Bonus March

In 1924 the U.S. Congress passed a bill that promised World War I veterans a 'bonus' to be paid in 1945. But in 1932, during the Great Depression, a grassroots collection of veterans calling themselves the Bonus Army or the Bonus Expeditionary Force gathered in Washington D.C. demanding that their bonus be paid early.

By June of 1932 an estimated 20,000 men, women, and children were living in cardboard huts and tent cities within the capital - which they derisively named Hooverville. The government greatly feared a revolt by the masses of unemployed and destitute. When the Senate refused to accelerate the bonus payment President Herbert Hoover moved to have the Bonus Marchers removed from Washington.

Hoover asked the Army Chief of Staff, Douglas MacArthur, to disperse the disgruntled veterans. MacArthur, assisted by his aides Major Dwight D. Eisenhower and Major George S. Patton, Jr , personally led Army troops and cavalry against the marching veterans. Dramatic footage shows the soldiers, with bayonets fixed and sabres drawn, riding through Hooverville, injuring hundreds, killing one infant and setting the encampment on fire.

It was one of the more chilling examples in American history of our military being used against its own citizens.

Bonus Expeditionary Force

Or thank you very much future Generals Douglas Macarthur, George Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower

Okay, let’s set the stage…

The time is 1924 and Congress, in recognition of American veterans who served during World War I, votes to award them $3,500,000,000 in defiance of Calvin Coolidge who tried to veto the bill. The monies are ordered to be paid out over a twenty-year period in order to ease the immediate strain that such a payout might place on the funds available. The system of compensation was tiered based on such factors as length of service, service overseas, hazardous duty, etc. When all was said and done, veterans who were entitled to receive $50 or less got the money up front. Veterans who were entitled to receive more than $50 received certificates due to mature in 20 years with a fixed annual interest rate.

Enter The Great Depression.

To put it mildly, 1932 did not start off as a banner year in America. In late 1931, several marches on Washington D. C. had already taken place in protest of the economic and social conditions that the depression was causing. Among them were communist led hunger marches, and jobless men looking for unemployment legislation. Jobless veterans,calling themselves the "Bonus Expeditionary Force", and sensing that they could use the money promised them now instead of the future began arriving in May of 1932. Many of them were accompanied by their wives, children and other family members. Then Army Chief of Staff, one Douglas MacArthur, became convinced that the marchers had bigger thoughts on their minds such as the undermining of the U. S Government and this was a “communist conspiracy” to do so. This was in direct opposition to his own Chief of Staff’s intelligence reports that indicated that the majority of marchers were in fact anti communist and that only a few of the “leaders” of the march had communist leanings. To quote journalist Joseph C. Harsch and witness to the goings on:

“This was not a revolutionary situation. This was a bunch of people in great distress wanting help. These were simply veterans of World War I who were out of luck, out of money, and wanted to get their bonus – and they need the money at that moment.”

The marchers, led by Walter M. Walters began to set up various camps and announced their intentions to remain in Washington D. C. until their demands were met. Along those lines, they also announced that there would be no panhandling, drinking or radicalism performed by the marchers on the citizenry of Washington D. C. In return, the Washington D. C. police force treated them fairly and with respect.

By mid of June, 1932, the number of marchers had grown to over 20,000. By this time many of them were hungry, tired and frustrated with the lack of government action on their part. At the same time, the House of Representatives passed a bill in favor the veterans. President Herbert Hoover threatened to veto it but he never got the chance. The bill was defeated in the Senate and conflict seemed inevitable.

Towards the end of July, the police were ordered to begin evacuating the veterans, using force if necessary. The Army was prepared to step in at any moment. In response to the show of force by the police, some of the marchers began throwing bricks and rushed the police station. President Hoover then ordered the Secretary of War to “surround the affected area and clear it without delay.”

Enter Douglas MacArthur

Led by Macarthur, Army troops, (including then Major George Patton) began pushing the veterans out and destroying their camps in order to discourage their return. No weapons were fired and by the time it was “over”, one veteran and one baby had been killed and hundreds more had been injured. The Army had used clubs, cavalry with drawn swords, bayonets and tear gas in order to disperse the veterans.

It should have been over then and there. The veterans had retreated across a bridge to their main encampment along the Anacostia River and order had been restored along the streets of Washington D.C. In fact, MacArthur twice received orders from the Secretary of War that indicated the President did not want the response to seem too severe and to not pursue the marchers.

According to then MacArthur’s aide, Dwight D. Eisenhower, he was “too busy and did not want to be bothered by people coming down and pretending to bring orders.” MacArthur then ordered the troops under his command to pursue the marchers across the bridge. A stare down then occurred. On the pretext that he was giving the marchers time to evacuate their camp, MacArthur ordered his troops to stop their advance. What happens next is unclear. Fires soon broke out in the marchers main camp. Neither the Army nor the marchers claimed responsibility and they were eventually driven from Washington D. C. altogether.

A Personal Opinion

I’m sure there are countless other tragedies associated with the exploits of the Bonus Expeditionary Force, both personal and on a national scale that can be told. Either way, it marks a sad tale in American history. On one hand you have frustrated veterans of one war being attacked by (quite possibly) future veterans of another war. You have fires illuminating the nations capital. You have three future heroes of World War II (whether rightly so or not) basically held unaccountable for their actions against members of their own affiliations.

Ten thousand veterans of World War I laid siege to the United States Capitol on June 17, 1932. Inside, senators debated whether to make 3.5 million old soldiers wait until 1945 to get their $1,000 war-service bonus. The House had already approved an immediate cash offer of $500, but President Herbert Hoover threatened to veto it: “The urgent question today is the prompt balancing of the budget.

At the end of World War I, as the American Expeditionary Force was being demobilized, a grateful U.S. government passed legislation that authorized the payment of cash bonuses to war veterans, adjusted for length of service, in 1945. However, the crash of 1929 wiped out many veterans' savings and jobs, forcing them out into the streets. Groups of veterans began to organize and petition the government to pay them their cash bonus immediately. In the spring of 1932, during the worst part of the Depression, a group of 300 veterans in Portland, Oregon organized by an ex-Sergeant named Walter W. Walters named itself the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF) or Bonus Army, and began traveling across the country to Washington to lobby the government personally. By the end of May over 3,000 veterans and their families had made their way to the capital. Most of them lived in a collection of makeshift huts and tents on the mud flats by the Anacostia River outside of the city limits. Similar ghettos could be found sheltering the migrant unemployed and poor outside any large city in the United States and were called Hoovervilles. By July, almost 25,000 people lived in Anacostia, making it the largest Hooverville in the country.

The House bill giving the veterans $500 would have cost the government over $2 billion, so it was eventually defeated in the Senate 62-18. When the vote was announced to the crowd, there was a thunderous burst of booing. Suddenly Walter Walters called out “Let’s sing ‘America,’ men!

My country, 'tis of thee,
sweet land of liberty,
of thee I sing

Standing at attention with their hats off, they bitterly hurled the words back at the halls of Congress. The men formed ranks by state and marched back to their shantytown for the night. For the next three days, 20,000 men slowly shuffled up and down Pennsylvania Avenue in a protest local newspapers titled the 'Death March.'

The two men that Hoover had appointed to deal with the Bonus Army were Secretary of War Patrick Hurley and General Douglas MacArthur. Both men were convinced that the Army was made up of Communists and criminals, so any talks inevitably failed. The police efforts to evacuate the downtown encampments ended in violence: gunfire from policemen killed two veterans, both of whom had been gassed while serving in France.

MacArthur’s orders from the President were to clear the downtown area while making sure women and children received “every kindness and courtesy,” but that’s not what happened. Everyone was scattered screaming by Major George S. Patton’s troops of cavalry charging with their sabers bared. On the heels of the horsemen came masked infantrymen, firing tear gas grenades into the residential area and burning the BEF’s downtown encampment. MacArthur then defied Hoover’s explicit orders and moved his troops into the main Anacostia camp. The troops came in that night with more tear gas and set fire to everything. Two babies died from the gas and a seven-year old boy was bayoneted through the leg when he tried to save his pet rabbit from a burning tent. The elderly veterans wept and MacArthur’s aide, Major Dwight D. Eisenhower called it “a pitiful scene.”

MacArthur called a press conference and declared that the Bonus Army was really a bunch of “mixed hoodlums, ex-convicts and Communists” and praised Hoover for facing the situation bravely. Hoover was trapped, if he fired MacArthur for his defiance, it would look like the Commander-in-Chief had lost control of the army. As a result, MacArthur was declared a hero and Hoover took the blame for the first time in American history federal troops were ordered by a president to attack American civilians.

Later reports showed that 94% of the Bonus Army had army or navy records, and 67% had served overseas. 20% of these supposed “hoodlums and Communists” had actually been disabled in service to their country.

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