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Bonus Army/Bonus March

BONUS ARMY/BONUS MARCH

The veterans' bonus, more properly called "adjusted service compensation," was approved by Congress in both 1922 and 1924 and vetoed by presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Harding's veto was upheld, but Coolidge's was overridden and the bonus bill became law. Its enactment came after four years of agitation by veterans and veterans' groups. The law provided a cash payment equal to one dollar for each day of wartime military service, with an extra twenty-five cents for each day spent overseas. Certificates with varying face values were issued, but payment was deferred until 1945. An insurance provision provided for full payment to heirs in case of death. The accrued interest made the maximum possible payment some $1,800, a tidy sum at a time when the average annual earnings of non-farm workers came to just over $1,400. Other provisions allowed veterans to borrow limited amounts of the value of their bonus certificates at relatively high rates of interest.

THE BONUS: A DEPRESSION ISSUE

The payment deferral was widely accepted in 1924, but the end of the prosperity of the 1920s and the onset of the Great Depression created widespread agitation for "immediate cash payment." The initial response of Congress during the Depression winter of 1930 to 1931 was to pass a bill allowing veterans to borrow larger amounts on their certificates at lower interest rates. President Herbert Hoover vetoed the bill, but a majority of the Republicans in each house joined almost all the Democrats to override Hoover's veto.

There were those in Congress who wanted to do more. A growing bloc led by three House Democrats—William Connery of Massachusetts, John E. Rankin of Mississippi, and Wright Patman of Texas—campaigned for full and immediate cash payment. All had served as enlisted men during the war. Patman soon became the acknowledged leader of the bonus forces in Congress. The bills he and others introduced made the bonus a national issue and were a spur for most of those who came to Washington.

MARCHING ON WASHINGTON

As early as January 1931 a few veterans had demonstrated in the nation's capital for immediate cash payment, and a number of other demonstrations took place before May 1932, none of which had a significant impact. The one Washington demonstration that caused a stir was the "National Hunger March," a one-day affair on December 7, 1931, which was sponsored by a Communist Party front, the Unemployed Councils. Early in May 1932 the Communist press announced that another front organization, the Workers' Ex-Servicemen's League (WESL or Weasels), would lead a similar one-day March on June 8, 1932. But before that happened an unheralded group of veterans from Portland, Oregon, had crossed the nation in boxcars and trucks, captured national attention, and begun what would now be called a sit-in in the nation's capital.

The Oregon veterans were led by an unemployed ex-sergeant, Walter W. Waters, who had spent almost eighteen months overseas with the medical detachment of the 146th Field Artillery until he was discharged in 1919. A handsome and glib six-footer who had drifted from job to job in the 1920s, Waters inflated his resume in his 1933 memoir, B.E.F.: The Whole Story of the Bonus Army. Even there, however, he admitted that "my inability to take root in fertile soil may have been due to the unsettling effects of the war on me" and he referred to an unspecified post-discharge illness with the words "my health failed."

Waters and fewer than three hundred other veterans set out riding in empty boxcars on March 11 or 12, 1932. Their slow but peaceful passage east was ignored by the national press until railroad officials at Council Bluffs, Iowa, tried without success to stop them from reaching Saint Louis; the brief stand-off in the Iowa rail yards was news. Waters gave his first press conference on May 20 when the bonus seekers arrived in Saint Louis. He said that when they got to Washington they were going to stay until a bonus bill was passed "if it takes until 1945." That statement, publicized nationally, acted as a signal for groups of veterans across the country to come to Washington. By the time the Oregonians reached the capital on May 29, hundreds of other veterans were already there and thousands more were on their way.

By mid-June some twenty thousand had come to participate in what the press called a "bonus march," although almost no one walked to Washington. Some drove their own cars and trucks. The Washington, D.C., police force was commanded by Pelham D. Glassford, a West Point graduate who had been the youngest general in the American Expeditionary Force and had retired from the army in 1931. Glassford sympathized with his fellow veterans but understood that their cause was all but hopeless. Interested in public order, he encouraged the men to organize as a Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF), helped them obtain relief supplies, and got most of the veterans to set up an encampment on park land in Anacostia at the edge of the District of Columbia. Some also camped in partially demolished buildings on lower Pennsylvania Avenue near the Capitol. There were few arrests and no significant violence for almost two months.

Patman's bonus bill had been locked up in committee, but after the veterans arrived it was easy to pry it out. On June 15 it passed in the House, 211 to 176. The Senate leadership agreed to a quick vote, hoping that the men would go home once it was defeated. On the evening of June 17, with several thousand veterans massed in front of the Capitol, the Senate defeated the bill. Only twenty-eight of ninety-six senators favored it. Some feared that the massed veterans would riot in response. Instead they sang "America the Beautiful" and returned to their encampments. But large numbers of them stayed in Washington and some reinforcements arrived.

THE BATTLE OF WASHINGTON

Before adjourning on July 16, Congress offered railroad fare home plus a seventy-five cent per diem allowance to any veteran who left by July 25. Some five thousand veterans took advantage of this offer. The Red Cross, which had refused any aid to the veterans, financed the travel of nearly five hundred accompanying wives and children. Once the July 25 deadline had passed, the Hoover administration, acting through its appointees, the District Commissioners, issued orders to force the now fewer than ten thousand veterans to leave Washington. The first step was ordering the police to remove the veterans camped on Pennsylvania Avenue. Glassford and his police commenced that task on July 28; two violent outbursts occurred as some men resisted eviction. The first, in the morning, caused no fatalities, but resulted in the commissioners asking the president for federal troops. Hoover obliged, ordering that the veterans be taken into custody. A few minutes later, another fracas broke out and a policeman who had been attacked drew his pistol and fired several shots, which killed two veterans. Glassford restored order and shortly thereafter learned that the Army had been called out.

About six hundred soldiers—some two hundred cavalry, three hundred infantry, and five tanks—under the personal command of Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur, formed on the Ellipse behind the White House, and at 4:30 P.M. they moved up Pennsylvania Avenue at the height of the evening rush hour. The resulting "Battle of Washington" was no battle at all: Not a shot was fired by the troops or the veterans, although the latter threw a few bricks and a lot of curses and the former used the points of sabers, bayonets, and tear gas. The troops then moved toward Anacostia, positioned three tanks on the bridge, and took a break for supper. Those in the Anacostia encampment were given notice, and then the soldiers advanced, driving the veterans and whoever was with them out of the district and into Maryland like so many refugees. MacArthur deliberately disobeyed Hoover's order to take the veterans prisoner.

The Hoover administration claimed that most of the expelled bonus marchers were Communists and not really veterans, but such changes did not sit well with the public. Rexford Guy Tugwell wrote in The Brains Trust (1968) that he had an appointment with Franklin Roosevelt on the morning of July 29. Entering the governor's Hyde Park, New York, bedroom about 7:30 A.M., Tugwell found Roosevelt, characteristically, in bed with the papers spread around him. He told Tugwell that the pictures of the troops driving the veterans from the nation's capital were like "scenes from a nightmare." Tugwell believed that from that point on Roosevelt felt assured of his election, which almost certainly would have come in any event.

In a letter written a few days before the 1932 election, Roosevelt, who, like Hoover, opposed a bonus prepayment, told a correspondent that he would have handled things differently. Roosevelt got that opportunity when a smaller and more radical group of veterans came to Washington in May 1933. The president had Harry Hopkins arrange for billets at underused military facilities outside the district, sent his wife to meet with the veterans, and changed the rules so that those who wished could enroll in special veterans' units of the newly created Civilian Conservation Corps.

In 1936 Congress passed a bill to pay the bonus at once; Roosevelt vetoed it, but did not strenuously attempt to stop Congress from overriding his veto. Although the imaginative World War II programs for veterans commonly known as the G. I. Bill of Rights might have come about in any event, the bonus experience spurred planning for future veterans' benefits.

See Also: HOOVER, HERBERT.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Best, Gary Dean. FDR and the Bonus Marchers,1933–1935. 1992.

Daniels, Roger. The Bonus March: An Episode of the GreatDepression. 1971.

Glassford, Pelham D. Papers. University of California, Los Angeles.

Hoover, Herbert C. The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, Vol. 3: The Great Depression, 1929–1941. 1952.

Lisio, Donald J. The President and Protest: Hoover, Conspiracy, and the Bonus Riot. 1974.

Lisio, Donald J. The President and Protest: Hoover, MacArthur, and the Bonus Riot, 2nd edition. 1994.

MacArthur, Douglas. Reminiscences. 1964.

Roger Daniels

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