Governor Charles Martin tried to run Oregon like an Army base
The retired major general campaigned as a New Deal Democrat, but dropped the mask almost immediately; seeing every hint of opposition as an existential threat to democracy, he reacted to criticism like a junta dictator.
By Finn J.D. John — December 27, 2015
It was the morning of Oct. 1, 1938, at the ceremonial dedication of the new Oregon state capitol building. Following several dedicatory speeches (including one by President Franklin D. Roosevelt), the ribbon was cut and the crowd outside invited to come inside and have a look.
But as the crowd moved forward, those at the front found themselves up against a door stuck shut. The crowd of Oregonians found itself packed tightly against the door.
Then a voice rang out, strident and harsh and full of authority. It was the governor of Oregon, Major General Charles Henry Martin, and if he’d been in his dress uniform he would probably have had his sword out whacking people with the flat of its blade.
“Get back, you bastards!” he roared.
“It was just like a blowtorch,” former Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield told historian Gary Murrell. “The people fell back.”
This surely wasn’t the only case of a governor cursing at his constituents. But it may very well have been the only case of one doing so a month before a hotly contested election, and in the presence of a sitting President of the United States.
But by 1938, General Martin probably felt like cursing at people. In the previous four years, the arrogance and stubbornness that had served him well in the Army and in the U.S. House of Representatives had earned him a bevy of personal enemies working tirelessly for his downfall. His Army life had conditioned him to regard such opposition as insubordination at best (and treason at worst), and he reacted to nearly every sign of opposition as if it were an existential threat to democracy. And the gathering clouds of his paranoia were increasingly keeping him out of touch with reality. In the end, he would not win a second term as governor, and President Roosevelt himself would intervene to see to it that he did not.
When Charles H. Martin retired from the United States Army in 1927, he was in his mid-60s and still a vigorous and powerful man. He had no intention of retiring to the Arlington Club to sip drinks by the fireplace and swap war stories. So, after a couple years spent getting his family real-estate development business in order, he put his hat in the ring for Oregon’s third Congressional district, against incumbent Franklin Korell, and won.
Martin, as a Congressman, turned out to be remarkably effective. The highlight of his one-term service there was getting the Bonneville Dam built. He and Sen. Charles McNary overcame President Roosevelt’s diffidence and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes’ active opposition to do get the project green-lighted.
In so doing, though, Martin set in motion the forces that would lead to his downfall, and to the temporary destruction of his political party in Oregon. At the time, there were two opposing philosophies about government power projects like Bonneville. One side saw the dam as a nice source of power for aluminum plants and other power-hungry industries and for private electric utilities, which could buy its power cheap and resell it dear to their customers.
The other side wanted the dam’s power to be available to all wholesale buyers, so that they could form public electrical co-ops, buying power from Bonneville and using it to compete with those private utilities, forcing their prices down.
As for Martin, his loyalties were never in doubt. “The power that the government will develop at Bonneville is not intended to force down the rates of existing power companies,” he said, in 1933. “This power is intended for the great chemical and metallurgical reduction plants whose first consideration is cheap power and an inexhaustible supply.”
Martin’s leading political adviser and confidant was none other than former Governor Oswald West. West is mostly remembered today for his youthful idealism as the young state governor who saved the state beaches for public access back in 1913. But by 1930 West had matured into a rather less lovable character — a furtive, mendacious political party leader who was at the same time a lobbyist for Portland General Electric.
PGE, of course, was delighted at the prospect of buying cheap hydroelectric power from the new Bonneville Dam, but had no intention of voluntarily passing those savings on to its customers. So PGE must have been quite pleased that the congressman who got Bonneville built was virtually in the pocket of its chief lobbyist.
It would be this fight, as much as or more than his squabbles with labor leaders, that would destroy Martin’s legacy as a governor.
Martin was elected to the state’s top job in 1934, and almost immediately set about making most of the people who’d voted for him regret having done so. He’d campaigned as a New Deal Democrat, but it quickly became clear that that had been a pose struck to sucker voters into giving him power. He dropped the mask almost immediately. Throughout his term, Martin was a fierce opponent of any government policy that might result in individual citizens getting anything from the government: Social Security, welfare relief, disability relief, the works. In other words, he was the New Deal’s fiercest opponent.
In 1936, the unemployment rate having fallen from roughly 20 to 18 percent in the previous year, Martin issued a gubernatorial proclamation declaring the Great Depression over — wishing it away, essentially — and told the federal government to keep its relief funds out of his state.
“There is no need why anyone willing to work cannot find it in this state with crops to be harvested,” he ranted. Oregon was supporting too many “loafers and chiselers,” he said.
“I am trying to teach our people to show the courage and fortitude of good soldiers,” he wrote in 1935. “Democratic nations have lost their moral force through pampering their people.”
When Dust Bowl refugees tried to come to Oregon, he ordered the state relief committee to close down the Roosevelt Transient Camp in Roseburg — he called it a “tramp camp” — and hustle them on their way. He vetoed every attempt at relief for veterans, and when some of them began falling behind on their government-guaranteed home loans, called them “skunks.” He even proposed, in a speech to a group of Young Democrats in Eugene, that 900 developmentally-disabled patients at the Fairview Training Center in Salem should be “put out of their misery.”
“War is the normal state of man, in spite of all the wishful thinking of pacifists,” he said; and he maintained that in that war, in which only the fittest will survive, society can ill afford to coddle its unfit elements.
This was a philosophy Martin shared with many other military men at that time — including the ones who had seized power in Italy and Germany. Like them, he was not opposed to public spending — just to public spending on relief programs. During his term, the National Guard and State Police never wanted for resources.
And those resources got used. The 1930s were a time of much unrest among unions and labor leaders; federal legislation had recognized unions’ right to exist and to strike a few years before. Now, as they started doing so, they seemed to inspire Martin’s full paranoia. Perhaps thinking of a labor strike as analogous to a mutiny among soldiers, he saw them as an existential threat to democracy and Western civilization. “The purpose of both (the AFL and the CIO) is the same,” he wrote to a sympathetic fellow military man. “To seize control of the government.”
To counter this threat to democracy, Martin felt that antidemocratic measures were warranted. Martin waged what amounted to a cold civil war in Oregon from 1934 until he was stripped of his power in a bitter primary fight and sent kicking and screaming into retirement in 1938. We’ll talk in detail about that cold civil war — the spies, the bribery, the perjury, the attempts to get people fired, and even a case in which a bloodbath was barely avoided — 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)