In the late spring and early summer of 1932, 40,000 middle-aged and impoverished World War I veterans descended on Washington, D.C., to demand immediate payment of their adjusted compensation certificates, or bonus. The government had given veterans these bonds to settle an earlier political dispute. World War I veterans returned home in the midst of the 1919 recession and soon grew angry with war profiteers. The draft, veterans argued, gave the government the power to determine who went into the army and who stayed at home. Those who went into the army received one dollar a day, while civilians earned high wages and profits in the booming wartime economy. The government, in veterans' eyes, had the responsibility of ensuring equality of sacrifice in time of total war by distributing the financial burdens of the war fairly between soldiers and civilians. In 1924 the government offered veterans a compromise. Instead of a cash settlement, veterans would receive a bond (worth approximately $1,000) that matured in 1945. With the economy improving, veterans accepted the government's offer without protest.
The Great Depression caused veterans to revive their call for immediate compensation. At first, they limited their requests to letters and telegrams. In May 1932 a group of veterans from Portland, Oregon, decided to cross the country to present their requests personally before Congress. The press picked up the story, and when the initial group of two hundred rode into the nation's capital atop trucks provided by the Maryland National Guard, they discovered that their trek had become a full-fledged mass movement. Thousands of veterans from throughout the country came to join the Oregon group, launching one of the greatest grassroots movements in the nation's history.
The veterans set up a makeshift camp on the Anacostia Flats, in sight of the Capitol. As the movement grew, over two dozen smaller groups occupied empty federal buildings downtown. A few Communists set up a camp at the fringes of the movement but had little influence over the majority of veterans. Despite intense media coverage and daily visits by veterans to individual congressmen, the Senate voted down a House-approved payment bill in June. The nation waited anxiously to see if the veterans would leave peacefully, be allowed to stay, or be forcibly evicted.
From the beginning, President Herbert Hoover and U.S. Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur feared that the veterans had come to stage a Communist coup. On July 28 the police began evicting some bonus marchers from a downtown building slated for demolition and in the process shot two unarmed veterans. With tempers rising, District of Columbia officials asked Hoover for troops to help clear the area. Disregarding the advice of his aide, Major Dwight Eisenhower, MacArthur decided to personally command the eviction. MacArthur arrived at the scene in full dress uniform, leading one squadron of cavalry troops, two battalions of infantry, a mounted machine gun squad, and five tanks. The troops cleared the downtown camps, and then headed to the Anacostia Bridge to cross into the veterans' main camp. Hoover sent at least three messages to MacArthur telling him not to cross the bridge, but MacArthur ignored these orders. By midnight, the main veteran camp was in flames and the bonus marchers had fled.
In the political turmoil that followed the eviction, Hoover chose to stand by MacArthur and never publicly revealed the general's insubordination. The country saw Hoover's eviction of the bonus marchers as symbolic of his general unwillingness to grant direct relief to ease individual suffering during the Great Depression. By popularizing the image of Hoover as an uncaring president who was out of touch with the common man, the bonus march played a significant role in Hoover's defeat in the presidential election of 1932.
The new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was more successful in deflecting the bonus issue. During the two subsequent bonus marches, in 1933 and 1934, Roosevelt welcomed the few thousand veterans who came as conventioneers, housed them in an army camp out of the city, and then offered them places in the Civilian Conservation Corps to get them to disperse willingly. Roosevelt also went on the offensive, chiding veterans for making "special class" demands at a time of national crisis. Within a few years, however, the New Deal created so many special demographic categories eligible for federal aid that public support resurfaced for early payment. In 1936 Congress overrode a presidential veto and agreed to let veterans cash in their bonds immediately.
The bonus march was a legacy of World War I that helped shape the nation's response to the Great Depression and World War II. During the Depression, Americans were able to express their preference for a more activist state through their support of the bonus marchers. In 1944, hoping in part to avoid the political embarrassment of another veterans' march on Washington, D.C., the government passed the G.I. Bill, a comprehensive set of benefits for World War II veterans.
Barber, Lucy G. Marching on Washington: the Forging of an American Political Tradition. Berkeley: University of California, 2002.
Daniels, Roger. The Bonus March: An Episode of the Great Depression. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971.
Keene, Jennifer D. Doughboys, the Great War and the Remaking of America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
Lisio, Donald J. The President and Protest: Hoover, Conspiracy, and the Bonus Riot. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974.
Jennifer D. Keene