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Part 4: Vets Movement: Vets Flood Capitol
In the spring of 1932, while veterans all across the US were mobilizing and pushing their way towards Washington, DC to demand their bonus pay for World War I service, the nation's leaders were busy preparing to try and deal with them. They used every dirty trick they knew to head the vets off before they could reach DC: lies, deception, threats and open force. When this failed, the government tried to co-opt the movement, divide it, and negate its real purpose. By the time the main body of Bonus Marchers reached DC, the government had set up a full-blown "pacification" program to destroy their movement.
Until the US Army took over the job and routed the bets in a bloody attack on July 28th, the visible spearhead of this "pacification" program was DC Police Chief Pelham D. Glassford, a former Army General. Glassford's plan was to capture the leadership of the Bonus Marchers, keep them harmlessly cooling their heels in a camp he set up for them in Anacostia flats and convince them to leave DC at the earliest possible date. The first few dusty Bonus Marchers pulled into town on May 23rd. Three days later, the few that had made it to DC (the larger contingents of vets were still on the road) got together in an initial meeting and formed themselves into the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF). Although there would be other groups, the BEF was the largest single group of Bonus Marchers. In a pre-planned set-up, Chief of Police Glassford was selected as the BEF's new "Secretary-Treasurer." The travesty was complete. The head of the police force that was under orders to destroy the Bonus March was one of its major leaders!
Glassford found willing allies in the original "leaders" of the veterans as they arrived in DC. Primary among them was W.W. Waters, head of the contingent leaving Oregon in early May. Waters, with the help of Glassford, was soon named "commander in Chief" of the BEF. W.W. Waters and others like him were scared silly of the strength and militance of the thousands of vets pouring into Washington and were more than willing to go along with Glassford's game plan.
Glassford and his buddies were able to get away with their ruse by playing on the naive faith the vets had in the American system and by labeling anyone who disagreed with them as "reds." Most of the Bonus Marchers arrived in Washington without any real organization or leadership. With the notable exception of the work done by a fighting rank-and-file vets group, the Workers Ex-Servicemen's League (WESL), the Bonus March was basically a spontaneous action. And it was precisely this spontaneous, unorganized character of the Bonus March that made it, initially, such easy prey for its enemies.
The WESL had sent out a call for a major demonstration on June 8th. This demonstration was something Glassford couldn't stop: most of the vets knew about it and expected to have it. Since Glassford and Waters knew they couldn't let the Bonus Marchers get involved in a real demonstration led by the fighting WESL, they decided to try and split them up into two camps. Three days before the WESL's demonstration, the "leaders" of the BEF decided to call another demonstration for the night of June 7th. Helped out by the press (which tried to distort who had actually called for the June 8th demo in banner headlines screaming "Radicals 'Usurp' Demonstration"), Glassford ballyhooed his demonstration as a "red, white, and blue" parade as opposed to the "red" parade of June 8th.
As part of this divide and conquer plan, Glassford and the rest of the Washington officials manufactured a vicious "red scare" smear campaign long enough to confuse the people and break up the chances for the WESL's June 8th demo coming off. At one point, he issued a press statement saying that "more than 1,000 communists, fully armed, were descending on the Capitol of Philadelphia." Later he charged that the WESL had ordered a riot for the 8th of June. Rather than allow the split to develop any further than it had already, the WESL canceled their parade and called on all vets to march in the June 7th parade in a show of mass unity.
While the parade the night of the 7th was certainly imposing, with over 8,000 vets marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, it definitely wasn't what it could have been. It was, as per design, a pacification effort geared to let the vets feel like they were doing something without letting things get the least bit out of hand. The marchers were utterly segregated from the thousands of cheering supporters that lined the route of the march, funneled through a gauntlet of cops and steered safely away from what should have been their primary targets: Congress and the White House. It was a march consciously set up to avoid winning any real victories for the vets. While all the WESL and BEF members marched together, the divisions created by Glassford and Waters kept them from really consolidating their ranks.
Back in the BEF camp in Anacostia, a special BEF "MP" squad meted out beating and floggings to any "red" who dared to disagree with the way things were being run. Most were then simply chased out of camp; few were found floating in the Potomac River. The only rank-and-file leadership available was the WESL. Yet, to even get its newsletter, "Bonus Flashes," into camp was a dangerous smuggling effort. The divisions between the two camps were fiercely maintained. The largest body of Bonus Marchers was firmly under the control of the cops and con artists. But in the 10 hectic weeks that were to follow, this would dramatically change.
By the 15th of July, there were 25,000 vets and their families camped in DC and thousands more on the road. In Washington, some seized abandoned buildings to stay in. The larger body went to the muddy flats of Anacostia to live in crude tar paper shacks, tents, caves or to sleep on the ground. An angry tide of humanity was pouring into DC in response to the crushing economic depression that no amount of treachery or trickery could stop.
(Next: The Bonus March Continues)