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Bonus Army March

Origins and Motivations of the Bonus Army

In 1932, tens of thousands of World War I veterans, many with their families, journeyed to Washington, D.C. These veterans had faced unemployment since the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. They embarked on this trek, hopping freight trains and hitching rides, driven by a desperate need for money. They called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF), but the public knew them as the Bonus Army. Their goal was to demand the immediate payment of their military bonus certificates, which were not slated for redemption until 1945.

In 1924, Congress had approved the Adjusted Compensation certificates, a "thank you" for war service, to be paid out years later. President Harding and President Coolidge both vetoed early attempts at paying these bonuses before 1945, but Congress overrode Coolidge's veto in 1926.1 These certificates, often averaging about $1,000, were seen as a future financial promise. However, the veterans' immediate reality during the Great Depression turned this seemingly distant promise into an urgent need.

The Bonus Army's march on Washington started picking up steam in May 1932 when thousands of veterans, both Black and white, arrived in the capital. This army, unlike the segregated U.S. military, was integrated. They set up various camps around the city, including a large shantytown on the banks of the Anacostia River. The men brought with them their military discipline. This unprecedented mingling of races for a unified cause highlighted the deep need for economic relief, revealing that racial lines could blur in such harsh times.

President Herbert Hoover stood firm against immediate payment of these bonuses, although he wasn't unsympathetic. Quietly, Hoover ensured they received food and supplies. However, General Douglas MacArthur, the Army Chief of Staff, saw the Bonus Army as a potential threat, fueled by stories of communist agitation among the ranks. Despite these fears, radicals within the BEF were a small, ineffective minority.

The public sentiment largely supported the veterans. Their plight and perseverance garnered sympathy. Their lobbying efforts bore some fruits, as the House of Representatives passed a bill for early payment on June 15, 1932. Yet, hope was dashed when the Senate decisively rejected it two days later.2 Many veterans left, disheartened, but a significant number vowed to stay, enduring appalling summer heat and poor sanitary conditions.

Black and white photograph of World War I veterans, part of the Bonus Army, arriving in Washington D.C. in 1932 by hopping freight trains and hitching rides, driven by desperation during the Great Depression to demand early payment of their military bonuses. The veterans look weary but determined.

The March to Washington and Initial Congressional Response

Upon arriving in Washington, the veterans established makeshift camps, most notably the shantytown on Anacostia Flats, where they carefully organized their living conditions, drawing on their military discipline. These encampments were a stark visual contrast to the grandeur of the Capitol and the White House. Tents, shacks, and lean-tos provided the scant shelter necessary to withstand the summer heat. Sanitary conditions were poor, but the sense of camaraderie and shared purpose somewhat alleviated their hardship.

The veterans actively lobbied Congress for the early release of their compensation. They marched with resolve, meeting with congressional representatives and imploring them to acknowledge their desperate situation. The Bonus Army included men of all races, breaking the color barriers of that era, proving that in their united struggle for economic survival, racial divisions could momentarily fade.

The initial response from Congress was a mix of empathy and political maneuvering. On June 15, 1932, the House of Representatives heeded the veterans' plea, overcoming internal resistance to pass a bill authorizing the immediate payment of the bonuses.3 This move was celebrated with fervor within the ranks of the Bonus Army. Hope surged through their camps, and it seemed their journey and persistent efforts were finally bearing fruit.

However, the elation was short-lived. Two days later, on June 17, the Senate delivered a crushing blow. Despite the veterans' peaceful lobbying and the public's growing sympathy, the Senate decisively rejected the bill.4 The defeat was a severe setback for the Bonus Army. Disillusionment and frustration set in, yet a core group of veterans vowed to remain in Washington, demonstrating their resolve and willingness to continue the fight for economic justice.

As days turned into weeks, the situation grew more desperate. The summer heat made life in the camps nearly unbearable. Sanitary conditions deteriorated, and the sense of solidarity was overshadowed by the harsh realities of their living conditions. Calls to disband and return home grew louder, but many veterans, buoyed by a sense of shared destiny, held on.

Black and white photograph of World War I veterans, part of the Bonus Army, marching to the U.S. Capitol building in 1932 to lobby Congress for early payment of their military bonuses. The veterans look resolute and are marching peacefully.

The Government's Response and the Disbandment of the Bonus Army

On July 28, 1932, the situation reached a breaking point. Attorney General William Mitchell ordered the Washington D.C. police to clear the veterans from the occupied government buildings. When the police moved in to evict the veterans, violent clashes erupted. Demonstrators and law enforcement were soon embroiled in scuffles and gunfire, resulting in the tragic deaths of two veterans.5 These shootings prompted a decisive response from the federal government. With local authorities requesting intervention, President Hoover reluctantly called in federal troops to quell the disturbance.

Under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, the highest-ranking officer in the United States Army, the federal troops were a formidable force. MacArthur, along with then-major figures like Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Patton, led a contingent that included:

  • Mounted cavalry
  • Infantry with fixed bayonets
  • Tanks

The display of military might against unarmed veterans marked a stark and disheartening chapter in American history.

Initial misinterpretations of the troops' arrival added to the chaos. Many veterans believed the approaching cavalry and infantry were there to parade in their support. This illusion was cruelly shattered as soldiers, equipped with gas masks, began advancing upon the camps in earnest. The attack unfolded with chilling swiftness. Tear gas canisters flew through the air, adding to the pandemonium as veterans and their families scrambled to escape the toxic fumes.

Shantytowns, painstakingly constructed by the veterans, were systematically set ablaze. Possessions were left behind and lost in the ensuing inferno, symbolizing the utter devastation of the veterans' hopes. Reeling from the attack, many veterans and their families fled in disarray, crossing the bridge to their last semblance of refuge in Anacostia. The military's pursuit, however, was relentless, despite President Hoover's direct orders to halt further aggression. MacArthur ignored these instructions, determined to decisively end what he perceived as a serious threat to national stability.

This military crackdown had widespread and profound implications. President Hoover defended his administration's actions, framing the use of force as a necessary evil to prevent potential bloodshed among marchers, police, and bystanders. Yet, the stark images of federal troops attacking unarmed veterans were indelibly etched in the nation's collective memory. Hoover's re-election campaign could not withstand the overwhelming public backlash, and his political fortunes plummeted as a direct consequence of the events.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, running against Hoover, did not openly leverage the Bonus Army incident in his campaign. However, the implications were clear—Hoover's handling of the situation had significantly tarnished his presidency. Even after Roosevelt's election and despite broad opposition to the bonus from both Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt, the plight of the veterans could not be ignored indefinitely. The Bonus Army returned in 1933 under different circumstances but still faced stiff resistance from the Roosevelt administration.

Black and white photograph of U.S. Army troops, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, advancing on the Bonus Army's makeshift camp with weapons and tear gas during the forceful disbandment of the protest in 1932. The heavily armed troops stand in stark contrast to the unarmed veterans.

Legacy and Impact of the Bonus Army

The story of the Bonus Army did not end in the ashes of the Anacostia shantytown but instead reverberated through American society, leaving a legacy that shaped veterans' affairs for decades. The immediate effect of the Bonus Army's protest was the heightened awareness of veterans' struggles, dramatically portrayed to the public. The stark images of former soldiers, who had once bravely fought on foreign shores, now gasping for air amid tear gas and flames, evoked a powerful collective empathy. This public sympathy translated into pressure on lawmakers, ultimately influencing the trajectory of legislative actions concerning veteran benefits.

In the short term, the brutality of the government's response to the veterans' peaceful plight damaged President Hoover's reputation, contributing significantly to his electoral defeat. Franklin D. Roosevelt's election signaled a change in approach, though initially, it was not a direct boon to the veterans' immediate demands. Despite Roosevelt's personal opposition to the bonuses, the persistent struggle of the Bonus Army played a crucial role in molding his administration's policies on veterans' welfare.

The perseverance and sacrifice of the Bonus Army were instrumental in the passage of the Veterans' Bonus Act in 1936. Despite Roosevelt's veto, the act was passed over his objections, providing the long-sought compensation to World War I veterans.6 This pivotal legislative victory for veterans underscored the power of organized, peaceful protest in achieving economic justice, setting a precedent that resonated through future advocacy efforts.

Perhaps the most significant long-term impact of the Bonus Army was its influence on the creation of the G.I. Bill in 1944. Known formally as the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, the G.I. Bill was designed to provide a range of benefits for returning World War II veterans, including:

  • Educational opportunities
  • Housing loans
  • Unemployment insurance

This comprehensive support system was a direct acknowledgment of the socioeconomic challenges faced by veterans and an attempt to prevent the injustices experienced by the Bonus Army from recurring.

While the G.I. Bill marked a significant advancement in veterans' benefits, it was not devoid of flaws. The systemic racial inequalities of the time meant that many Black veterans were unfairly denied the opportunities afforded by the bill. The administrative loopholes allowed local authorities to exclude many African American veterans from receiving the full benefits of education and housing, perpetuating racial disparities.7 Despite this, the legislation laid the groundwork for future reforms and heightened awareness of the need for equitable treatment of all veterans.

Public perception of the Bonus Army evolved over time. Initially, the harsh crackdown garnered widespread condemnation and overshadowed the more significant implications of the protest. Yet, as the decades passed, the narrative transformed. The Bonus Army came to symbolize the broader struggles of the underprivileged and marginalized, their story taught as a cautionary tale about the perils of governmental neglect and the power of collective action.

In the annals of American history, the Bonus Army serves as both a vivid reminder and a source of inspiration. The events of 1932 provided a crucial lens through which future generations could examine the relationship between the government and those who serve it. The legacy of the Bonus Army underscored the vital need for policies that honor the contributions of veterans, resonating in contemporary discussions about veteran care and welfare.

Black and white photograph of World War 2 veterans returning home to a celebratory parade, benefiting from the G.I. Bill that provided them with education, housing, and other benefits, a legislative victory influenced by the struggles of the Bonus Army in 1932. The veterans look happy and are greeted by cheering crowds.
  1. Ortiz SR. Beyond the Bonus March and GI Bill: How veteran politics shaped the New Deal era. New York: New York University Press; 2010.
  2. Dickson P, Allen TJ. The Bonus Army: An American epic. New York: Walker & Company; 2004.
  3. Bartlett JH. The Bonus March and the New Deal. Chicago: M.A. Donohue & Company; 1937.
  4. Daniels R. The Bonus March: An episode of the Great Depression. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Corporation; 1971.
  5. Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture. The Bonus Army March, 1932. 2005.
  6. Humes ED. Over here: How the G.I. Bill transformed the American dream. New York: Harcourt; 2006.
  7. Katznelson I. When affirmative action was white: An untold history of racial inequality in twentieth-century America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2005.
William Montgomery
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