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Did Oregon’s political super-villain save world from Nazis?

Governor Charles Henry “Iron Pants” Martin may have saved the world from a Nazi nuclear holocaust by outplaying President Roosevelt, essentially forcing him to finance a hydroelectric dam that he thought was superfluous.

This postcard image of Bonneville Dam, viewed from the Washington side, comes from a hand-tinted postcard dating from circa 1945. (Image: Postcard)
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in October 2008, which you’ll find here.

Charles Henry “Iron Pants” Martin was probably the most scurrilous and unlovable character in Oregon political history. As an Army officer during the Boxer Rebellion he looted Chinese palaces; as Oregon governor during the 1930s he expressed support for fascism; and, worst of all, as an Army general after the First World War he was in charge of “breaking” America’s African American war veterans at a sort of post-service humiliation-and-degradation camp so that they would not get “uppity” after returning to civilian life.

So it’s a little odd to think that Oregon, and the rest of the world, may actually owe him a debt of gratitude for saving it from a nuclear holocaust at the hands of the Nazis.

Here’s the story:

 

In 1933, when newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt set about showering the country with borrowed money in an attempt to stimulate the economy out of the Great Depression, one of the projects on his list was a hydroelectric dam on the Columbia River.

The government quickly green-lighted one. But to the dismay of Oregonians, it was set to go at Grand Coulee, up in Washington. It would do nothing for the navigability of the lower Columbia, where boats were still having to portage around the Cascade Rapids or use the locks there. It would do nothing for flood control, either. And — probably most importantly, for the political elites of both parties in Oregon — it would not provide Oregon’s well-connected private electric utilities with a pipeline to super-cheap hydroelectric power that they could buy cheap and make a killing selling at their standard residential-service rates.

So Oregon’s Congressional delegation swung into action. And that’s where Charles Henry Martin comes into the story.

At that time, Martin, a Democrat, was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. Martin joined with Oregon Sen. Charles McNary, a Republican, to urge the President to spend some of the $3.3 billion appropriation on a second dam project on the Columbia — what would turn into Bonneville Dam. McNary, who had been pushing for a dam since the Hoover Administration, sent a letter to the President; so did Martin; and a couple months later they followed it up with a personal visit. The President pronounced himself convinced, and told the two lawmakers that if they could find a suitable place to put a dam, he’d put it on the list.

Charles Henry Martin gives a speech at the opening of the new Oregon State Capitol on Oct. 1, 1938, after he’d left the U.S. House of Representatives and been elected governor. This is the event at which Martin famously shouted “Get back, you bastards!” at the crowd waiting to enter the new capitol building. (Image: Salem Public Library/ Ben Maxwell)

Elated, Martin and McNary went to work. But in the meantime, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes — who was in charge of all the projects — learned what was afoot. Ickes was a passionate opponent of the Bonneville Dam project from the start. It’s not clear why; Martin felt it was personal animosity toward himself, but Martin had a deep and ugly streak of paranoia when it came to things like that. It may have been because of appreciation of the scenic beauty of the Columbia Gorge, some of which would be disappearing beneath a lake if the dam were built. Or it might have been simply a sense of financial responsibility; a green light for Bonneville, after all, meant a red light for some other project. $3.3 billion was a lot of money, but it’s not an unlimited amount. Then, too, Ickes surely was also aware of Oregon’s private electric utilities’ agenda; he may have thought a dam at Bonneville would simply be a gift to those wealthy private interests.

But the reason Ickes gave for opposing the project was very reasonable: With two dams on the river, there would be far more power coming out than the Pacific Northwest could possibly use. Much of it would be simply wasted. Why spend a bunch of money to build a second dam when the first one would slake the area’s power needs and then some?

So while the two lawmakers were bustling about getting things ready, Ickes was smoothly and effectively walking the president back from the commitment he’d made.


Months went by
, and Martin grew suspicious. Back in Washington, he learned what was up; but he also learned, through a fellow Army officer, that the Army Corps of Engineers had just finished a survey on the site, and was recommending a $31 million facility there. Martin got a copy of this report — but, like a good poker player, he kept it to himself, waiting for just the right moment to play his card.

A few weeks later, he learned that the President had allocated $250,000 to "investigate the feasibility" of a dam at Bonneville. Instantly he knew that the 250 grand was kiss-off money — a little economic something attached to an empty promise to buy a little time so that Roosevelt and Ickes could move on with a minimum of drama.

Calling home to Oregon, he told McNary the showdown was at hand and asked him to return to Washington. Martin knew that he, a mere House member, had little pull in the White House; but McNary, as one of the 96 Senators who voted on Cabinet confirmations, would have a lot more clout. Reluctantly, McNary came, and the two of them essentially staged a sit-in in the White House until Roosevelt agreed to see them.

As predicted, Roosevelt purred that he’d allocated $250,000 to study the site, and if the results were favorable he’d for sure approve the dam — and just like that, Martin had him.

“Why, Mr. President,” he exclaimed with well-faked surprise, pulling a folded document out of his pocket, “all that work has been done.”

Roosevelt, after a moment of consternation, threw his arms up in the air and roared with laughter. He had been outplayed, and he knew it. The dam, he told the two, was a go — and congratulations.

 

Another old postcard image, this one probably dating from before World War II, shows Bonneville Dam from the air. (Image: Postcard)

By the time the dam was finished in 1938, it was clear that Ickes’ concerns about overproduction were no longer valid. The answer for using all the surplus power, as it turned out, was aluminum. Aluminum production requires huge amounts of electricity to extract it from bauxite ore. And an America tooling up for a war that everyone knew was coming wanted all the aluminum it could get.

As you likely know, as the war went on America’s output of war equipment — especially airplanes — got bigger each year until the hapless Axis powers were completely overwhelmed with hostile (to them) tanks, planes and artillery. By 1945 the output was staggering, and it was topped off with a pair of war-ending nuclear bombings in Japan. The two Columbia River dams played a key role — an irreplaceable role — in all these things.

The role of the aluminum plants is fairly obvious. But equally important to the outcome of the war, if not more so, was the Manhattan Project. It’s no coincidence that Hanford, where the fissile matter for the bombs used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was made, is situated on the Columbia River near the dams — nuclear weapons research and production requires enormous amounts of electricity.


Now, perhaps these needs would have been sated without McNary and Martin’s “unnecessary and superfluous” Bonneville Dam.

But also, perhaps — just perhaps — our production abilities would have fallen short of the challenge that was before us, and we would have lost the race to build nuclear weapons. The Germans were chillingly close to developing a working nuclear bomb when they were forced to surrender in 1945. Without all those aluminum airplanes flying over Germany and dropping bombs on factories and ore refineries, they might very well have gotten there first.

So, does that mean that the one man in Oregon politics who most resembles a cartoon supervillain actually saved the world from an early nuclear holocaust?

We’ll never know for sure, but … there’s a pretty good chance he did.

(Sources: Murrell, Gary. Iron Pants. Pullman, WA: WSU Press, 2000; Gulick, Bill. Roadside History of Oregon. Missoula: Mountain Press, 1991; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Publication EP870-1-42)