Oregon’s own would-be fascist dictator: Gov. Charles H. Martin
During the First World War, Martin was the central figure in one of the most shameful acts in U.S. history: the deliberate, systematic breaking of the spirits of black combat veterans to put them back “in their place.”
By Finn J.D. John — December 20, 2015
Remember General Jack D. Ripper, the character from the 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”? Can you imagine what might have happened if General Ripper had been elected governor?
For Oregonians, just a few years ago, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. In 1934, voters elected a retired major general named Charles Henry Martin — known to the soldiers assigned to his care during the First World War as “Old Iron Pants.” And although Martin isn’t known to have gone on any anti-fluoridation rants or spluttered about “precious bodily fluids,” his political style was more than a little reminiscent of Ripper’s … and, of course, it’s not a work of fiction.
“If things come to a crisis,” he wrote to a sympathetic fellow military man in 1937, while discussing the likelihood of a Communist takeover in America, “there are enough strong men left in the country to handle it properly. … The Italians wouldn’t submit; they organized their blackshirts. The Germans wouldn’t submit, so they had their brownshirts and Hitler. I don’t believe Americans will submit.”
Left unmentioned in this remark was any suggestion for who might play the role of the American “strong man” analogous to Mussolini or Hitler, but it seemed clear that he felt himself to be up to the challenge if called upon to do so.
Charles H. Martin stands athwart Oregon history like a cartoon supervillain, a larger-than-life caricature of a would-be fascist dictator. He established his own forces of secret police; his agents infiltrated every leftist organization in the state with undercover agents tasked with reporting, provoking, and occasionally soliciting perjured testimony. He responded to at least one labor strike by deploying the National Guard and State Police with orders to shoot to kill. And according to historian Gary Murrell, he gave official support to a plan to euthanize 900 inmates at the Oregon State Institution for the Feeble-Minded as a cost-saving measure. These are just a handful of the most egregious things Martin is remembered for.
On the other hand, we have him to thank for the federal government’s decision to build the Bonneville Dam and establish the Bonneville Power Administration in 1934. Ironically, his attempts to reserve the benefits of Bonneville for his plutocrat friends was a significant factor in his eventual downfall.
But Oregon, and America, would have to wait a long time for that downfall, and a lot of damage would get done before it happened.
Charles Henry Martin was born near the town of Grayville, in southern Illinois, during the American Civil War. He was the third of 10 children, with two older brothers, and his father was determined that his oldest boy would pursue a military career. Charles was happily pursuing his goal of becoming a gentleman-farmer and writer when the unthinkable happened: His two older brothers drowned in the Wabash River. One of them got in trouble, the other dove in to save him, and both perished.
A titanic clash of wills ensued. But in the end, the old man had his way, and Charles reluctantly went off to West Point.
Charles had a rough time at West Point, characterized at first by extreme homesickness and misery, but he eventually graduated 19th in a class of 65. He was assigned to an infantry regiment stationed in Fort Vancouver, just across the river from Portland.
During the decade in which he was stationed in Vancouver, Martin put down roots in the Portland area. In 1897, he married a Portland girl — Louise Jane Hughes, daughter of Portland attorney Ellis G. Hughes.
The very next year, when the Spanish-American war broke out, the young officer — by now a captain — was sent to the Philippines to help organize, with the Filipino rebels, resistance to the Spanish. Shortly after that, when the Boxer Rebellion broke out in China, he was dispatched to China to help with that.
These operations — especially the experience in China, where the allied European and American troops storming through the Chinese countryside looking for rebelling “boxers” adopted a sort of “kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out” attitude — seem to have crystalized Martin’s attitudes toward members of other ethnic groups into frank disdain. In this he was hardly unique among imperial-age military men. When it’s one’s job to kill people, thinking of them as subhuman beasts to be eradicated rather than as brother men makes that job a lot more psychologically tolerable. And that kind of reductive, dehumanizing thinking can and did become a lifelong habit for an entire generation of British, French and American military men — not to mention Italian and German ones.
Following the Boxer Rebellion, Martin returned to the states and served in various functions with great discipline and competence, much of it in the Portland area. In 1913, the Army lent him to the limping, ramshackle Oregon National Guard so that he might instill some proper military discipline into it; he did. In 1916 he was deployed to reinforce Gen. John Pershing in his operations against Poncho Villa in Mexico.
And then the U.S. entered the First World War. Martin, by then a full-bird colonel, was temporarily promoted to brigadier general and put in charge of training camps. It’s in this capacity that he earned the nickname “Iron pants.”
His success in breaking down recruits to build them back up as soldiers led to Martin being given a particularly noteworthy assignment near the end of the war — an assignment that unquestionably represents the ugliest stain on his career. The military authorities had a problem that they wanted his help with. It seemed that the African American soldiers who had signed up to go to France and fight had been treated as equals by the French, rather than as subhumans. Despite increasingly desperate attempts by white American officers to induce the French to adopt the proper attitude of arrogance and disdain toward them, the black doughboys were enjoying an unprecedented level of social freedom and acceptance. The worry was that they had gotten used to this, and would use their new status as war heroes to demand similar equality upon their return to the states.
What was needed, according to military authorities, was a re-indoctrination clinic of sorts, under the guise of “training.” And who better to administer that training than old Iron Pants?
Martin himself had no use for blacks, opining many times that they were inferior in every way to himself and his white friends, and was thoroughly on board with the plan to “put them back in their place.”
Thus did Charles Henry Martin, future governor of the state of Oregon, become the central figure in one of the most shameful events in American military history — the deliberate, systematic breaking of the spirit of an entire divisional cohort of American combat veterans and war heroes.
The black veterans were given the most degrading duties Martin could find for them, including cleaning out toilet pits, burying rotting corpses, and the kind of meaningless rock-breaking busywork one associates with prison chain gangs. They were worked all day and given no liberty to leave the camp. Meanwhile, Martin and his staff cultivated rumors back home that they had been running amok in France, raping French girls by the dozens, and Martin openly referred to them as the “rapist division.” (An investigation later revealed that for the entire war, just two charges of rape were made against members of the division.)
It is worth noting that Martin, after the war, blamed the low status of this “training” assignment for the fact that his temporary promotion to brigadier general was not made permanent after the war. Perhaps lingering resentment of that is why, after the war, Martin filed a report that would become the core of the U.S. Army’s policy on African American soldiers from the early 1920s until the early years of the Second World War. It was designed to minimize blacks’ access to the kind of combat roles in which they might distinguish themselves as heroes, to avoid having black officers over the rank of first lieutenant, and most of all to ensure that no white soldier or officer ever had to take an order from any black man of any rank whatever.
Martin’s Army career ended with his retirement in 1927. He left the Army a very different man than he had been when he entered it. A merciless disciplinarian with a worshipful attitude toward vested authority and a growing fear of communism, he was already starting to show signs of the Gen. Jack D. Ripper-style paranoia that his political career would reveal after his return to civilian life.
We’ll talk about that political career in next week’s column.
(Sources: Murrell, Gary. Iron Pants: Oregon’s Anti-New-Deal Governor. Pullman, Wash.: WSU Press, 2000; Murrell, Gary. “Hunting Reds in Oregon,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, winter 1999)