THE BONUS ARMY OF 1932

--By Brian R. Train--   Hard economic times always incur a certain amount of social dislocation and consequently create opportunities for politically extreme movements. The global economic event that began in 1929, known as the Great Depression, allowed radical movements of the Left and Right to make headway in Europe during the 1930's. As one of the major industrial powers and one of the hardest hit by the Great Depression, radical groups like these could have posed a serious challenge to public order in the United States. There were many instances of labor unrest and strikes that turned violent, incidents that prompted temporary mobilizations of state National Guards. There were also instances where regular Army troops were called out in aid of the civil power. The worst incident of this type was the Bonus Army March in Washington in the summer of 1932.

At the end of World War One, as the American Expeditionary Force was being demobilized, a grateful U.S. government passed legislation that authorized the payment of cash bonuses to war veterans, adjusted for length of service, in 1945. However, the Crash of 1929 wiped out many veterans' savings and jobs, forcing them out into the streets. Groups of veterans began to organize and petition the government to pay them their cash bonus immediately. In the spring of 1932, during the worst part of Depression, a group of 300 veterans in Portland, Oregon organized by an ex-Sergeant named Walter Walters named itself the 'Bonus Expeditionary Force' or 'Bonus Army,' and began travelling across the country to Washington to lobby the government personally.

By the end of May over 3,000 veterans and their families had made their way to the capital. Most of them lived in a collection of makeshift huts and tents on the mud flats by the Anacostia River outside of the city limits. Similar ghettos could be found sheltering the migrant unemployed and poor outside any large city in the United States and were called 'Hoovervilles.' By July, almost 25,000 people lived in Anacostia, making it the largest Hooverville in the country. In June, the Patman Bonus Bill, which proposed immediate payment of the veterans' cash bonuses, was debated in the House of Representatives. There was stiff resistance from Republicans loyal to President Hoover, as the estimated cost of the bill was over $2 billion and the Hoover Administration was adamant about maintaining a balanced budget. The bill passed in the Congress on June 15, but was defeated in the Senate only two days later. In response, almost 20,000 veterans slowly shuffled up and down Pennsylvania Avenue for three days in a protest local newspapers titled the 'Death March.'

As the weather and the rhetoric grew hotter, concern grew that the Bonus Army Marchers could cause widespread civil disorder and violence. There were scuffles with the police and some Senators' cars were stoned by unruly crowds of veterans. Retired Marine General Smedley Butler, an immensely popular figure among veterans and who had become a vocal opponent of the Hoover Administration, participated in Bonus Army demonstrations and made inflammatory speeches (He would be approached in 1933 by Fascist sympathisers in the American Legion, who would try to involve him in an actual plot to seize power in a coup d'etat.).

It was alleged at the time that the March was directed by the Communist Party of the USA in pursuit of a genuine revolution, but it has since been established that the Party's only actual involvement was sending a small number of agitators and speakers. Nevertheless, President Hoover considered the Bonus Army Marchers a threat to public order and his personal safety. Contrary to tradition, he did not attend the closing ceremonies for that session of Congress on July 16 and many members left the Capitol building through underground tunnels to avoid facing the demonstrators outside. Many of the Marchers left Washington after Congress adjourned, but there were still over 10,000 angry, restless veterans in the streets.

On July 28, 1932, two veterans were shot and killed by panicked policemen in a riot at the bottom of Capitol Hill. This provided the final stimulus. Hoover told Patrick Hurley, the Secretary of War, to tell General Douglas Macarthur, then the Army Chief of Staff, that he wished the Bonus Army Marchers evicted from Washington. Troops from nearby Forts Myer and Washington were ordered in to remove the Bonus Army Marchers from the streets by force. One battalion from the 12th Infantry Regiment and two squadrons of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment (under the command of Major George S. Patton, who had taken over as second in command of the Regiment less than three weeks earlier) concentrated at the Ellipse just west of the White House. At 4:00 p.m. the infantrymen donned gas masks and fixed bayonets, the cavalry drew sabres, and the whole force (followed by several light tanks) moved down Pennsylvania Avenue to clear it of people.

Against the advice of his assistant, Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, Macarthur had taken personal command of the operation. President Hoover had ordered Macarthur to clear Pennsylvania Avenue only, but Macarthur immediately began to clear all of downtown Washington, herding the Marchers out and torching their huts and tents. Tear gas was used liberally and many bricks were thrown, but no shots were fired during the entire operation. By 8:00 p.m. the downtown area had been cleared and the bridge across the Anacostia River, leading to the Hooverville where most of the Marchers lived, was blocked by several tanks.

That evening Hoover sent duplicate orders via two officers to Macarthur forbidding him to cross the Anacostia to clear the Marchers' camp, but Macarthur flatly ignored the President's orders, saying that he was 'too busy' and could not be bothered by people coming down and pretending to bring orders.' Macarthur crossed the Anacostia at 11:00 p.m., routed the marchers along with 600 of their wives and children out of the camp, and burned it to the ground. Then, incredibly, he called a press conference at midnight where he praised Hoover for taking the responsibility for giving the order to clear the camp. He said, 'Had the President not acted within 24 hours, he would have been faced with a very grave situation, which would have caused a real battle.... Had he waited another week, I believe the institutions of our government would have been threatened.'

Patrick Hurley, the Secretary of War, was present at this conference and praised Macarthur for his action in clearing the camp, even though he too was aware that Hoover had given directly contrary orders. It was this sort of insubordination and manipulation that would lead to Macarthur being summarily relieved of his command of the UN forces in Korea in 1951. The last of the Bonus Army Marchers left Washington by the end of the following day. Hoover could not publicly disagree with his Chief of Staff and Secretary of War, and ended up paying the political cost of this incident.

The possibility of widespread civil unrest growing into a popular revolution had been averted, but the forceful eviction of the Bonus Army Marchers, even though not one shot had been fired and only four people killed (the two demonstrators who had been shot by the police and two infants asphyxiated by tear gas), tilted public opinion against Hoover and ensured that he would lose the upcoming election. Franklin Roosevelt was elected by a landslide that November and, as they say, the rest is history. Bonus Marchers on the Capitol Steps

Children at the Marcher’s "City"

 

Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur and President Herbert Hoover suffered irreversible damage to their reputations after the Affair

The following links take you to the web site where the above article was taken and also provide additional info:

http://www.islandnet.com/~citizenx/bonus.html

http://www.worldwar1.com/dbc/bonusm.htm


 

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