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Page 8
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Part 5: Vets Movement: Vets Demand Action

By Pete Zastrow

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In June and July, 1932 the situation in Washington, DC, was critical. Between 20,000 and 25,000 vets and their families were camped in and around the city, and their anger was growing. Much of this anger was being directed toward the government-sponsored leadership of the B.E.F. (the Bonus Expeditionary Force which was the larges organization of vets in the Bonus Army)--ex-general Glassford, DC police chief; and his henchman, W.W. Waters, B.E.F. Commander-in-chief. The masses of vets wanted action; all they were getting was talk, excuses, and deception--lots of militant speeches, but no action.

On July 10, the main body of the California contingent straggled into Washington. Their "leader," (more accurately, mis-leader), Royal Robertson, had managed to lose 2/3s of the contingent in the month it had taken to cross the country, and ripped off large chunks of the money donated by sympathizers along their route. Robertson did understand, however, what the vets were looking for. His first step was to apply for a parade permit and, when the vets arrived at the Capitol, they decided to stay: in Robertson's words, "We're taking our blankets with us, and if Congress adjourns without paying the Bonus we'll follow its members home and aid in defeating them for re-election. "Not only the California vets, but vets from the B.E. F. flocked to the Capitol building.

There followed a series of hassles, familiar to more recent demonstrators in Washington: the vets were told they couldn't stay on the Capitol grounds, then that they could stay but couldn't sleep. The lawns were sprinkled to discourage sleeping on the grass. The vets reacted with what came to be known as the "Death March": a constant stream of vets walking in and out of the Capitol grounds. For five days and nights they marched; one vet collapsed twice in one day and still got up to rejoin the slow march. Inside the Capitol, special bands of Capitol police nervously fingered tear-gas bombs which had been stockpiled when the vets first arrived in DC. Now they were brought out into the open for the first time. The tension increased as Congress rushed toward adjournment ( the House had passed the Bonus Bill, the Senate had voted against it; the vets were demanding that the Bill be reconsidered before adjournment.)

Despite the precautions, however, Glassford and the Hoover administration were not much worried by Robertson and his calls for action: they saw his motives more clearly than his followers did. First, Robertson had already put forth the idea of following Congressmen home to their districts, which would break up the vets and get them out of DC. This had been the government's plan all along. Second, Robertson was proposing that the Bonus be paid to "needy vets, certified by local officials, welfare or veterans' bureaus"--a rank-splitting device which would break the unity of the vets. The mass of veterans had come to DC spontaneously, demanding the Bonus in order to survive. Because there was no real organization, the government was able to plant its own leaders, and the vets were willing to follow these leaders until they proved utterly bankrupt. Finally, the vets aimed their actions at Congress--few of the vets in DC understood that the system, not Congress, was at the root of the crisis. They had come to Washington for action to meet their immediate needs, not to push for longer-range solutions.

So long as they had control of the leadership, whether Robertson or Waters, the government felt secure. Rank and file leadership posed the greatest danger. The Workers-EX-Serviceman's League, though small, was such a group, while the "Death March" continued, the WESL organized demonstrations in support of the march. Their call was for unity; in the words of one WESL leader, "Only the united mass action of all the veterans and their supporters will force Congress to pay the Bonus." They attacked racism; one of their slogans was "Veterans, Negro and white, Unite." They insisted on rank-and-file leadership. They also understood the need for organization, calling for a convention which would establish a real structure so that the vets could have unified actions.

Because of the WESL(which had been the group to call for the march in the first place) had members of the then Communist Party among its leadership, "red baiting" was constant. The furor was so great that some vets were prepared to throw bricks at a WESL march, until reminded that these were the same people who had served in the same trenches in WWI. Police attached WESL rallies; Water's MPs harassed WESL speaker; it wasn't until the vets were finally forced out of DC at bayonet point, that numbers of vets saw the WESL had the right approach.

With the "Death March" still going on, with WESL demonstrations near the Capitol, the time came for Congress to adjourn. Fearful of what could happen, Glassford and Waters concocted one of their great moves--Waters was arrested. Massed of vets had their attention diverted from what Congress was doing to the arrest of their "leader," even though the "leader" has been thoroughly discredited. By the time the scheme was played out and Waters was released, the Congressmen were out of the capital and on their way home. But adjournment did not have the whole effect the government wanted--vets did not follow congressmen home. They stayed to demand that Hoover call Congress back into session.

Public support for the vets was building. Crowds in DC came to support the vets. A brigade of vets wives formed and issued a call to veteran's wives around the country to go to DC to support their husbands; those wives already in DC refused police offers of "more comfortable" quarters than the sordid camps in which their husbands lived. More support came from GIs. A company of Marines, called out to protect the Capitol, had to be sent back--35 of them refused to move from their barracks, while others would not pick up their rifles when ordered to do so.

The government had about run out of tricks--they had co-opted leadership, they had tempted and bribed vets to go home, they had harassed and attacked demonstrations, but still the vets remained. There was only one thing left--use brute force, the ultimate weapon of a desperate state.

Next issue: "Bloody Thursday" and after.

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