Remembering the Bonus Army: Where Are Today's Mass Nonviolent Protests?
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.
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.
The Bonus Army occupation of the nation’s capital in 1932 represents something more than the sit-down strikes pioneered by the CIO, the great mass assemblies like Martin Luther King’s celebrated 1963 march or the anti-Vietnam War mobilizations. The Bonus Army mobilizaiton anticipated the Arab Spring. It suggests a model of nonviolent self-organization that can be adopted throughout the world.
Americans have a long tradition of popular assembly to protest perceived grivences. However uninformed Sarah Palin might be, Tea Party activists never fail to remind their fellow Americans that the country was founded on campaigns of popular protest. Sadly, these “activists” don’t acknowledge the Bonus Army or the many other nonviolent rallies, demonstations and protetsts that have long been part of the nation’s legacy of popular efforts to redress grivences.
Major nonviolent gatherings give little reason for violent responses from the authorities. The August 1963 March on Washington drew 250,000 people to hear, among many others, King deliver his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech; little violence was reported. Similarly, in October 1967, 70,000 rallied in Washington, D.C. to protest the Vietnam War, with little violence; in ’68, a follow-up rally grew to a half-million people. In May 1968, a month after King’s assassination, the SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign organized “Resurrection City” in Washington that drew thousands of people; it closed after two weeks and its goal, an economic bill of rights, was not enacted.
Forgotten today but not unlike the sparks of self-immolation that set off the Arab Spring, Norman Morrison, a Quaker activist, set himself afire in 1965 protesting the Vietnam war.
However, the urban riots in late ‘60s in Detroit, Newark and other cities led to armed National Guard combatants occupying cities and killing, injuring and arresting many citizens. Nonviolent demonstrators at the Chicago 1968 Democratic Party convention were greeted by a police riot. And then there was the June 1969 Stonewall riot that kicked-started the modern gay rights movement; it was a popular reaction to a riot by New York’s finest.
With the exception of the popular rallies held in Madison and a handful of other cities earlier this spring, Americans have been noticeably quiet in the face of the imposition of austerity. Mass protests against higher unemployment rates, mounting debt and growing foreclosures have yet to find a political voice.
We can only hope Americans will remember the lessons of the Bonus Army and bring the Arab Spring back to the U.S. of A. Equally critical, the events of July 1932 suggests the way the U.S. government will likely act if mass demonstrations take place. As we remember the 79th anniversary of the Bonus Army, we should not forget how truly violent things can get, especially how federal troops can be used against American citizens.