miles) missiles based in Turkey as well as in Great Britain and Italy, but their putative target, the Soviet Union, had no missiles outside its borders. The stalemated crisis ended with a compromise, the Soviets agreeing to halt missile shipments in exchange for U.S. withdrawal of missiles from Turkey ¬ a quid pro quo not publicly revealed until many years later. Wilson was born on June 27, 1925 in Montclair, N.J., and graduated from Deerfield Academy in 1943. He then enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was commissioned a second lieutenant as a B-17 navigator. With the 303rd Bomb Group, he flew six missions over Europe before the war ended. He enrolled at Yale and gravitated to journalism, writing a column for The Yale Daily News. Graduating from Yale in February 1949, he was hired by Life as a reporter working in New York and Detroit. He became a foreign correspondent for the magazine in Asia, and covered the Korean War and French Indochina War. In 1956 he was named Life¹s Washington bureau chief, in charge of coverage of the U.S. government. In 1960 Wilson joined the Kennedy campaign, and when Kennedy was elected, he appointed Wilson deputy director of USIA in 1961. Wilson served in the post under Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson until 1965. Returning to Time Inc, he became general manager of Time-Life International. In 1968 Wilson briefly worked for Robert F. Kennedy¹s presidential campaign, and was named Time Inc. Corporate Vice President for Public Affairs in 1970, a position he filled for 19 years. In 1987, Wilson, along with former Time magazine business editor George Taber, launched NJBIZ, a business paper covering the state of New Jersey. NJBIZ was acquired in 2005 by Journal Publications Inc. of Harrisburg, PA. After Communism¹s collapse in the Soviet Union and its client countries, Wilson and James L. Greenfield, a longtime friend and former member of the editorial board of The New York Times, co-founded the not-for-profit Independent Journalism Foundation in 1991. For the last 17 years (as of 2009) IJF has operated training programs for journalists in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. Wilson¹s autobiography, ³The First 78 Years,² was published in 2004 by Xlibris. He was a member of the Century Association and the Council on Foreign Relations of New York City. Besides his wife, he is survived by a son, Dwight M. Wilson of Berkeley, CA, two daughters, Katherine L. Wilson of Newton, MA and Penelope Wilson of The Bronx, NY and five grandchildren. A Service of Remembrance will be held on Saturday, January 28, 2012 at 2 pm in the Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church, 2688 Main Street, Lawrence Township, New Jersey 08648-1701. A reception in the Fellowship Center of the church will follow. Contributions in his memory may be made to the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights for the Donald M. Wilson Fellowship. Arrangements are under the direction of The Mather-Hodge Funeral Home, Princeton.
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