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1932 Bonus March

The most notable domestic use of Regular troops in twenty years of peace happened in the nation's capital in the summer of 1932. Some thousands of "Bonus Marchers" remained in Washington after the adjournment of Congress dashed their hopes for immediate payment of a bonus for military service in World War I. On July 28, when marshals and police tried to evict one group encamped near the Capitol, a riot with some bloodshed occurred. Thereupon President Herbert C. Hoover called upon the Army to intervene.

After the Great War, many belligerent nations had their governments overthrown by war veterans. The veterans of that era demonstrated what other countries have found to their regret, that war veterans can organize into powerful coalitions. The ugly fate of Nazi Germany is a testament to this thesis. For as long as representative assemblies have existed, in nations throughout the world, images of rebellious troops marching on legislative chambers to enforce their demands have disturbed the sleep of lawmakers. The framers of the U.S. Constitution had those images in mind in 1787 as they convened at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Just four years earlier, mutinous Revolutionary War soldiers had surrounded that same building during a meeting of the Continental Congress. Seeking immediate congressional action to provide back pay and pensions, the angry militiamen stuck their muskets through open windows and pointed them at the likes of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Congress responded to this threat by fleeing Philadelphia and moving the capital to Princeton, New Jersey. Memories of this incident caused the framers to include a provision in the Constitution guaranteeing federal control over the national seat of government.

The veterans of the era of World War One numbered some 4 million. They were motivated by the archetypal problem of returning war veterans who faced poverty in the aftermath of great sacrifice. The combat veterans of that era were a percentage of the actual number of veterans, some of whom had never gone overseas, and others who had gone overseas but had not encountered combat.

Over time, Civil War pensions had earned a poor reputation among Progressive reformers, who associated them with corruption. They were delivered through the patronage system of party politics, which permitted a high degree of discretion to local politicians, who could in practice control the timing and targeting of benefits for political purposes. With World War I, policy makers sought to create benefits that would be less expensive, less open to potential abuse, and more oriented toward the promotion of self reliance among veterans. Rather than disability pensions, they offered veterans of the Great War merely the option of purchasing low-cost insurance, and established vocational programs and medical and hospital care for disabled veterans only. This was the approach that veterans viewed as so miserly.

The Bonus March was the culmination of the decade-long argument concerning the payment of a bonus to World War I veterans. Many veterans of World War I felt that the federal government owed them a particular debt for their sacrifice and service during the war. The American Legion lobbied Congress shortly after the First World War to fund a bonus for servicemen to compensate them for the wages they lost when they left higher-paying civilian jobs to serve in uniform. Congress approved a bonus in 1922, but the bill was vetoed by President Warren Harding.

On May 19, 1924, over the veto of President Calvin Coolidge, Congress passed the World War Adjustment Compensation Act [Soldiers Bonus Act], which provided a bonus to World War I veterans based on the length and location of their service: $1.25 for each day of overseas duty and $1 for each day of domestic service - payable in 1945. Veterans could borrow up to 25 percent of their total bonus amount from a fund created by the bill. The payments were intended to bring about economic balance between the veterans -- who generally received low wages in the service -- and those who stayed home and benefited from wartime industry. But there was a catch. Veterans who were authorized bonuses of more than $50 were issued adjusted service certificates from the Veterans' Bureau. These certificates were a form of an endowment policy payable 20 years from the date of issue and generally had a face value of $1,500.

No American president entered office with greater expectations, or left with more bitter disappointments, than Herbert Hoover. Hard times engulfed the nation and his popularity evaporated. There was precious little contentment among Hoover's countrymen. There were "Hoover hogs" (armadillos fit for eating) "Hoover flags" (empty pockets turned turned inside out) "Hoover blankets (newspapers barely covering the destitute forced to sleep outdoors) and "Hoover Pullmans" (empty boxcars used by an army of vagabonds escaping from their roots). One day in 1931, 10,000 Communist demonstrators picketed the White House with placards reading, "The Hoover program -- a crust of bread and a bayonet."

Early in 1931, with the Nation already in the midst of a severe economic depression and the threat of serious domestic disturbances mounting daily, Brig. Gen. A.T. Smith, the new Army Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence G-2, decided to reopen the sensitive question of Army Military Intelligence Division [MID] shortcomings in not being able to maintain an effective surveillance over radical activities in the United states. On 19 February 1931, he submitted a relevant study to the Chief of Staff, which strongly recommended the lifting of all restrictions in regard to corps area and other field intelligence officers investigating such matters. Even though this recommendation had been formally concurred in by the G-1, G-3, G-4, and the Chief of the War Plans Division, it was disapproved by the Chief of Staff, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who declared "it is not believed advisable at this time to initiate this procedure."

This adverse decision was made just when the first bonus marches were being organized throughout the country for the avowed purpose of converging upon the District of Columbia and intimidating the United States Government. Six months later, though, permission was finally obtained on a temporary basis to have the Corps Area Commanders forward to the War Department a monthly report covering subversive activities detected within their own areas.

After the initial bonus marcher groups had actually started to undertake a mass descent upon Washington, the Assistant Chief of Staff G-2, was belatedly instructed by higher authority to follow their detailed progress. Accordingly, on 25 May 1932, a secret War Department memorandum was sent out to all Corp Area Intelligence Officers directing them to investigate and report regularly concerning bonus demonstrations by veterans. At the same time, MID commenced to forward a daily memorandum to the Chief of Staff describing the current status of the bonus marcher situation within the Nation's capital. Because of this intensified intelligence effort, the antisubversive files of the departmental intelligence agency soon grew to be richly productive in valuable information and personnel data covering the large number of Communist agitators who were operating with the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF).

The principal sources utilized by MID in collecting information on subversive individuals within the ranks of the bonus marchers were through direct observation by departmental military intelligence personnel, civil police33 and press reports, and interviews held with cooperative BEF members. Alerted United States Army troop units stationed in or near the District of Columbia also executed a number of special reconnaissance missions and notified MID of the results obtained. The departmental agency thus soon found itself actually acting as an operational intelligence center, with Sergeant Mauer in direct charge. Oddly enough, in this same connection, when the Assistant Chief of Staff G-2, Second Corps Area, queried a local representative of the Division of Investigation of the Department of Justice on the subject of bonus marcher activities, he was told that "the Bureau has no jurisdiction over communistic or radical activities and cannot engage in any inquiry concerning same."

The Great Depression of the 1930s spread economic misery, despair, and heartbreak across America. By 1932, nearly one-third of working Americans were unemployed and desperate for relief. The Great Depression was merciless. The loss of jobs, life savings and confidence left many unable to make a living. Trapped in its wake, World War I veterans suffered tremendous pressure during the economic slump. After returning from the Great War, many faced destitution and did all they could to survive. As the Depression worsened, veterans began calling for immediate payment of their "bonuses," as the certificates came to be called. They began to organize and demand that Congress approve an early payment of pension funds that was not due until 1945.

In March 1932, a small group of veterans from Oregon began marching to Washington, D.C., to demand payment. Word of the march spread like wildfire and soon small bands of unemployed veterans from across the country began descending on the nation's capital. There is no way of knowing how many veterans joined the "Bonus Expeditionary Forces," as the marchers were called [in a play on "American Expeditionary Force" of the Great War].

By the summer of 1932, thousands of unemployed veterans and their families traveled to Washington, D.C., from across the United States to lobby Congress. By the summer, some estimates put the force at between 15,000 and 40,000. They camped wherever they could. Some of these "Bonus Marchers" camped out in shacks and tents, which they mockingly called "Hoovervilles" after President Herbert Hoover. Some slept in abandoned buildings or erected tents. Others occupied abandoned and partially dismantled buildings near the Capitol. But many lived in makeshift shacks along the mudflats of the Anacostia River.

The army of WWI was fully segregated, the government feeling that races could not get along. Blacks did serve in combat, but they fought with the French African units in French uniforms. Once they were veterans on the march, perhaps for the first time in US history, Blacks and Whites lived in fully integrated camps ... a fact almost totally ignored by the press at the time.

Hoover resisted the demand for an early bonus. Veterans benefits took up 25% of the 1932 federal budget. Even so, as the Bonus Expeditionary Force swelled to 60,000 men, the president secretly ordered that its members be given tents, cots, army rations and medical care.

With no sanitation facilities, living conditions quickly deteriorated in the "shanty town." Health officials grew concerned about the threat of disease. In response, the newly created Veterans Administration [VA], just renamed from the Veterans Bureau, established an emergency hospital on a War Department reservation at Fort Hunt, Va., on June 11, 1932. The hospital treated 282 veterans that summer, many for diarrhea, dysentery and influenza. Concerned about the health of the indigent, ill-nourished marchers, the War Department suspended the ROTC activities at Fort Hunt and placed the area under the temporary control of the Veteran's Administration in order to establish a hospital for the impoverished members of the Bonus Army. The hospital at Fort Hunt continued to operate through the summer, finally closing on August 12 after Congress had passed a bill to pay the fare home for all the marchers who would take it.

The racial mix of the Bonus marchers was used as an argument by Congressmen that it was unwise to give money to such people, for they would only squander it and violence would result. Critics of the veterans march contended that Communists were exploiting the Bonus March and trying to infiltrate the veterans' ranks, but historians judged that the Communist influence was insignificant, quite in contrast to the public arguments.

On June 17, a large group of marchers laid an orderly siege to the U.S. Capitol, where the Senate was considering a bill proposing immediate payment of the bonuses. Two days earlier, the House of Representatives, over its own leadership's objections, bowed to the protestors' demands and passed the necessary legislation. Now, as the Senate prepared to vote, thousands of veterans rallied outside its chamber on the east front plaza. Capitol police, armed with rifles, took up positions at the building's doors. Despite Majority Leader Joe Robinson's support for the legislation, most members favored a remedy that would benefit not only the veterans but all economically distressed Americans. Despite the veterans' attempts to drum up support for the bill, it was overwhelmingly defeated. The Senate overwhelmingly rejected the bonus bill by a vote of 62 to 18.

Hearing the news, the marchers dispersed peacefully, but remained in Washington at makeshift campsites near Capitol Hill. Most of the protesters went home, aided by Hoover's offer of free passage on the rails. Congress authorized the Veterans Administration to pay transportation expenses for marchers to return to their homes plus a daily subsistence allowance of 75 cents. According to a 1932 annual report, VA paid transportation costs for 5,160 veterans totaling $76,712.02.

Ten thousand remained behind, among them a hard core of Communists and other organizers. These included Walter Waters, a man who evolved from veterans' advocate into Fascist leader of the "Khaki Shirts," and John Pace, a veteran who became a Communist and tried to influence the Bonus March. Frustrations mounted as the summer wore on. Although the marchers were not disorderly or unruly, the Hoover administration and local officials feared this group of around 5,000-10,000 might turn into a mob.

On the morning of July 28, forty protesters tried to reclaim an evacuated building in downtown Washington scheduled for demolition. A riot erupted when city police officers and agents from the U.S. Treasury Department tried to evict some of the marchers. The city's police chief, Pellham Glassford, a veteran himself sympathetic to the marchers, was knocked down by a brick. Glassford's assistant suffered a fractured skull. When rushed by a crowd, two other policemen opened fire. Two of the marchers were killed. As the situation spiraled out of control, the District of Columbia asked President Herbert Hoover to send federal troops to help restore order. The request noted that it was "impossible for the Police Department to maintain law and order except by the use of firearms, which will make the situation a dangerous one."

President Hoover knew he had to curb the escalating violence. Hoover reluctantly agreed, but only after limiting Major General Douglas MacArthur's authority. MacArthur's troops would be unarmed. The mission was to escort the marchers unharmed to camps along the Anacostia River. He gave the order for Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur to remove the approximately 3,500 veterans, many with their wives and children, who refused to leave. A force of about 600 - cavalrymen and infantrymen with a few tanks - advanced to the scene under the leadership of Chief of Staff MacArthur in person, two other generals, and, among junior officers, two whose names would in due course become much more familiar, Majors Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton, Jr.

MacArthur ignored the president's orders, taking no prisoners and driving tattered protesters from their encampment. No shots were fired, but many were injured by bricks, clubs and bayonets. After Hoover ordered a halt to the army's march, MacArthur again took things into his own hands, violently clearing the Anacostia campsite, killing three marchers and wounding many.

One of the first federal officers to arrive in Washington, D.C., was Major George S. Patton. His cavalry troops met up with infantry at the Ellipse, near the White House. Patton and the federal troops, equipped with gas masks, bayonets and sabers, marched up Pennsylvania Avenue, firing gas grenades and charging and subduing the angry crowd. Later that night, Patton and the federal troops cleared out the marchers' camp in Anacostia, with some tents and shacks catching fire in the process. Although there are conflicting reports on which side started the fires, some of the marchers' shacks burned down. By the following morning, most marchers had left Washington, but the incident left bitter memories and affected Patton deeply. He called it the "most distasteful form of service" and later wrote several papers on how federal troops could restore order quickly with the least possible bloodshed.

In the end, the presence of federal troops effectively ended the bonus march. The troops cleaned up the situation near the Capitol, and then proceeded with equal efficiency to clear out all of the marchers from the District of Columbia.

The burning shacks of the veterans' shantytowns made vivid news photos. A national uproar ensued. In far off Albany, New York, Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt grasped the political implications instantly. "Well," he told a friend on hearing the news, "this elects me." Herbert Hoover said at the start of an uphill reelection campaign: "We are opposed by six million unemployed, 10,000 bonus marchers, and 10 cent corn. Is it any wonder that the prospects are dark?"

From a military point of view the Army had performed an unpleasant task in exemplary fashion; but the use of military force against civilians, most of them veterans, tarnished the Army's public image and helped to defeat the administration in the forthcoming election.

The National Economy League, one of the short-lived phenomena of the 1930's, was organized in 1932, apparently in reaction to the Bonus March. After two years of prominence, it vanished. A "revolt of the haves," dedicated to a radical reduction in government expenditures, its leadership was anything but obscure, however. Its chief spokesman was Admiral Richard Byrd (who served as chairman until he decided to travel to the Antarctic); Nicholas Murray Butler was its honorary chairman; its original six member advisory board consisted of a former President (Calvin Coolidge), a defeated candidate for the Presidency (Alfred E. Smith), two former Secretaries of State (Elihu Root and Newton D. Baker), General of the Armies John W. Pershing, and Admiral Williams Sowden Sims.

It had been accorded charitable status, and the right to receive tax-deductible contributions, in a ruling letter dated November 3, 1933. Soon thereafter, it submitted its own economic program to the President and Congress. The New York Times gave front page treatment to the event and printed the text of the entire program. ["Roosevelt Warned Our Debt Will Rise 4 Billion in Year," Dec. 18, 1933, at 1.]

The extent of benefits to war veterans was the League's foremost concern. It repeatedly urged that benefits be limited only to those wounded in war. Appropriations to the Veterans Administration was no small budgetary matter. In praising the League's stand, the New York Times noted that the appropriations had reached a point where they accounted for one-third of the entire cost of the Federal government, aside from service on the national debt.

However, this position brought the League into conflict with Senator David Reed, the ranking minority member of the Senate Finance Committee, who also made the veterans' benefits his chief concern. Lurching unexpectedly leftward, outflanking Pinchot and even Roosevelt, in January 1934, Reed sponsored legislation to restore benefits cut the year before. The League responded by presenting its own plan and excoriating Reed's.

Reed's stratagem was successful both as legislation and as the substantive centerpiece of his primary campaign. As Arthur Krock noted in his post-primary analysis of Reed's victory over Pinchot: "Before stripping for the fray, Mr. Reed took the precaution of getting into the money distributing class himself by leading a successful battle against the administration for added benefits and restored government pay. . . . This equipped him with at least half of Santa Claus's whiskers." The remainder of 1934 was not kind to either the League or the Senator. On July 23, less than three months after the effective date of the lobbying restriction, the ruling letter to the League was cancelled. On November 6, Senator Reed was defeated by Joseph F. Guffey, who became the first Democratic Senator elected from Pennsylvania in 60 years.

The incoming administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt offered the veterans, who scattered to camps all over the country, a chance to participate in government sponsored projects. When the government sent the marchers off to CCC type camps, they were again segregated by race. Hundreds of veterans were offered encampment in the Florida Keys as part of a public works project to build an infrastructure for tourism in an area devastated by the economic collapse.

Then in 1935 a fierce hurricane devastated the Keys in the exact location of the veterans' encampment. The Hurricane that struck the Florida Keys September 1, 1935 (thus Labor Day Hurricane) was one of most powerful hurricanes to hit US mainland. The official death toll was 408, but so many victims were literally blown into oblivion that the actual number of deaths could easily be higher. The best estimate of veterans killed was somewhere between 250 and 260 -- almost two-thirds of the men who stayed in the work camps during the Labor Day weekend. Some survivors were either carried across the Gulf to the tip of the Florida peninsula or to islands off the NW coast of Florida. A proposal to build a large, reinforced hurricane shelter for the veterans was dismissed because federal officials considered it too expensive. Dozens of veterans had died at each of the camps, but Camp 5 -- only a couple of feet below sea level, so close to the ocean that normal high tides had sometimes invaded the kitchen -- had been turned into a slaughterhouse. Fewer than a dozen men of the 125 or so who had been in the camp within the storm began were still alive. About 40 miles of [railroad] track were destroyed. Hundreds of corpses were strewn for miles along the islands. Many were cremated in funeral pyres, one with 36 bodies at one time.

Newspaper editorials called the veterans deaths "a national scandal"; the Chicago Daily Tribune, on September 8th wrote that it was a "colossal blunder" for the administration which could threaten the President's political survival. On the 12th the Tribune continued, that while the hurricane might be an act of god, putting the veterans on the Keys during the hurricane season was "a piece of criminal folly committed by some one in Washington. The camps on the Florida Keys were established to avert another bonus march on Washington, with all the political embarrassments involved in such a demonstration of discontent....Naturally a site was selected as far from Washington as it conveniently could be while still providing free labor for a southern constituency which wanted public improvements at somebody else's expense."

Ernest Hemingway, himself a wounded war veteran, was living in the Keys. Hemingway wrote a scathing diatribe against the Roosevelt Adminstration for its coverup of incompetence that led to the deaths of so many veterans in the hurricane. The American Legion also played a key role in sponsoring an investigation of the deaths, although the report was buried in beaurocratic miasma. Prominent in the investigation of the hurricane disaster in the Keys was Edith Nourse Rogers, a Republican Congresswoman from Massachusetts, who hectored the Roosevelt Administration. Another investigation, one by investigators for The American Legion, concluded that this tragedy was the result of "inefficiency, indifference and ignorance" of those in charge of the work camps on the Keys -- going so far as to refer to the deaths as "murder at Matecumbe."

Even after the successful eviction of the original bonus marcher expedition from the District of Columbia by United States Army elements, the threat of further domestic disturbances along similar lines continued to remain dangerously acute. As a mater of fact, radical elements had recently launched a concerted subversive drive among the ranks of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was then in the process of being organized as an anti-depression measure by the national administration. Communist-inspired efforts to stir up discontent of major proportions not only continued throughout the life of that particular corps but also were later coupled with a companion effort aimed at personnel of the National Guard.

Though the marchers failed to get immediate results, in 1936 Congress authorized early payment of the bonuses. By June 30, 1937, VA had certified as payable nearly 3.5 million applications from World War I veterans for settlement of their certificates.

At first glance, the bonus march seemed like the public relations debacle of the decade. It revealed serious shortcomings in how America cared for her defenders as they transitioned from military to civilian life. But without the march, these shortcomings may never have been known. And the key is not whether shortcomings existed, but how they were addressed. Congress eventually addressed the problem by passing what many have called one of the most significant pieces of legislation ever produced by the federal government - the GI Bill of Rights, a comprehensive benefits package to aid the transition of 16 million veterans returning from World War II.

While there were numerous bills introduced in Congress to reward the combat-weary veterans of World War II, this particular bill had a significant sponsor. The major force behind the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 was the well-known American Legion, a private veterans advocacy group founded in 1919. The Legion, during its 25th annual convention in September 1943, initiated its own campaign for comprehensive support of veterans. It labeled the resulting ideas, crafted into one legislative proposal by the Legion's national commander Harry W. Colmery, "a bill of rights for GI Joe and GI Jane," but the proposal soon became known as the GI Bill of Rights. The term GI - the slang term for American soldiers in that war - originally stood for "Government Issue," referring to military regulations or equipment. Wedded to the idea of the "Bill of Rights" in the revered U.S. Constitution, the "GI Bill" was bound to project an appealing aura in the halls of Congress as politicians sought ways to reward the homebound soldiers.

Though it might appear that the adoption and passage of the bill was entirely the result of unbridled generosity on the part of a grateful Congress, it was also in large measure a product of justified concern, even a certain fear, on the part of lawmakers about a radicalized postwar America. Prior to World War II, America had provided benefits and care to those disabled by combat, but had paid little attention to its able-bodied veterans. Within living memory of many public men of the time, neglect of the returning veterans of World War I, exacerbated by deteriorating economic conditions, had led to protest marches and disastrous confrontations.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:21:06 Zulu