The Bonus March (May-July, 1932)
Few images from the Great Depression are more indelible than the rout of the Bonus Marchers. At the time, the sight of the federal government turning on its own citizens -- veterans, no less -- raised doubts about the fate of the republic. It still has the power to shock decades later.
From the start, 1932 promised to be a difficult year for the country, as the Depression deepened and frustrations mounted. In December of 1931, there was a small, communist-led hunger march on Washington; a few weeks later, a Pittsburgh priest led an army of 12,000 jobless men there to agitate for unemployment legislation. In March, a riot at Ford's River Rouge plant in Michigan left four dead and over fifty wounded. Thus, when a band of jobless veterans, led by a former cannery worker named Walter W. Waters, began arriving in the capital in May, tensions were high. Calling themselves the "Bonus Expeditionary Forces," they demanded early payment of a bonus Congress had promised them for their service in World War I.
Army Chief of Staff MacArthur was convinced that the march was a communist conspiracy to undermine the government of the United States, and that "the movement was actually far deeper and more dangerous than an effort to secure funds from a nearly depleted federal treasury." But that was simply not the case. MacArthur's own General Staff intelligence division reported in June that only three of the twenty-six leaders of the Bonus March were communists. And the percentage within the rank and file was likely even smaller; several commanders reported to MacArthur that most of the men seemed to be vehemently anti-Communist, if anything. According to journalist and eyewitness Joseph C. Harsch, "This was not a revolutionary situation. This was a bunch of people in great distress wanting help.... These were simply veterans from World War I who were out of luck, out of money, and wanted to get their bonus -- and they needed the money at that moment."
At first, it seemed as though order might be maintained. Walters, organizing the various encampments along military lines, announced that there would be "no panhandling, no drinking, no radicalism," and that the marchers were simply "going to stay until the veterans' bill is passed." The government also did its part, as Washington Police Superintendent Pelham D. Glassford treated his fellow veterans with considerable respect and care. But by the end of June, the movement had swelled to more than 20,000 tired, hungry and frustrated men. Conflict was inevitable.
The marchers were encouraged when the House of Representatives passed the Patman veterans bill on June 15, despite President Hoover's vow to veto it. But on June 17 the bill was defeated in the Senate, and tempers began to flare on both sides. On July 21, with the Army preparing to step in at any moment, Glassford was ordered to begin evacuating several buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue, using force if necessary. A week later, on the steamy morning of July 28, several Marchers rushed Glassford's police and began throwing bricks. President Hoover ordered the Secretary of War to "surround the affected area and clear it without delay."
Conspicuously led by MacArthur, Army troops (including Major George S. Patton, Jr.) formed infantry cordons and began pushing the veterans out, destroying their makeshift camps as they went. Although no weapons were fired, cavalry advanced with swords drawn, and some blood was shed. By nightfall, hundreds had been injured by gas (including a baby who died), bricks, clubs, bayonets, and sabers.
Next came the most controversial moment in the whole affair -- a moment that directly involved General MacArthur. Secretary of War Hurley twice sent orders to MacArthur indicating that the President, worried that the government reaction might look overly harsh, did not wish the Army to pursue the Bonus Marchers across the bridge into their main encampment on the other side of the Anacostia River. But MacArthur, according to his aide Dwight Eisenhower, "said he was too busy," did not want to be "bothered by people coming down and pretending to bring orders," and sent his men across the bridge anyway, after pausing several hours to allow as many people as possible to evacuate. A fire soon erupted in the camp. While it's not clear which side started the blaze, the sight of the great fire became the signature image of the greatest unrest our nation's capital has ever known.
Although many Americans applauded the government's action as an unfortunate but necessary move to maintain law and order, most of the press was less sympathetic. "Flames rose high over the desolate Anacostia flats at midnight tonight," read the first sentence of the "New York Times" account, "and a pitiful stream of refugee veterans of the World War walked out of their home of the past two months, going they knew not where."