Veterans' History: Bonus March
1932 — WWI VETS PROTEST IN WASH. D.C.
Vets camped out around Washington DC demanding decent treatment from the government treatment from the government live up to the promises it had made to veterans. Vets coming to the Capitol form all over the country, bringing their wives and children, and the movement growing until one authority said that he believed, "the institutions of our government have been severely threatened."
This is no description of Dewey Canyon Iv nor even of Operation Dewey Canyon III where vets threw away their medals in disgust at the way the U.S. government was continuing to kill off our brothers in Vietnam. The quote in fact comes from General Douglas MacArthur, Army Chief of Staff under President Herbert Hoover; the General was talking about the Bonus March of 1932.
In May, June and July of 1932 over 25,000 World War I veterans and their families descended on Washington to demand that the Hoover Administration pay them the bonus they had been promised as compensation for their service in World War I. While the government could come up with al kinds of tax breaks and outright gifts for big business, it could only put off giving vets their promised bonus; vets had begun to refer to it as the "tombstone bonus." to vets trying to keep together families in the heart of the great Depression, even a small bonus was sorely needed.
Vets came from every corner of the country and, as the early contingents arrived in Washington or made news along the way, more and more decided they would join their brothers to demand their rights. With unemployment at record levels, many vets had nothing to keep them at home.
Stories of the various contingents and their travels to Washington deserve whole books; there were pitched battles with police in the railroad yards of Youngstown and Cleveland. Rail traffic in St Louis was closed down for days until the trains carried the vets closer to Washington (soap on the tracks was a favorite vet device). Along the rail lines, local farmers—who didn't have all that much themselves—left care packets of food for the vets to eat. A group of California vets not only had most of it donations stolen by its supposed leader but almost 1/2s of the vets were lost during the month-long trip ( some were later found in the Tennessee mountains. The governor of West Virginia brought a fleet of trucks to the state border to carry the vets across his state as quickly and quiet as possible.
At the focus of the march in Washington, the Hoover Administration was trying—without any success—to solve the Depression by pouring money into big business in hopes the somehow the money would "trickle down" in terms of jobs (an economic theory which has a large popularity in Washington today). Faced with growing thousands of the victims of their policies, however, the Administration became much less theoretical and much more practical. Right off they decided do nothing to help the vets—except what could divert the vet from their plans to demand an immediate payment of their bonus. The Administration provided campsites—but so far away that they were useless. So the vets found their own, occupying abandoned buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue and erecting campsites on vacant lots.
The government tried hard to provide the vets with leaders their own leaders, of course. W.W. Waters was name "Commander in Chief of the bonus peditionary Force"; in fact he was nothing but a front man for the chief of the DC police, and ex-general who was Hoover's man on the scene. Time after time these leaders bought a few more days before the vets anger would boil over.
Perhaps the greatest deception of the vets' stay came when the Senate finally voted against the Bonus. This was prearranged ; the House would vote for the nus, then the Senate would vote against, saving President Hoover from having to veto the bonus when he would be running soon for re-election. A day and night march through the Capitol went on for five days before the vote ( it was planned as a camp-in but the Administration refused the vets permission to sleep on the Capitol grounds), and it was clear that something would have to be done to divert the vets' anger once the no vote was announced. The solution: the leaders of the march, Waters among them, contrived to get arrested. Vets were angry, of course; when they police chief—who ad arranged the whole thing in the first place—released the vets' leaders, who then announced the Senate vote against the Bonus, anger against the government was diverted into the apparent victory of getting their leader released. And when a military band mysteriously appeared to play "America," vets cheered for their leaders, cheered for the police chief, and even allowed three "boo's" for Herbert Hoover to be turned off as disrespectful.
The vets' anger, fueled by simple desparation, would not be silenced or misguided forever. The five-day "Death March," with an endless stream of vets walking in and out of the Capitol ( one vet passed out twice during the march, only to get up and keep on marching) sparked a growing public sympathy and support for the vets not only in Washington but across the country.
None of this was lost on the Hoover Administration. From the beginning of the March, the government's greatest hope was for the vets to go home and leave the government alone. Hoover and his cronies tried all kinds of tricks from offering a small bonus plus free transportation and food to get home, to attempts to starve the vets out of DC. One vet leader, firmly in the pocket of the government, tried to get the vets to leave immediately after the "no" vote on the Bonus to defeat local candidates. A few vets left; most stayed, understanding that Washington was where the Bonus payment would be decided.
Finally Hoover found himself with no more options and brought in the military. His first try failed when Marines refused to lift their rifles against veterans. But, on the 28th of July, 1932, a specially gathered military force ( they had been kept on hold far from Washington where they could hear as little as possible about the Bonus marchers) under the command of Douglas MacArthur moved into the city. First the DC police tried to evict vets living in makeshift homes and camps; gunfire broke out; one vet was killed. Vets fought back with bricks and stones. Then came the military. Tanks ( under the command of Major George Patton) moved down Pennsylvania Avenue, following lines of soldiers with bayonets at the ready. Slowly, fighting for each inch, the vets retreated, picking up tear gas canisters and flinging them back at the troops. The vets' camps were burned, their few belongings destroyed. And the vets were pushed out of Washington, finally disbanding and returning home. They had little choice.
But the Bonus March did not end just because the marchers were dispersed by a desperate government. The militancy of the vets, and their learning of their need for organization won the Bonus payment several years later. Their march gave impetus to the drive which won the fight for unemployment compensation, one of the vets demands. And it taught the vets a lot.
The great majority of the bonus Marchers went to Washington with faith that the government would give them what they deserved, needed, and had earned. They were more than willing to follow leaders who offered a way of patriotically winning what they needed. The government not only refused to meet their needs but drove them away at gunpoint. Despite all kinds of misdirection and a media barrage, it was clear to most vets who was throwing them out their Capital. Perhaps the experience and lessons was best summed up by one bonus Marcher, Benjamin B. Sheperd from Philadelphia, who said: "When I marched off to war in 1917, I remember a Civil War veteran, over 70 years old, telling me, 'Son, you are all heroes now. But some day they'll treat you like dogs."
Vets of the most recent U.S. military venture—those of us who have, like the Bonus Marchers of 1932 been used once and then thrown away—are faced by an equally hostile government, equally interested in supporting big business at the expense of those who can least afford it. The determination and eventual victory of those vets and their families who marched in the 1932 Bonus Army are a lesson for the Vietnam vets of Dewey Canyon IV. We will not forget.