Edwin W. Martin Oral History Interview


Oral History Interview with
Edwin W. Martin

Vice consul, Hamilton, Bermuda, 1941-44, Leopoldville, Belgian Congo, 1944, Peiping, China, 1946-48, Hankow, China, 1948-49; consul, Taipei, Formosa, 1949-50; consul, also 2d. Secretary of Embassy, Rangoon, Burma, 1950-51; with Department of State, Washington, 1952-, deputy director, Office Chinese Affairs, 1953; director, Office Chinese Affairs, 1958-61; and Ambassador to Burma, 1971-73.


Washington, DC
June 3, 1975
Richard D. McKinzie




This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened 1977
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
Edwin W. Martin


Washington, DC
June 3, 1975
Richard D. McKinzie


MCKINZIE: Mr. Ambassador, I think a lot of historians are interested in why people went into Foreign Service in the first place. When you were going to Oberlin and doing your graduate work is this something you had a kind of life plan to do?

MARTIN: Yes, I was interested in foreign affairs and I got interested in the Foreign Service simply as a means of, you might say, implementing, my interest in foreign affairs. When I was a senior at Oberlin, an alumnus who had joined the Foreign Service about seven or eight years previously came back and gave a


talk. His name was Jack Service. That's the only time I ever met him, when I was a senior at Oberlin. I wouldn't say that he triggered my interest, but he more or less whetted my appetite, because he was very enthusiastic about the Foreign Service. I didn't go into graduate work in international relations with the idea that the only thing I was going to do was to be a Foreign Service officer. I was interested in the field in general, so I naturally took the examinations, but I didn't pin my all on that.

MCKINZIE: You had a kind of exotic first post when you got in, didn't you?

MARTIN: Bermuda?


MARTIN: Normally Bermuda had not been a first post,


but because of the bases for destroyers deal that [Franklin] Roosevelt and [Winston] Churchill made in 1940, some extra staff was needed at the little Consulate General there in Bermuda. In those days the number of new Foreign Service officers, of course, was very small; usually around 35 or so people were taken into the Foreign Service annually. I think my class was about 40, which was one of the largest in prewar days.

The first year was understood to be a probationary year, and you went directly to your first post and then after this probationary year you'd come back to Washington for a session at the Foreign Service--well, we didn't have a Foreign Service Institute then, but for some training. The idea was they didn't want to waste the training on you if you weren't going to last, and they could get rid of you without


a lot of fuss and feathers in that first year. So they would send candidates who had passed the exams to nearby posts--usually in Mexico and Canada. This was the first time they ever sent one to Bermuda.

Well, I'd been going to Fletcher School at Medford, Mass. and as Bermuda was a very close post it was very cheap for the Government to send me there. People thought, of course, that I had drag in the State Department. The fact is, I didn't know a soul in the State Department, never set foot in the State Department in my life. I went directly from Fletcher to my first post. So any thought that I had some special pull to get a post like that was just not correct.

MCKINZIE: As a young Foreign Service officer having this post in Bermuda, did you expect that you eventually would have this special relationship


with British affairs?

MARTIN: No. Well, I had, of course, been born in India. So I had an interest in the British Commonwealth; but it was pure coincidence that I went to Bermuda. You have no control whatsoever over where you are sent on that first assignment. Well, usually you didn't have much control anyway, but especially on the first assignment. It just happened to be, really, for geographical reasons. I would normally probably have gone to Canada due to my location. But anyway, I went to Bermuda. And I enjoyed that assignment partly because I had lived as a child in the British Empire, and so I got along, I thought, well with and liked British people.

I don't want to spend a lot of time on the Bermuda assignment, but it was, I think an excellent one for a junior Foreign Service


Officer. It was a small place and I learned all the consular ropes there, including some rather exotic things, because Britain was at war. We got into the war while I was there, and it was a big rendezvous point for convoys going over to Europe, to England particularly, and so we had problems with merchant shipping, with accidents that took place at sea in these convoys. They'd run along at night with no lights, or virtually no lights, and sometimes they'd have collisions, and we'd get ships with gaping holes in them. They'd come into Bermuda, and, of course, one of the jobs that a Consulate has, and I was a Vice Consul of course in those days, was to look after the problems of American shipping and I had all kinds of problems. Anytime you are dealing with ships and seamen you're going to have not only the routine business of signing on and off seamen, but looking after


those that get in trouble with the law.

MCKINZIE: On shore leave.

MARTIN: On shore leave and at sea. So, there were a lot of interesting aspects to this job. After we got into the war, I had to handle a strike of the crew of a merchant ship chartered by the U.S. Navy. The Navy wanted to treat it as a mutiny. The crew claimed the ship was not seaworthy. Finally the crew agreed to sail when the Navy agreed to provide a warship to escort them.

The British had a huge censorship establishment in Bermuda; they had people from all over the world censoring mail. They brought in neutral ships, like Portuguese and Spanish vessels and so forth that were headed for mostly Latin America, Central America, and they brought them into Bermuda, took off all their mail and


censored it. So that brought a lot of interesting people there, to Bermuda.

Then I mentioned the bases for destroyers deal. The U.S. built two bases there, a naval base and an air base, and we had all sorts of problems you don't normally run into as a vice consul, such as handling American labor that had been brought down there to construct the bases. When the laborers got into trouble it would involve us.

So, from the standpoint of training and getting an all-around experience in consular work, it was an excellent place. At the same time we felt that we were contributing to the war effort, because we were directly working with the Navy and Air Force in building their bases there, and later on we had a destroyer escort training setup there.

We had some interesting people coming


through Bermuda because Pan American Airways operated flying boats from Baltimore to Bermuda to the Azores to Lisbon. We had people who'd stop over and we'd have to look after them, like General [George C.] Marshall, and Harry Hopkins, many diplomats, and military men. Sometimes they would be delayed. It depended upon the weather. Sometimes they couldn't get into the Azores or sometimes they'd skip the Azores and fly direct to Lisbon; but in that case they could only take on about ten passengers because it was a longer flight, so we'd have VIP's stuck there in Bermuda for several days.

Well, we felt that, although we were a tiny little post about 750 miles off the coast, because of the convoys, these bases we


were building, the traffic we had going through there, we didn't feel cut off or isolated, we felt very much a part of the whole effort.

MCKINZIE: Was it a three-year tour?

MARTIN: Well, what happened was this. You see, normally, as I said, you went out for a year and then you came back to the States, but during my first year in the Foreign Service Pearl Harbor occurred, and the Foreign Service immediately stopped recruiting. The last people who came into the Foreign Service on a regular basis was the class of '42 who had taken their exams in '41 before the war. But after Pearl Harbor they didn't give any more Foreign Service exams. So they stopped the program which they normally had of bringing


back the people after their probationary year, and they left us at our posts. So, instead of having a one-year tour as I normally would have had, I was there for nearly three years. But by that time, of course, everything was more or less arbitrary, and all rules sort of gone by the board, and they just kept you where they needed you.

MCKINZIE: Well, why then the Congo?

MARTIN: Well, it just happened, I don't think there was any special rhyme or reason. I think it was, again, the wartime situation. They happened to need somebody in the Congo. I'd been with this post for nearly three years, and they decided to send me there.

There, of course, again we were very much geared to the war effort; the Congo was a producer of raw materials. In those days it was controlled


by the Belgians. Before I got there, actually, Leopoldville had been one of the way stations on our air route that linked the United States with the Far East, believe it or not, because the Germans had occupied North Africa in the early part of the war. So the air link was down to South America, across the South Atlantic, to Central Africa, and then across Central Africa on to East Africa and to India and the Far East.

When I got there in early '44, the Germans had been chased out of North Africa so the shorter link had been restored, but Leopoldville had been on the previous air link. Our particular work there, aside from the routine consular duties, was to expedite the shipment of raw materials, and particularly uranium. We used to ship uranium--that is we used to issue consular invoices for commercial shipments of uranium


by air. It seemed to be a very expensive thing to do, and it wasn't until the explosion of the first atomic bomb that I realized what the significance of it was, because in those days I think this was the primary source of uranium, that part of Africa.

We also shipped out wild rubber, because the Japanese had occupied the big rubber plantations of Southeast Asia. The Congo used to be a big source of rubber in the very early days of the rubber industry. Then plantations in Southeast Asia and elsewhere had made it uneconomical to collect wild rubber, but they went back to collecting wild rubber again in the Congo during the war.

MCKINZIE: Did the people seem fairly placid to you, that is to say, did you anticipate at that time any problems that were beneath the surface, as such?


MARTIN: Well, I was struck by how paternalistic the Belgian administration was and how unenlightened it was in the sense that it had not developed the African population of the Congo which, of course, was divided up into many different tribal groups. It had not given them educational opportunities. In fact, there was not a single Congolese who had received a university education, which was fantastic considering this was 1944. Congolese were trained as clerks in banks, as locomotive engineers, as medical assistants (which was somewhat lower than a trained nurse level). There were maybe a half dozen or so high schools in the whole country, and these were practically all run by missionaries, Catholic and Protestant. As a result there was no reservoir of administrative or professional Africans, that is Congolese, being trained to assume the responsibilities of Government.


This was quite different from what was going on in, say, British colonies. In Nigeria at that time, and in the Gold Coast, you had thousands of Africans who had received university educations, who had been to Oxford and Cambridge, who sat on the bench, who were judges, who were doctors, and so forth. The educational level was so low in the Congo that even our principal local employee, sort of the head clerk of the Consulate General in Leopoldville, was a Nigerian, because you couldn't find anyone well enough trained among the Africans in the Congo to fill the job.

It was, in other words, a situation that was out of step especially with what the British were doing, but I think also with what the French were doing too. The Belgians obviously had no plan for--or they were not working, developing the resources, the human resources


for eventual independence of the Congo. When they gave independence to the Congo, along about--when was it, about the end of the fifties I think it was--I remember I felt that this was something that would produce trouble, because they simply hadn't prepared the ground for it, and of course, there was a lot of trouble then.

MCKINZIE: You were there only a short time, weren't you?

MARTIN: Yes. Well, what happened was--this is an interesting footnote, not very important, but two things happened--one is I was ill a great deal. I got malaria, and I got bacillary dysentery I lost a lot of weight. I was finally ordered to leave the country. I was going to be transferred to Tehran, because I couldn't seem to shake off this sort of perpetual round of


dysentery and malaria.

In those days in Leopoldville the incidence of malaria, at least among the white population, was around 85 percent, so it wasn't so unusual to get it, and it just seemed to hit me in combination with the dysentery so that the doctor thought that I should get out of there.

But then I got drafted; I got a notice from my draft board. Up until the spring of '44,