Remembering the Bonus Army: Where Are Today's Mass Nonviolent Protests?
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During the morning, Hoover ordered the military to disperse the assembled vets. His order was simple:
"You will have United States troops proceed immediately to the scene of the disorder. Surround the affected area and clear it without delay. Any women and children should be accorded every consideration and kindness. Use all humanity consistent with the execution of this order."
The Bonus vets initially gathered in front of the Capitol. Seeing the approaching army, they mistakenly believed the soldiers were coming in support of their demands. However, when Patton ordered the cavalry to charge, their cheers turned to shouts of "Shame! Shame!" After this initial confrontation, Hoover twice ordered MacArthur to halt the military offensive.
MacArthur oversaw a force of 600 armed soldiers, a machine gun unit, horse-mounted cavalry (with Patton leading the charge) and even a half-dozen Renault tanks. Anticipating his conduct during the Korea War two decades later, he refused the President’s orders. He claimed Communists were behind the vets' campaign (John Pace, a Communist Party member, was an organizer) and ordered the attack on the the encampment at Anacostia.
(The presence of so-called Communists within the Bonus Army was much debated. Hoover insisted they represented 50 percent of Bonus Army; MacArthur claimed they were only 10 percent. A follow-up study by the Veterans Administration found that 94 percent of the marchers were Army or Navy veterans.)
Some 10,000 protesters were routed; two babies died and casualties overwhelmed local hospitals. While no weapons were fired, the military used bayonetted rifles and gas grenades to disperse the vets and their supporters, leaving two dead, 135 arrested and hundreds injured.
MacArthur, riding in full military regalia in a staff car, was accousted by a flag waving bystander. With tear gas filling the air and the man’s face streaked with tears, he shouted at the general: “The American flag means nothing to me after this.” MacArthur rejoined to an aide: “Put that man under arrest if he opens his mouth again.” Such was the fate of democracy.
Eisenhower later wrote, "the whole scene was pitiful. The veterans were ragged, ill-fed, and felt themselves badly abused. To suddenly see the whole encampment going up in flames just added to the pity.”
According to the New York Times, “Flames rose high over the desolate Anacostia flats at midnight tonight, 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."
(Eisenhower, who served as MacArthur's junior aide, claimed he advised his boss: "I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch not to go down there.… I told him it was no place for the Chief of Staff.")
At a press conference following the confrontation, MacArthur declared: “It was animated by the essence of revolution.… It is my opinion that had the president let it go on another week the institutions of our government would have been very severely threatened.” Hoover issued a statement on the 29th insisting that the Bonus Army was “a challenge to the authority of the United States Government has been met, swiftly and firmly.”
In the wake of the assault on the Bonus Army, vets and their supporters scattered, defeated. However, public reaction to Hoover’s backing of MacArthur’s assault increased as news reports and newsreels got the story out. The incident surely contributed to Franklin Roosevelt’s election that fall.
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Looking back today, nearly eight decades later, we need to acknowledge that American WWI veterans and their supports who made up the Bonus Army created a new form of mass, nonviolent, sustained political mobilization.