Hoover and the Veterans’ Bonus Proposal

Hoover and the Veterans’ Bonus Proposal

Many ex-servicemen from World War I were in dire economic straits by early 1931. Congress responded by approving a measure that would have made available one-half of the adjusted compensation (the so-called “bonus certificates”) provided in the Soldiers' Bonus Act of 1924, which had authorized each veteran to have access to 22.5 per cent of the compensation due to him in the form of a loan against the total amount owing.In February 1931, President Hoover vetoed this bill, explaining that such largess would deplete meager federal funds. In addition, the measure had been applied to all former servicemen and had not singled out those in dire need — which probably amounted to only about one-quarter of the veterans.In short order, Congress reconsidered the matter and passed it over Hoover’s veto.The President’s rejection of this aid program, while rooted in sound economic conservatism, did much to erode his once-popular image. Agitation on this score led to the “Bonus March” on Washington in the summer of 1932 and the resulting final destruction of Hoover’s reputation as a humanitarian.

See other aspects of Hoover's domestic policy.

Bonus Army

The Bonus Army was a group of 43,000 demonstrators – made up of 17,000 U.S. World War I veterans, together with their families and affiliated groups – who gathered in Washington, D.C. in mid-1932 to demand early cash redemption of their service certificates. Organizers called the demonstrators the "Bonus Expeditionary Force", to echo the name of World War I's American Expeditionary Forces, while the media referred to them as the "Bonus Army" or "Bonus Marchers". The demonstrators were led by Walter W. Waters, a former sergeant.

Many of the war veterans had been out of work since the beginning of the Great Depression. The World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 had awarded them bonuses in the form of certificates they could not redeem until 1945. Each certificate, issued to a qualified veteran soldier, bore a face value equal to the soldier's promised payment with compound interest. The principal demand of the Bonus Army was the immediate cash payment of their certificates.

On July 28, 1932, U.S. Attorney General William D. Mitchell ordered the veterans removed from all government property. Washington police met with resistance, shot at the protestors, and two veterans were wounded and later died. President Herbert Hoover then ordered the U.S. Army to clear the marchers' campsite. Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur commanded a contingent of infantry and cavalry, supported by six tanks. The Bonus Army marchers with their wives and children were driven out, and their shelters and belongings burned.

A second, smaller Bonus March in 1933 at the start of the Roosevelt administration was defused in May with an offer of jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corps at Fort Hunt, Virginia, which most of the group accepted. Those who chose not to work for the CCC by the May 22 deadline were given transportation home. [2] In 1936, Congress overrode President Roosevelt's veto and paid the veterans their bonus nine years early.

Hoover and the Veterans’ Bonus Proposal - History

Following World War I, the U.S. federal government anticipated that its war-risk insurance plan would adequately protect American soldiers and sailors who had served during the war, and that there would be no demand for compensation to those who had suffered no injury during their service in the army or navy. In 1924, however, Congress enacted a law, over the veto of President Calvin Coolidge, providing for a system of adjusted compensation based on length of service, with a distinction made in favor of service overseas. Under this plan, veterans entitled to receive $50 or less were to be paid in cash those entitled to receive more than $50 were to receive certificates maturing in 20 years.

Veterans up to the rank of major with at least 60 days service each received a dollar for each day of domestic service up to $500 and $1.25 for each day of overseas service up to $625. The bond that each received in 1924 (in lieu of cash) would accumulate compound interest, resulting in an average payment of about $1,000 for each veteran in 1945.

In order to meet full payment of these certificates when they matured in 1945, Congress provided that a trust fund be created through the appropriation of twenty annual installments of $ 112 million each. This would yield a total of $2.24 billion. Interest compounded annually would increase this sum approximately to the amount required to meet the face value of the certificates at maturity. By April 1932, there were 3,662,374 of those certificates outstanding, bearing an aggregate face value of $3.638 billion. By this time eight annual installments of $ 112 million had been paid into the fund by Congress, making a total of $896 million, and accrued interest had added $95 million, bringing the fund to $991 million.

Children at the Marchers' "City"

However, because of the national depression, in 1931 Congress expanded the privilege of borrowing with an amendment adopted over the veto of President Herbert Hoover, increasing the loan value of the certificates from 22 1/2 per cent to 50 per cent of face value.

By April 1932, loans amounting to $1.248 billion were outstanding. The difference between this figure and the total face value of the certificates, $3.638 billion, was $2.390 billion. This was the additional sum which the veterans would receive if Congress, again over the President's veto, approved a new proposal for immediate redemption of the certificates at face value, thirteen years before maturity in 1945.

This early redemption capability came to be referred to by members of Congress and veterans groups as a bonus, and during the early months of 1932 the bonus was a topic of ongoing discussion in the legislature. Because of the opposition of President Hoover and many senators and members of the House, due primarily to the fact that the country was trying to work its way out of the depression and this action would put a severe strain on the federal budget, veterans groups began to organize around the country with the idea of marching on Washington, D.C. to press their demands.

Marchers' Camp Burned

Beginning in May, 1932, groups of World War I veterans began difficult journeys across the country, traveling in empty railroad freight cars, in the backs of trucks, in cars, on foot and by any other means that became available. By mid-June it was estimated that as many as 20,000 veterans and some family members had arrived in Washington, and were camping out, often in dirty, unsanitary conditions, in parks and military bases around the city, depending on donations of food from a variety of governments, churches and private citizens. On June 16, the House passed the bonus bill by a vote of 209-176, but on June 18, the Senate defeated the bill 62-18.

At this point, the federal and district governments began to make arrangements to force the veterans to go home, but very few accepted the offer, vowing to stay until they received their bonus. Throughout July the veterans, known as the Bonus Expeditionary Force, continued to hold marches and rallies despite the fact that they were receiving ultimatums to leave, with the White House proposing use of troops to force an evacuation.

Then on July 29,1932, troops did storm several buildings that the veterans were occupying as well as their main camp, setting tents on fire and forcing an evacuation. When it was over, one veteran had been killed and about 50 veterans and Washington police had been injured in various confrontations. Over the next several months, a much smaller group of Bonus Expeditionary Force members continued to pressure Congress, and in May 1933 about 1,000 veterans marched again on Washington. Newly-elected President Franklin Roosevelt also opposed the bonus but demonstrated his concern for the unemployed veterans by issuing an executive order permitting the enrollment of 25,000 of them in the Citizens' Conservation Corps for work in forests. When the veterans realized that President Roosevelt would also veto the bonus bill but was offering an alternative solution they gradually backed away from their demands, and the issue of the veterans' bonus eventually faded from the news.

Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur and President Herbert Hoover Suffered Irreversible Damage to their Reputations after the Affair.

A footnote: The break-up of the Bonus Army in Washington was conducted by Army Chief of Staff and World War I veteran Douglas MacArthur, assisted by Majors George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower. MacArthur is considered to have exceeded President Hoover's intentions [and possibly his explicit instructions] with his heavy-handedness. MH

Source: Great Events VI as reported in The New York Times The photos are from the Library of Congress and National Archives. Professor Jennifer Keene computed the bonus amount for us. MH

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  • What, if any, circumstances of the veterans outlined in the text warrant early payment of their bonus? Use specific evidence from the text to support your response.
  • Was it fair to compare the earlier treatment of the Bonus Army marchers in Washington D.C. to the conditions of World War I? Why or why not?
  • Is the Bonus Army’s characterization of Hoover and their current plight a fair assessment of their situation? Use evidence from the text to support your response.

Veterans Rank And File Committee, "Veterans march to Washington to arrive at opening of Congress, December 5th, 1932 to demand cash payment of bonus," New York, 1932. Courtesy of Library of Congress

48c. The Bonus March

World War I veterans block the steps of the Capitol during the Bonus March, July 5, 1932.

Many in America wondered if the nation would survive.

Although the United States had little history of massive social upheaval or coup attempts against the government, hunger has an ominous way of stirring those passions among any population. As bread riots and shantytowns grew in number, many began to seek alternatives to the status quo. Demonstrations in the nation's capital increased, as Americans grew increasingly weary with President Hoover's perceived inaction. The demonstration that drew the most national attention was the Bonus Army march of 1932.

In 1924, Congress rewarded veterans of World War I with certificates redeemable in 1945 for $1,000 each. By 1932, many of these former servicemen had lost their jobs and fortunes in the early days of the Depression. They asked Congress to redeem their Bonus certificates early.

Workers and their unions fought poor working conditions by walking off the job. Violence often erupted when factory owners tried to break the "strike." These broken windows are a result of the Flint, Michigan, sit-down strike of 1936-37.

Led by Walter Waters of Oregon, the so-called Bonus Expeditionary Force set out for the nation's capital. Hitching rides, hopping trains, and hiking finally brought the Bonus Army, now 15,000 strong, into the capital in June 1932. Although President Hoover refused to address them, the veterans did find an audience with a congressional delegation. Soon a debate began in the Congress over whether to meet the demonstrators' demands.

As deliberation continued on Capitol Hill, the Bonus Army built a shantytown across the Potomac River in Anacostia Flats . When the Senate rejected their demands on June 17, most of the veterans dejectedly returned home. But several thousand remained in the capital with their families. Many had nowhere else to go. The Bonus Army conducted itself with decorum and spent their vigil unarmed.

Conditions during the Depression were so bad that some city governments devised programs that had the unemployed selling apples to make a living. This man was one of nearly 700 apple vendors in Detroit.

However, many believed them a threat to national security. On July 28, Washington police began to clear the demonstrators out of the capital. Two men were killed as tear gas and bayonets assailed the Bonus Marchers. Fearing rising disorder, Hoover ordered an army regiment into the city, under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur. The army, complete with infantry, cavalry, and tanks, rolled into Anacostia Flats forcing the Bonus Army to flee. MacArthur then ordered the shanty settlements burned.

Many Americans were outraged. How could the army treat veterans of the Great War with such disrespect? Hoover maintained that political agitators, anarchists, and communists dominated the mob. But facts contradict his claims. Nine out of ten Bonus Marchers were indeed veterans, and 20% were disabled. Despite the fact that the Bonus Army was the largest march on Washington up to that point in history, Hoover and MacArthur clearly overestimated the threat posed to national security. As Hoover campaigned for reelection that summer, his actions turned an already sour public opinion of him even further bottomward.

The Day the U.S. Army Attacked WWI Veterans & their Kids

(SALEM) - The police attacks on U.S. War Veterans taking part in the Occupy protests, are not a new phenomenon in America in fact there is quite a history of both police and military waging attacks on unarmed U.S. citizens in this country.

The beginning wasn't the Democratic Convention of '68 or the Kent State or Jackson State police and military massacres on civilians that opened this wound at first.

In the 20th Century, violence was first carried out against World War One Vets and their families and supporters, during the Depression, in 1932.

It is an ugly period in history and the players were then President Herbert Hoover, U.S. Attorney General William D. Mitchell, and senior Army officers Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. When later discussing the military operation against U.S. World War One Vets at the U.S. capitol, Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, later President of the United States, it was "wrong for the Army's highest-ranking officer to lead an action against fellow American war veterans".

All races- All American- were represented.

"I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch not to go down there," Dwight D. Eisenhower would later say of General Douglas MacArthur's decision to launch a deadly attack on protesting U.S. World War One Veterans and their families.

Eisenhower was one of MacArthur's junior aides at the time, and while he said he strongly advised the future World War Two military leader against the attack, it is also true that he officially endorsed MacArthur's conduct the day the U.S. Army attacked what came to be known as the 'Bonus Army', approximately 43,000 strong, among them families and supporters of the military, and those 17,000 Vets who were seeking an immediate cash payment.

Donation for the Bonus Army

Wikipedia explains that a large number of the war veterans were living in poverty and unable to find work as was the fate of so many Americans surviving during the Great Depression.

The World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 awarded the veterans bonuses in the form of certificates, however those were not redeemable until 1945 and many of the Vets knew they would likely not live to see 1945. The certificates, issued to war veteran who qualified, had a face value equal to the soldier's promised payment plus compound interest.

The Bonus Army's primary demand, was the immediate cash payment of their certificates. Wright Patman, who was elected to the House of Representatives in Texas's 1st congressional district in 1928, introduced a bill that would have mandated the immediate payment of the bonus to World War I veterans in 1932.

This bill is the reason that the Bonus Army came to Washington.

Patman had a specific reason for offering this support he was a machine gunner in WWI and served in both enlisted and officer ranks.

Occupy Washington 1933

Most of the Bonus Army camped in a Hooverville on the Anacostia Flats, a swampy, muddy area across the Anacostia River from the federal core of Washington, just south of the 11th Street Bridges (now Section C of Anacostia Park). The camps, built from materials scavenged from a nearby rubbish dump, were tightly controlled by the veterans who laid out streets, built sanitation facilities, and held daily parades. To live in the camps, veterans were required to register and prove they had been honorably discharged.
- Wikipedia page on the Bonus Army

Marine Gen Smedley Butler

Retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler is the two-time Congressional Medal of Honor winner who criticized what we today call the military, industrial complex and he is known in popular culture for the famous speech, 'War is a Racket'.

He encouraged the demonstrators to hold their ground and publicly backed the effort, in person.

The Bonus Army represented the entire country.

You could not find a more loyal officer in Smedley Butler, or in MacArthur, a more disloyal paranoid murderer. That is my opinion, but it was the opinion of millions in the 1930's sadly they're mostly all if not completely gone now to add their voices to mine.

The Wright Patman Bonus Bill passed in the House of Representatives on 15 June 1932. Two days later, the Bonus Army moved en mass to the U.S. Capitol to await a decision from the U.S. Senate, which defeated the Bonus Bill and a lot of hope for veterans, by a vote of 62-18.

The demonstrators were mostly destitute and had no homes to return to, they held their ground until 28 July, when they were ordered to be removed from government property by William D. Mitchell.

The Washington police encountered resistance, and opened fire on the veterans and their supporters, leaving two former World War One soldiers, William Hushka and Eric Carlson, with mortal wounds that they would soon succumb to.

Upon hearing of this shooting, U.S. President Herbert Hoover sent in the U.S. Army to clear the veterans' campsite. Commanding infantry and cavalry units and a half dozen tanks, soldiers under the command of Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur, attacked the Bonus Army marchers, driving them out along with their wives and children.

The family shelters and all of the personal belongings of the families participating in the Bonus Army were burned and destroyed. In eerie retrospect, the event was like an early warning or even a premonition, into what would come in future wars, particularly Vietnam where fire was frequently used as an all-consuming tool of war, swallowing up entire villages suspected of having relations with Communist guerrillas.

Attacking American WWI Veterans

It happened at 4:45 p.m. Wikipedia states that thousands of civil service employees left work early that day, lining the street to watch the confrontation. The Bonus Marchers apparently thought at first, that the troops were marching in their honor. They cheered the troops until Patton ordered the cavalry to charge them—an action which prompted the spectators to yell, "Shame! Shame!"

After the cavalry charged, the infantry, with fixed bayonets and adamsite gas, an arsenical vomiting agent, entered the camps, evicting veterans, families, and camp followers. The veterans fled across the Anacostia River to their largest camp and President Hoover ordered the assault stopped.

However Gen. MacArthur, feeling the Bonus March was a "Communist" attempt to overthrow the U.S. government, ignored the President and ordered a new attack.

Fifty-five veterans were injured and 135 arrested. A veteran's wife miscarried. When 12-week-old Bernard Myers died in the hospital after being caught in the tear gas attack, a government investigation reported he died of enteritis, while a hospital spokesman said the tear gas "didn't do it any good."

Psychological Nightmare

The camp prior to destruction

After MacArthur's attack

Today we know that those who serve in brutal wars suffer serious invisible wounds known as Post Traumatic Stress (PTS)* It seems clear that those injuries that didn't show physically, then often described only as 'shell shock' - a reference for injuries sustained by often constant bombings during trench warfare, were no aid in helping men find work.

It's hard to imagine what it must have done to the psyches of those who fought the Germans under terrible conditions in a war of human attrition, yet saved France, at least for a couple of decades.

It was revealed that McArthur had been ordered at one point to stand his soldiers down, but he ignored the order because he believed these Americans were "Communists". He would be known as a general who failed to follow orders at will and only paid for it at the end.

The United States is again in economic upheaval but these vets were the first in recent history to feel the violent, deadly wrath from their government that those in Iran, China, Libya, Bahrain, Serbia and so many other places have felt from their governments.

The United States in this case, is exactly the same as those it so strongly criticizes.

* I am using the term PTS instead of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) because a growing number of people closely involved in working with sufferers, are increasingly discovering that PTS is not necessarily a 'disorder'. I believe invisible wound sounds vague but it is an appropriate description. The other injury similar in nature seen in large numbers of Veterans from the current wars, is Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) which is a result of contact with roadside bombs.

Tim King: Salem-News.com Editor and Writer

Tim King has more than twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor. Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 covering the war in Afghanistan, and he was in Iraq over the summer of 2008, reporting from the war while embedded with both the U.S. Army and the Marines. Tim is a former U.S. Marine.

Tim holds awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing, including the Silver Spoke Award by the National Coalition of Motorcyclists (2011), Excellence in Journalism Award by the Oregon Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs (2010), Oregon AP Award for Spot News Photographer of the Year (2004), First-place Electronic Media Award in Spot News, Las Vegas, (1998), Oregon AP Cooperation Award (1991) and several others including the 2005 Red Cross Good Neighborhood Award for reporting. Tim has several years of experience in network affiliate news TV stations, having worked as a reporter and photographer at NBC, ABC and FOX stations in Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. Tim was a member of the National Press Photographer's Association for several years and is a current member of the Orange County Press Club.

Serving the community in very real terms, Salem-News.com is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website. As News Editor, Tim among other things, is responsible for publishing the original content of 91 Salem-News.com writers. He reminds viewers that emails are easily missed and urges those trying to reach him, to please send a second email if the first goes unanswered. You can write to Tim at this address: [email protected]

All comments and messages are approved by people and self promotional links or unacceptable comments are denied.

I am never amazed at the reaction of our citizens when it comes to a crazy person shooting and killing crowds of people. They always shout for more fun laws and restrictions, having never studied our history not our Constitution, specifically our Bill of Rights. Congress made a, "promise" to all those WW1 Vets, at the time of their greatest need, then broke it! The only way possible to have a peaceful civilization is for all people to be armed. This has nothing to do with our 2nd Amendment, as that like the other 9 of our Bill of Rights, was created as a condition of the Original 13 States signing the Constitution to protect the People from the Government! All people must study our history and forget the deal about political parties, and vote for the, "Individual" and you will have someone who only owes allegiance to you!

Eileen Jones June 27, 2016 5:20 pm (Pacific time)

Today is almost parallel to then , I think we are on the verge of the same thing happening now. The elections are being corrupted by those who don' want Trump and this will open the door for Hillary..NOT GOOD ! This time it will be millions and I will be one of them. We have to stand strong for America.

C Ramsey March 10, 2016 4:56 am (Pacific time)

This made me want to vomit. Can't wait to bring this up next time my teacher says how great America was during the 20's.

Anonymous June 3, 2014 5:46 pm (Pacific time)

"All comments and messages are approved by people and self promotional links or unacceptable comments are denied." except for the obviously biased opinion about FDR from the editor.

Mario February 5, 2014 6:32 am (Pacific time)

And still vets get treated in a similar fashion by politicians that are nothing more than armchair generals.

WILBUR JAY COOK January 29, 2013 10:40 am (Pacific time)

The promise of health benefits to retired military personel is now being broken by obama. He is cutting the medical payments breaking the enlistment contract. shame on him but he does not care about the military.

Anonymous December 1, 2011 8:27 am (Pacific time)

I imagine Japanese-Americans then and now, do not regard FDR as a "great man," nor Harry Truman.

Editor: I don't imagine they do, however FDR was far better that Truman, the interment camps are a matter of national shame.

COLLI November 30, 2011 3:37 pm (Pacific time)

I can remember my grandparents telling me about the bonus army and what happened to it while I was studying it in Grade School history. Neither of them thought much of Douglas MacArthur or Herbert Hoover from that time on.

Politicians never hesitate to ask young men and women to risk their lives but lying is their stock and trade . . . especially when it comes to veterans. It appears that hasn't changed one iota since the Bonus Army.
This is an excellent article Tim and contains facts well worth remembering and communicating.

Tim King: Thanks so much Colli!

Charlene Young November 30, 2011 12:59 pm (Pacific time)

FDR proved early in his administration that he was an unfit leader, and no friend of veterans, nor active-duty military. History clearly reflects that this incompetent prolonged the depression and allowed marxists to establish a strong foothold in America. A dreadful man, who now is being eclipsed.

Editor: FDR made mistakes but he was a great man and outshined Hoover, and a similar event happened the next year under FDR - he was wrong for not assisting the veterans, but talk about a member of the 1%, it's hard to expect any good decisions from the rich, you should know that by now..

The ‘Bonus Army’ Storm Into Washington

Army Chief of Staff and Major General Douglas MacArthur watched a brigade of steel-helmeted soldiers precisely align themselves in a straight four-column phalanx, bayonets affixed to rifles. He nodded his head in satisfaction. Discipline was wonderful. Up ahead, Major George Patton kicked his heels against his mount, and the big horse reared forward to signal a line of cavalry. The riders drew their sabers, and the animals stepped out in unison, hoofs smacking loudly on the street. Five Renault tanks lurched behind. Seven-ton relics from World War I and presumably just for show, the old machines nonetheless left little doubt as to the seriousness of the moment. On cue, at about 4:30 p.m. on July 28, 1932, the infantry began a slow, steady march forward. Completing the surreal atmosphere, a machine gun unit unlimbered, and its crew busily set up.

This was no parade, although hundreds of curious office workers had interrupted their daily routines to crowd the sidewalk or hang out of windows along Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol to see what would happen. Up ahead, a group of weary civilians, many dressed in rags and ill-fitting, faded uniforms, waited in anticipation amid their sorry camp of tents and structures made from clapboard and sheets of tin covered in tar paper. Some loitered in the street. They had heard something was afoot — expected it after what happened earlier. Now, a murmur rose from the camp crowd. Upon seeing the Army’s menacing approach, they were momentarily stunned, disbelieving.

Recovering their senses, a few of the men cursed and sent bottles and bricks flying toward the troops — ineffective weapons against so formidable a force. The missiles shattered on impact on the hard pavement or bounced off the flanks of horses and soldiers. Undaunted, the roughly 600 troops maintained their discipline with tight-lipped determination. The extra training MacArthur had recently ordered was paying off.

Some of the camp inhabitants had already begun running from the oncoming soldiery, but angry packs held their ground, defiantly wielding clubs and iron bars, yelling profanities. An officer signaled, and the infantry halted to don masks and toss gas grenades. Forming into two assault waves, they continued their push. Clouds of stinging, gray fumes wafted through the air, forcing most of the remaining unarmed veterans to flee in panic. One particularly pesky truckload continued to throw debris, prompting a quick response from Patton: ‘Two of us charged at a gallop and [striking with the flat of our swords] had some nice work at close range with the occupants of the truck, most of whom could not sit down for some days.’

As cavalry dispersed a group of outnumbered veterans waving a U.S. flag, a shocked bystander, his face streaked with tears from the gas, accosted MacArthur as he rode along in a staff car. ‘The American flag means nothing to me after this,’ the man yelled. The general quieted him with a stern rebuke, ‘Put that man under arrest if he opens his mouth again.’ The energetic officer was in his element. One reporter observed, ‘General MacArthur, his chest glittering with medals, strode up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, flipping a riding crop against his neatly pressed breeches.’

MacArthur could not help being euphoric. If the tactics were not textbook, the results were everything he hoped for — a complete rout. The troops had exercised perfect restraint in completely clearing the downtown area without firing a shot. Within hours it was all over. Troopers set the abandoned camp ablaze as the former inhabitants retreated, demoralized and beaten, across the Third Street bridge. MacArthur called a halt to allow his troops to rest and eat while he considered his next move.

As many as 20,000 former soldiers and their families had converged on Washington in the summer of 1932, the height of the Great Depression, to support Texas Congressman Wright Patman’s bill to advance the bonus payment promised to World War I veterans. Congress had authorized the plan in 1924, intending to compensate the veterans for wages lost while serving in the military during the war. But payment was to be deferred until 1945. Just one year earlier, in 1931, Congress overrode a presidential veto on a bill to provide, as loans, half the amount due to the men. When the nation’s economy worsened, the half-bonus loans were not enough, and the unemployed veterans now sought the balance in cash. Known as Bonus Marchers, they came in desperation from all across the nation, hopping freight trains, driving dilapidated jalopies or hitchhiking, intent on pressuring Congress to pass the legislation. The administration vehemently opposed the measure, believing it inflationary and impractical given the $2 billion annual budget deficit.

At first the march was a trickle, led by Walter Waters, a 34-year-old former sergeant from Portland, Ore. It soon became a tidal wave, drawing national press attention. The first contingent reached the nation’s capital in May 1932. They occupied parks and a row of condemned buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and the Capitol. When new arrivals overflowed that site, they erected a shantytown on the flood plain of the Anacostia River, southeast of Capitol Hill. Theirs was a miserable lot, alleviated somewhat by the beneficence of the city’s superintendent of police, Pelham Glassford, himself a war veteran.

Glassford pitied the beleaguered itinerants and solicited private aid to secure medical assistance, clothing, food and supplies. During a May 26 veterans meeting, Glassford suggested they officially call themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force. Adopting the name — which was commonly shortened to Bonus Army — they asked him, and he agreed, to serve as secretary-treasurer of the group. Working together, Waters and Glassford managed to maintain enough discipline and order in the ranks to ward off eviction. Glassford likely hoped that the horde would eventually lose interest and return home, but Waters had other ideas. ‘We’ll stay here until the bonus bill is passed,’ Waters told anyone who would listen, ’till 1945, if necessary.’ He staged daily demonstrations before the Capitol and led peaceful marches past the White House. President Herbert Hoover refused to give him an audience.

In June the House of Representatives narrowly passed the Patman bill, but the Senate defeated the measure with a lopsided vote of 62 to 18. Congress was scheduled to adjourn in mid-July, and about one-quarter of the veterans accepted the government’s offer of free transportation home. Hoover had apparently won. Perhaps now he could concentrate on an economic recovery plan and the upcoming reelection campaign. But many of the marchers felt betrayed and disillusioned. With nowhere else to go, they decided to stay. Ominously, their disappointment festered in Washington’s muggy summer heat. To complicate matters, at this point the American Communist Party saw an opportunity to cause trouble, and sent forth John Pace as the catalyst with instructions to incite riot. The degree of his success is uncertain and will be forever a matter of debate, but his presence alarmed the Washington power structure.

Historian Kenneth S. Davis theorizes that Pace may have had a hand in escalating the tensions, goading the angry veterans to become more aggressive. A more plausible explanation for rising tension may simply be that frustrations finally reached a boiling point. In any case, Secretary of War Patrick Hurley had had enough. On July 28 he ordered Glassford to immediately evacuate the occupied buildings, which were scheduled for demolition to make way for new government offices. The veterans stubbornly refused to budge. For whatever reason, Glassford and his police officers became the target of bricks and stones, and one officer suffered a fractured skull. As the melee got out of hand, an angry veteran, apparently feeling that Glassford had betrayed the Bonus Marchers, tore off the chief’s gold police badge. Fearing for their safety, police opened fire, killing one veteran and mortally wounding another.

The officers retreated while Glassford sought the advice of his Board of Commissioners. Quick to pass on the responsibility, and perhaps overreacting, the commissioners called the president to deploy the Army from nearby Fort Myer to restore order. Describing the attack on police as a’serious riot,’ the commissioners asserted, ‘It will be impossible for the Police Department to maintain law and order except by the free use of firearms.’ They went on to argue that only the presence of federal troops could resolve the crisis.

Hoover, upset by the continued presence of the Bonus Marchers, now had the excuse he was looking for to expel them from the capital. He directed Secretary Hurley to unleash MacArthur, who received the following instruction: ‘You will have United States troops proceed immediately to the scene of the disorder. Surround the affected area and clear it without delay. Any women and children should be accorded every consideration and kindness. Use all humanity consistent with the execution of this order.’

Not surprisingly, MacArthur now executed his orders in a manner seemingly designed to maximize media attention. In a highly unusual but characteristic decision — one purportedly against the advice of his aide, 42-year-old Major Dwight Eisenhower — he chose to oversee the operations in the field with the troops. Military protocol called for a commanding officer to remain at headquarters. This was especially true for MacArthur, whose post was administrative rather than operational. So while he charged General Perry Miles with carrying out the eviction, MacArthur assumed the real responsibility. Although no other situation offers an exact comparison, MacArthur’s action was as if General Maxwell Taylor, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1963, had led National Guard troops to the University of Alabama to confront Alabama Governor George Wallace.

Having driven the veterans from the downtown area, MacArthur had fulfilled his mission. But whether his blood was up, or he merely sensed a need to inflict a coup de grâce against the purported Communist element — an enemy he considered more insidious than disgruntled veterans — MacArthur did not rest on his laurels. He ordered his troops to advance upon the 11th Street bridge leading to Anacostia Flats. Someone, waving a white shirt as a flag of truce, came racing across to plea for time to evacuate the women and children. MacArthur granted an hour’s reprieve.

Though accounts differ, the president now seemed suddenly to exhibit an untimely case of nerves. Fearing repercussions, he twice sent word that the Army was not to cross the bridge. MacArthur refused to listen, saying he hadn’t time to be bothered by people coming down and pretending to bring orders. He sent the troops across against explicit instructions. Using more gas, the soldiers moved into Bonus City. Its occupants fled in terror, refugees rousted from their pitiful camp.

‘One of the soldiers threw a bomb,’ said one woman hiding in a nearby house with her family. ‘…[W]e all began to cry. We got wet towels and put them over the faces of the children. About half an hour later my baby began to vomit. I took her outside in the air and she vomited again. Next day she began to turn black and blue and we took her to the hospital.’ Either veterans or soldiers torched the entire area — no one knows for sure. In the confusion, one baby was left behind, dead from gas inhalation.

Endeavoring to eliminate any doubt as to his motives, MacArthur next conducted an impromptu press conference — a job more appropriately left to civilian authorities. The conference allowed the general to expound on the claim that Reds had concocted the riot, the president’s safety was at stake, and the government was threatened with insurrection. Describing the mob, MacArthur said: ‘It was animated by the essence of revolution. They had come to the conclusion, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they were about to take over in some arbitrary way either the direct control of the government or else to control it by indirect methods. It is my opinion that had the president let it go on another week the institutions of our government would have been very severely threatened.’ It was a masterful performance. In praising the president and war secretary, MacArthur nearly absolved himself of responsibility — perhaps a calculated move.

Hoover watched the red glow of the bonfire at Anacostia Flats from a White House window. If he had second thoughts, he didn’t include them in his record of the event and in any case, it was too late. MacArthur’s boldness had boxed him into a corner. The president’s best option now was to vigorously support the general.

‘A challenge to the authority of the United States Government has been met, swiftly and firmly,’ Hoover said in a statement the next morning. ‘The Department of Justice is pressing its investigation into the violence which forced the call of army detachments, and it is my sincere hope that those agitators may be brought speedily to trial in the civil courts.’

Hysteria colored much of Washington’s official view of the Bonus Army. In defense of both men, MacArthur and Hoover seem to have genuinely believed that Communists controlled the organization, with Walter Waters merely serving as the Bonus Army’s titular head. Hoover believed that veterans made up no more than 50 percent of Bonus Army members, while MacArthur set an even lower number — 10 percent. Waters said that was a ‘damned lie.’ While Communist operatives certainly tried to infiltrate the ranks of the Bonus Army and instigate trouble, evidence indicates they had little real influence. The president and Army chief of staff’s estimates were badly overstated. A postevent study conducted by the Veterans Administration revealed that 94 percent of the marchers had Army or Navy service records. Nevertheless, the Communist Party was happy to take credit for what was billed as an uprising.

After forcing the veterans out of Washington, MacArthur’s troops crossed the 11th Street bridge and, using gas grenades and wielding bayonets, drove the marchers from their Anacostia camp. (National Archives)

Events elsewhere help explain Hoover and MacArthur’s state of mind. Students loudly interrupted the general’s commencement address at the University of Pittsburgh that summer as he spoke against demonstrators protesting the government. More alarming, a union-inspired hunger march at a Detroit auto plant that spring had turned ugly. Police killed four civilians while trying to maintain control, injuring 60 others. Communist Party leaders retaliated, organizing a 6,000-man funeral procession, waving red banners and marching in cadence to the party’s anthem, the ‘Internationale.’ Fearing a similar or worse result in Washington, Hoover and MacArthur acted with dispatch when confronted by a large group of disgruntled citizens. Throughout their lives, both officials clung stubbornly to the claim that subversive elements bent on destroying capitalism were behind the veterans. Neither man ever accepted the Bonus Army as primarily a group of destitute, desperate, hungry men trying to support their families.

The day’s toll was three dead, 54 injured and 135 arrests. In the rush to point fingers, in addition to the Communist element, Congressman Patman and colleagues received their share of the blame. The Chicago Tribune editorialized that responsibility for the incident ‘lies chiefly at the door of men in public life who have encouraged the making of unreasonable demands by ex-service men and inflamed their mistaken sense of judgment.’ But Alabama Senator and future Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black directed his venom at a different target.

The U.S. Army torched the camp to ensure that the marchers would not return. What had once been an orderly if ramshackle camp was left a devastated smoldering ruin. (National Archives)

Arguing that Hoover had overreacted to the situation, Black said, ‘As one citizen, I want to make my public protest against this militaristic way of handling a condition which has been brought about by wide-spread unemployment and hunger.’ The New York Times hinted that other senators felt the same. Indeed, it was a common charge hurled by the opposition party during that fall’s presidential election. Senator Hiram Johnson, speaking in Chicago a few days before the presidential vote, dubbed the incident ‘one of the blackest pages in our history.’ Hoping to evoke feelings of sympathy and patriotism, he continued, noting that the displaced veterans had been hailed as heroes and saviors only a decade earlier: ‘The president sent against these men, emaciated from hunger, scantily clad, unarmed, the troops of the United States army. Tanks, tear-bombs, all of the weapons of modern warfare were directed against those who had borne the arms of the republic.’

The public soon followed Black’s lead. Frustrated by Depression-era economics and in tune with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s comparatively more aggressive assistance programs after he assumed the presidency, the public increasingly questioned the government’s response to the plight of the Bonus Army. Many came to see it as callous and heavy-handed. Theater audiences reacted to Bonus Army newsreel footage with choruses of boos.

Ever conscious of his own place in history, MacArthur blinked. At least publicly the general would voice a more sympathetic view of the marchers he once routed. At first he had called them a ‘bad mob,’ but gradually time, or concern over public opinion, softened his expressed view. In his memoirs, MacArthur took credit for supplying the marchers with tents and rolling kitchens, and declared them a ‘vanguard of a starved band,’ remembering the whole affair as a ‘poignant episode.’

If it was a purposeful attempt to improve his image, it failed. His reputation has remained forever scarred. MacArthur biographer William Manchester called his actions that day ‘flagrantly insubordinate’ and ‘indefensible.’ Another historian, echoing Manchester’s sentiment, said the general acted ‘with overzealous determination and reckless impulsiveness.’

Likely influencing the judgment of historians was MacArthur’s demonstrated knack for upsetting his supe-riors. Twenty years after the Bonus Army incident, President Harry Truman would relieve the general of his Korean command for perceived insubordination. In the end, the general’s personality and ambition proved too great an obstacle for history to erase its view of his performance against the Bonus Army.

Along with MacArthur, two other soldiers who participated in the action would go on to write their names large in history — Eisenhower and Patton. Eisenhower would eventually undergo an even more dramatic transformation than his boss in describing the affair. Normally a frank diarist, Ike merely noted at the time that he ‘took part in Bonus Incident of July 28,’ and went on to say, ‘A lot of furor has been stirred up but mostly to make political capital.’ By the time he published At Ease 30 years later, Ike portrayed himself as a frustrated hero of sorts, claiming that he tried to dissuade MacArthur from personally leading the charge. He advised him that Communists held no sway over the marchers, and he reiterated the old claim that his boss ignored White House orders to halt operations. Interestingly, Ike waited until after MacArthur’s death in 1964 to present this version. If it distorted history, MacArthur was not around to contest it.

It was a messy affair for everyone. Patton, a man who revered duty, had mixed emotions, calling it a ‘most distasteful form of service.’ Within months he criticized the Army’s tactics, believing they violated every precept of how to handle civil unrest. Still, he commended both sides: ‘It speaks volumes for the high character of the men that not a shot was fired. In justice to the marchers, it should be pointed out that had they really wanted to start something, they had a great chance here, but refrained.’ And while Patton was disgusted that ‘Bolsheviks’ were in the mix, he considered most of the Bonus Army ‘poor, ignorant men, without hope, and without really evil intent.’ To his dismay, the routed marchers included Joseph Angelo, who 14 years earlier had saved the wounded Patton’s life by pulling him to safety from a foxhole.

The episode would dog President Hoover in his attempt to win a second term of office in the fall of 1932. Presidents had called out federal troops before to suppress civil unrest, but this was the first time they had moved against veterans. It left a bad taste in the mouths of voters. A letter to the Washington Daily News expressed the sentiments of many. ‘I voted for Herbert Hoover in 1928,’ one disgusted woman wrote. ‘God forgive me and keep me alive at least till the polls open next November!’

Hoover’s Democratic challenger in that fall’s presidential election, Franklin D. Roosevelt, understood the political significance of the president’s use of force. Like his opponent, the New York governor did not support payment of the bonus, but he found Hoover’s tactics appalling. ‘He should have invited a delegation into the White House for coffee and sandwiches,’ Roosevelt told one aide as he perused the morning papers. Already confident of success, Roosevelt now felt victory was certain. This was a black eye no one could overcome. Roosevelt won decisively, capturing 42 states with 472 electoral votes compared to just 59 for his Republican rival.

Hoover had no illusions, but he could not help but feel bitter. Stopping just short of calling Roosevelt a liar, the former president later wrote of the campaign: ‘This whole Democratic performance was far below the level of any previous campaign in modern times. My defeat would no doubt have taken place anyway. But it might have taken place without such defilement of American life.’ The vision of Regular Army troops marching on veterans would provide propaganda for the Left for years to come.

Long before that, the remnants of the Bonus Army drifted home, stopping for a brief period in Johnson, Pa., until that community too urged them on. The government buried the two Bonus Army veterans slain by police at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. One year later, another contingent of veterans came to Washington to press the issue of the bonus payment. The new president was no more receptive than the last, but instead of the Army he sent his wife, Eleanor, to speak with the former servicemen. More important, he created the Civilian Conservation Corps, which offered the men employment. And three years later, Congress passed legislation over FDR’s veto to complete the bonus payment, resolving one of the more disturbing issues in American politics.

This article was written by Wyatt Kingseed and originally published in June 2004 issue of American History Magazine.

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Hoover & the Depression: The Bonus Army

16-year-old Fred Blancher later said, "These guys got in there and they start waving their sabers, chasing these veterans out, and they start shooting tear gas. There was just so much noise and confusion, hollering and there was smoke and haze. People couldn't breathe."

Around 11:00 p.m., MacArthur called a press conference to justify his actions. "Had the President not acted today, had he permitted this thing to go on for twenty-four hours more, he would have been faced with a grave situation which would have caused a real battle," MacArthur told reporters. "Had he let it go on another week, I believe the institutions of our Government would have been severely threatened."

Over the next few days, newspapers and newsreels (shown in movie theaters) showed graphic images of violence perpetrated on once uniformed soldiers (and their families), those who had won the First World War, by uniformed servicemen. In movie theaters across America, the Army was booed and MacArthur jeered. The incident only further weakened President Hoover's chances at re-election, then only three months away. Franklin, D. Roosevelt won easily.

Bonus Army

In late June, 1932, a few hundred unemployed World War I veterans boarded freight trains in Portland, Oregon. Out of work and overwhelmed by the Depression, they had decided to go to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress for early payment of a soldier’s bonus that was scheduled to be paid in 1945. Along the way the “Bonus March” picked up recruits and arrived in Washington numbering between 8,000 and 25,000 men. Accounts of the number of participants varied, but because some of the men were accompanied by their wives and children, the entire “Bonus Army” may have numbered as many as 60,000.

It was rumored that some the marchers were not veterans, but were actually Communists or criminals bent on causing a confrontation. President Hoover believed that most of the marchers were honest veterans, and should be allowed to assemble, as long as they did so peacefully. Upon arrival, some of the bonus marchers constructed campsites on Anacostia Flats, at the edge of Washington D.C. Others occupied abandoned buildings in the city. The President quietly ordered the police and National Guard to distribute Army rations, tents, cots and medical supplies to the Bonus Army.

Congress had previously rejected proposals for early payment of the bonus, and the President recommended that they again decline any early payments. Veterans’ benefits already comprised 25% of the 1932 federal budget, and to pay the bonus would have cost billions of dollars that the government didn’t have. In July, the Senate rejected the bonus bill 62 to 18. Many of the bonus seekers went home, aided by interest-free loans charged against their bonus certificates to pay the train fare. A few thousand remained behind, though again the reported numbers varied.

On the morning of July 28, Treasury department officials attempted to evict about forty of the veterans who had been living in an abandoned building that was scheduled for demolition. When the veterans refused to leave, the police were called in. The Bonus Army began to gather in force, soon outnumbering the police. Some of the policemen panicked and opened fire. Two of the veterans were killed, and a riot broke out.

The District of Columbia Board of Commissioners quickly concluded that the police were overwhelmed, and asked President Hoover to send troops to help restore order. Hoover ordered the Secretary of War, Patrick Hurley, to cooperate with the police. Hurley ordered Douglas MacArthur, Army Chief of Staff, to “cooperate fully with the District of Columbia police force which is now in charge. Surround the affected area and clear it without delay. Turn over all prisoners to the civil authorities. In your orders insist that any women and children who may be in the affected area be accorded every consideration and kindness. Use all humanity consistent with the due execution of this order.”

MacArthur thought the riot might be the beginning of a Communist revolution, and he may have immediately made plans not only to quell the riot, but also to force the evacuation of the campsites on Anacostia Flats and expel the Bonus Army from the District. He later claimed that the Police Superintendent had verbally requested such action. MacArthur assembled a battalion of infantry, a squadron of cavalry and a platoon of tanks to deploy against the rioters. At 4:30 p.m., MacArthur’s forces began to advance slowly, ordering groups of rioters to disperse as they encountered them. Tear gas was used when groups refused to cooperate.

The soldiers arrived at Anacostia Flats a little after 9 p.m. Most of the protesters had fled the area. Soon the empty shacks and abandoned campsites were in flames. MacArthur claimed that he had specifically prohibited burning the camps, and that they had been set ablaze by the retreating rioters. He ordered his forces to demolish the remaining campsites in order to prevent the fire from spreading out of control, and to gather any remaining Army tents, cots, and supplies that had been given to the Bonus Army by the government. The next day, the troops rounded up stragglers and completed the destruction of the camps.

Initially, the press was fairly sympathetic with President Hoover and to some extent applauded MacArthur’s actions, based on the assumption that the rioting was the work of criminal elements, not honest veterans. Public reaction, however, was largely negative most of the nation thought it was shameful to deploy tanks, tear gas and bayonets against unarmed veterans. In far off Albany, New York, Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt grasped the political implications instantly. He told a friend on hearing the news, “Well, this elects me.”

The 1932 Bonus Army: Black and White Americans Unite in March on Washington

It would not be Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s last act of insubordination. Decades later, his recalcitrance cost him his career. But this time there would be no discernible consequences, at least not for him. Against direct orders from the President, MacArthur ordered his troops across the bridge to the enemy encampment. The fires they set burned through the night, creating a hellish image that capped a brutal operation. Many Americans were horrified by the day’s events. The makeshift shelters that fed the flames had been built by their fellow citizens.

Gaunt and grizzled, some with families in tow, tens of thousands of impoverished World War I veterans traveled to Washington, DC, in 1932. Many had been out of work since the beginning of the Great Depression three years earlier. Americans followed their progress in the news as the travelers hopped freight trains and hitched rides across the country. They called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF). The public called them the Bonus Army. They came to the nation’s capital to demonstrate for immediate payment of their military bonus certificates that weren’t redeemable until 1945.

The movement was extraordinary in many ways, not least because this army, unlike the U.S. military, was integrated. Black and white marchers began arriving in May. They set up multiple camps near the Capitol, lobbied Congress for relief, and asked if their brothers could spare a dime. Living and protesting together in harmony, the Bonus Army proved that the color line was not as indelible as many believed.

President Herbert Hoover opposed immediate payment of the bonus, but he was not unsympathetic to the veterans’ plight. According to Kenneth Whyte, author of Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times, the President “quietly distributed food, clothing, blankets, and camp kitchens to their encampments,” in Washington, DC, and nearby Anacostia.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur, however, was unmoved. He believed the Bonus Army was rife with extremists plotting “a reign of terror.” Rumors about communist infiltration of the demonstrators found traction in the city. “There were, in fact, radicals and Communists among the bonus seekers,” according to Thomas B. Allen and Paul Dickson, authors of The Bonus Army: An American Epic, “but they were an ineffective minority disdained and dismissed by the main body of the BEF.”

The American public was largely sympathetic to the Bonus Army. In fact, the BEF’s efforts met with some success. After weeks of lobbying, on June 15 the House of Representatives passed a bill for early payment of the bonus. But two days later, the Senate roundly defeated it.

With that, many believed the marchers should admit defeat and return home. As summer temperatures rose and sanitary conditions in the camps deteriorated, pressure to end the protest mounted. But the marchers vowed to remain. On July 28 city police moved to evict BEF members camped out in a group of abandoned government buildings scheduled for demolition. The day ended in flames and disillusion.

Largely because of the economic depression, Hoover’s reelection was indeed doomed. The problem now belonged to President Roosevelt, who also opposed the bonus. The Bonus Army marched again in 1933. Cartoonist Clifford Berry depicted a gleeful Herbert Hoover reading news of the new administration’s continued clashes with the BEF.

In 1936, Congress finally passed a bill over President Roosevelt’s veto. The Bonus Army had achieved its objective. Perhaps more importantly, they forced the nation to take notice. The “magnificent legacy” of the Bonus Army, according to writers Allen and Dickson, is the 1944 GI Bill, which provided education benefits and housing loans to returning World War II vets.

Unfortunately, the bill was designed with loopholes that allowed state administrators to deny many of its benefits to Black veterans. Most Black Americans were barred from the home loans and educational opportunities that helped build a thriving middle class for white America. While Black and white members of the Bonus Army were united in their cause, ultimately they did not benefit equally from their efforts.

Read more about the Bonus Army in the Hoover Presidential Library blog.