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Remembering the Bonus Army: Where Are Today's Mass Nonviolent Protests?

On July 28, 1932, World War I veterans marched on Washington to demand their service bonus. Today, in the face of austerity, we see very little protest like that march.
 
 
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Seventy-nine years ago today, the U.S. Army attacked American World War I veterans, their families and thousands of other citizens gathered in peaceful assembly in Washington, D.C.  In March, and as the Depression mounted, an estimated 15,000 people flooded the nation’s capital demanding payment of their veterans’ service bonus.  By June, 20,000 had amassed.

Calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, but long remembered as the Bonus Army, the assembled multitude decided to occupy Washington until their grievances were addressed.  The city’s rising heat and humidity intensified the escalating political crisis beseiging the capital.  Against a growing right-wing chorus claiming the veterans were commies, President Herbert Hoover ordered an end to the occupation.

The Washington police initially led the assault. Facing stiff resistance, they opened fire on the demonstators, killing two veterans, William Hushka and Eric Carlson.  

Informed of the shooting, Hoover ordered the Army to take charge of the removal of the veterans.

Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and George Patton are three generals who led major military campaigns during World War II and came to symbolize the nation’s global prowess.  Eisenhower commanded the Normandy invasion and was the 34th president; MacArthur oversaw the war in the Pacific and served as the Supreme Commander of the occupation of Japan; and Patton was immortalized in Stanley Kubrick’s 1970 movie starring Academy-Award winner George C. Scott.  

Forgotten by many today, these generals got their stripes commanding a military campaign against once-fellow soldiers and their families (including women and children) who made up the Bonus Army.  

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In 1924, Congress approved a bonus payment for World War I veterans, but it was not to be paid until 1945.  As the Depression deepened and unemployment mounted following the 1929 stock market crash, a growing movement of veterans, demanded – and desperately needed – their payment.   

In the spring of ’32, the first wave of veterans, their families and many unemployed supporters descended on Washington seeking redress.  They set up a Hooverville-type shantytown -- dubbed Bonus City -- on the Anacostia River flats across from the Capitol, buildings shelters made up of old lumber, packing boxes and tin and straw roofs scavenged from a nearlby dump. In time, some 43,000 people assembled, including 17,000 veterans.

The leader of the Bonus Army was Walter Waters, a charismatic former Army sergeant and unemployed cannery worker from Portland, OR.  He rallied his followers, declaring, "We're here for the duration and we're not going to starve.  We're going to keep ourselves a simon-pure veteran's organization.  If the bonus is paid it will relieve to a large extent the deplorable economic condition."  

Many popular figures visited the camp in support of the veterans, including the legendary retired Marine Corp. Major General Smedley Butler; he had twice been awarded the Medal of Honor and, in 1935, penned the popular book, War is a Racket.  

Joseph C. Harsch, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor and an eyewitness to the day’s events, reported: "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."

Faced with the unprecedented mobilization of veterans and other Americans, the House quickly enacted a bonus payment plan only to have the Senate reject it; President Hoover vowed to veto the payment.  This set the stage for the showdown of July 28th.  

 
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