What was the Bonus Army (1932)?

Introduction

The Bonus Army was a group of 43,000 demonstrators – made up of 17,000 veterans of the United States in World War I, together with their families and affiliated groups – who gathered in Washington, D.C. in mid-1932 to demand early cash redemption of their service bonus certificates.

Members of the Bonus Army camped out on the lawn of the US Capitol building.

Organisers called the demonstrators the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” (B.E.F.), to echo the name of World War I‘s American Expeditionary Forces, while the media referred to them as the “Bonus Army” or “Bonus Marchers”. The demonstrators were led by Walter W. Waters, a former sergeant.

Many of the war veterans had been out of work since the beginning of the Great Depression. The World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 had awarded them bonuses in the form of certificates they could not redeem until 1945. Each certificate, issued to a qualified veteran soldier, bore a face value equal to the soldier’s promised payment with compound interest. The principal demand of the Bonus Army was the immediate cash payment of their certificates.

On 28 July 1932, US Attorney General William D. Mitchell ordered the veterans removed from all government property. Washington police met with resistance, shot at the protestors, and two veterans were wounded and later died. President Herbert Hoover then ordered the US Army to clear the marchers’ campsite. Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur commanded a contingent of infantry and cavalry, supported by six tanks. The Bonus Army marchers with their wives and children were driven out, and their shelters and belongings burned.

A second, smaller Bonus March in 1933 at the start of the Roosevelt administration was defused in May with an offer of jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) at Fort Hunt, Virginia, which most of the group accepted. Those who chose not to work for the CCC by the 22 May deadline were given transportation home. In 1936, Congress overrode President Roosevelt’s veto and paid the veterans their bonus nine years early.

Origin of Military Bonuses

The practice of war-time military bonuses began in 1776, as payment for the difference between what a soldier earned and what he could have earned had he not enlisted. The practice derived from English legislation passed in the 1592-1593 session of Parliament to provide medical care and maintenance for disabled veterans and bonuses for serving soldiers.

Cinderella stamp (US, 1932) supporting the Bonus Army.

In August 1776, Congress adopted the first national pension law providing half pay for life for disabled veterans. Considerable pressure was applied to expand benefits to match the British system for serving soldiers and sailors but had little support from the colonial government until mass desertions at Valley Forge that threatened the existence of the Continental Army led George Washington to become a strong advocate.

In 1781, most of the Continental Army was demobilised. Two years later, hundreds of Pennsylvania war veterans marched on Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, surrounded the State House, where the US Congress was in session, and demanded back pay. Congress fled to Princeton, New Jersey, and several weeks later, the US Army expelled the war veterans from Philadelphia. Congress progressively passed legislation from 1788 covering pensions and bonuses, eventually extending eligibility to widows in 1836.

Before World War I, the soldiers’ military service bonus (adjusted for rank) was land and money; a Continental Army private received 100 acres (40 ha) and $80.00 (2017: $1,968.51) at war’s end, while a major general received 1,100 acres (450 ha). In 1855, Congress increased the land-grant minimum to 160 acres (65 ha), and reduced the eligibility requirements to fourteen days of military service or one battle; moreover, the bonus also applied to veterans of any Indian war. The provision of land eventually became a major political issue, particularly in Tennessee where almost 40% of arable land had been given to veterans as part of their bonus. By 1860, 73,500,000 acres (29,700,000 ha) had been issued and lack of available arable land led to the program’s abandonment and replacement with a cash-only system. Breaking with tradition, the veterans of the Spanish-American War did not receive a bonus and after World War I, that became a political matter when they received only a $60 bonus. The American Legion, created in 1919, led a political movement for an additional bonus.

On 15 May 1924, President Calvin Coolidge vetoed a bill granting bonuses to veterans of World War I, saying: “patriotism… bought and paid for is not patriotism.” Congress overrode his veto a few days later, enacting the World War Adjusted Compensation Act. Each veteran was to receive a dollar for each day of domestic service, up to a maximum of $500 (equivalent to $7,600 in 2020), and $1.25 for each day of overseas service, up to a maximum of $625 (equivalent to $9,400 in 2020). Deducted from this was $60, for the $60 they received upon discharge. Amounts of $50 or less were immediately paid. All other amounts were issued as Certificates of Service maturing in 20 years.

There were 3,662,374 Adjusted Service Certificates issued, with a combined face value of $3.64 billion (equivalent to $55 billion in 2019). Congress established a trust fund to receive 20 annual payments of $112 million that, with interest, would finance the 1945 disbursement of the $3.638 billion for the veterans. Meanwhile, veterans could borrow up to 22.5% of the certificate’s face value from the fund; but in 1931, because of the Great Depression, Congress increased the maximum value of such loans to 50% of the certificate’s face value. Although there was congressional support for the immediate redemption of the military service certificates, Hoover and Republican congressmen opposed such action and reasoned that the government would have to increase taxes to cover the costs of the payout and so any potential economic recovery would be slowed.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars continued to press the federal government to allow the early redemption of military service certificates.

The first march of the unemployed was Coxey’s Army in 1894, when armies of men from various regions streamed to Washington as a “living petition” to demand that the federal government create jobs by investing in public infrastructure projects. In January 1932, a march of 25,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians, dubbed “Cox’s Army”, had marched on Washington, D.C., the largest demonstration to date in the nation’s capital, setting a precedent for future marches by the unemployed.

Campsite

Most of the Bonus Army (Bonus Expeditionary Force or BEF) camped in a form of “Hooverville” on the Anacostia Flats (now Section C of Anacostia Park), a swampy, muddy area away from the federal core of Washington. Approximately 10,000 veterans, women and children lived in the shelters that they built from materials dragged out of a junk pile nearby, which included old lumber, packing boxes, and scrap tin covered with roofs of thatched straw. Other veterans lived much closer, in partially demolished buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Third Street SW. The camps were tightly controlled by the veterans, who laid out streets, built sanitation facilities, and held daily parades. To live in the camps, veterans were required to register and to prove they had been honourably discharged. The Superintendent of the D.C. Police, Pelham D. Glassford, worked with camp leaders to supply the camp with food, among other things.

On 15 June 1932, the US House of Representatives passed the Wright Patman Bonus Bill (by a vote of 211-176) to move forward the date for World War I veterans to receive their cash bonus. Over 6,000 bonus marchers massed at the US Capitol on 17 June as the US Senate voted on the Bonus Bill. The bill was defeated by a vote of 62-18.

Police Shooting

On 28 July, under prodding from the Herbert Hoover, the D.C. Commissioners ordered Pelham D Glassford to clear their buildings, rather than letting the protesters drift away as he had previously recommended. When the veterans rioted, an officer (George Shinault) drew his revolver and shot at the veterans, two of whom, William Hushka and Eric Carlson, died later.

  • William Hushka (1895-1932) was an immigrant to the United States from Lithuania. When the US entered World War I in 1917, he sold his butcher shop in St. Louis, and joined the army. After the war, he lived in Chicago. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery a week after being shot and killed by police.
  • Eric Carlson (1894-1932) was a veteran from Oakland, California who fought in the trenches of France in World War I. He was interred in Arlington National Cemetery.

During a previous riot, the Commissioners asked the White House for federal troops. Hoover passed the request to Secretary of War Hurley, who told MacArthur to take action to disperse the protesters. Towards the late afternoon, cavalry, infantry, tanks and machine guns pushed the “Bonusers” out of Washington.

Bonus Army marchers (left) confront the police.

Reports on Communist Elements

An Army intelligence report claimed that the BEF intended to occupy the Capitol permanently and instigate fighting, as a signal for communist uprisings in all major cities. It also conjectured that at least part of the Marine Corps garrison in Washington would side with the revolutionaries, hence Marine units eight blocks from the Capitol were never called upon. The report of 05 July 1932 by Conrad H. Lanza in upstate New York was not declassified until 1991.

The Department of Justice released an investigative report on the Bonus Army in September 1932, noting that communists had attempted to involve themselves with the Bonus Army from the start, and had been arrested for various offenses during protests:

As soon as the bonus march was initiated, and as early as May, 1932, the Communist party undertook an organized campaign to foment the movement, and induced radicals to join the marchers to Washington. As early as the edition of May 31, 1932, the Daily Worker, a publication which is the central organ of the Communist party in the United States, urged worker veteran delegations to go to Washington on June 8th.

In 1932, Hoover stated that the bulk of Bonus Army members behaved reasonably and a minority of what he described as communists and career criminals were responsible for most of the unrest associated with the events: “I wish to state emphatically that the extraordinary proportion of criminal, Communist, and nonveteran elements amongst the marchers as shown by this report, should not be taken to reflect upon the many thousands of honest, law-abiding men who came to Washington with full right of presentation of their views to the Congress. This better element and their leaders acted at all times to restrain crime and violence, but after the adjournment of Congress a large portion of them returned to their homes and gradually these better elements lost control.” In his 1952 memoir, Hoover stated that at least 900 of the Bonus Army were “ex-convicts and Communists.”

In his memoir The Whole of Their Lives (1948) Larry Gitlow of the Communist Party USA reported that a number of communists had joined the Bonus Army during their trek across the nation, with the goal of recruiting people to the communist cause.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica blog noted in 2009 how these would-be communist organizers were largely rejected by the Bonus Army marchers: “[T]here were communists present in the camps, led by John T. Pace from Michigan. But if Pace believed that Bonus Army was a ready-made revolutionary cadre, he was mistaken. The marchers routinely expelled avowed communists from the camps. They destroyed communist leaflets and other literature. And among their other slogans the veterans adopted a motto directed at the communists, ‘Eyes front—not left!'”

Army Intervention

At 1:40 pm MacArthur ordered General Perry Miles to assemble troops on the Ellipse immediately south of the White House. Within the hour the 3rd Cavalry led by Patton, then a Major, crossed the Memorial Bridge, with the 12th Infantry arriving by steamer about an hour later. At 4:00 pm Miles told MacArthur that the troops were ready, and MacArthur (like Eisenhower, by now in service uniform), said that Hoover wanted him “on hand” to “take the rap if …”

At 4:45 pm. commanded by General Douglas MacArthur, the 12th Infantry Regiment, Fort Howard, Maryland, and the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, supported by six M1917 light tanks commanded by Major George S. Patton, formed in Pennsylvania Avenue while thousands of civil service employees left work to line the street and watch. The Bonus Marchers, believing the troops were marching in their honour, cheered the troops until Patton ordered the cavalry to charge them, which prompted the spectators to yell, “Shame! Shame!”

After the cavalry charged, the infantry, with fixed bayonets and tear gas (adamsite, an arsenical vomiting agent) entered the camps, evicting veterans, families, and camp followers. The veterans fled across the Anacostia River to their largest camp, and Hoover ordered the assault stopped. MacArthur chose to ignore the president and ordered a new attack, claiming that the Bonus March was an attempt to overthrow the US government. 55 veterans were injured and 135 arrested. A veteran’s wife miscarried. When 12-week-old Bernard Myers died in the hospital after being caught in the tear gas attack, a government investigation reported he died of enteritis, and a hospital spokesman said the tear gas “didn’t do it any good.”

During the military operation, Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, later the 34th president of the United States, served as one of MacArthur’s junior aides. Believing it wrong for the Army’s highest-ranking officer to lead an action against fellow American war veterans, he strongly advised MacArthur against taking any public role: “I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch not to go down there,” he said later. “I told him it was no place for the Chief of Staff.” Despite his misgivings, Eisenhower later wrote the Army’s official incident report that endorsed MacArthur’s conduct.

Although the troops were ready, Hoover twice sent instructions to MacArthur not to cross the Anacostia bridge that night, both of which were received. Shortly after 9:00 pm, MacArthur ordered Miles to cross the bridge and evict the Bonus Army from its encampment in Anacostia. This refusal to follow orders was claimed by MacArthur’s assistant chief of staff George Van Horn Moseley. However, MacArthur’s aide Dwight Eisenhower, Assistant Secretary of War for Air F. Trubee Davison, and Brigadier General Perry Miles, who commanded the ground forces, all disputed Moseley’s claim. They said the two orders were never delivered to MacArthur and they blamed Moseley for refusing to deliver the orders to MacArthur for unknown reasons. The shacks in the Anacostia Camp were then set on fire, although who set them on fire is somewhat unclear.

Aftermath

Joe Angelo, a decorated hero from the war who had saved Patton’s life during the Meuse-Argonne offensive on 26 September 1918, approached him the day after to sway him. Patton, however, dismissed him quickly. This episode was said to represent the proverbial essence of the Bonus Army, each man the face of each side: Angelo the dejected loyal soldier; Patton the unmoved government official unconcerned with past loyalties.

Though the Bonus Army incident did not derail the careers of the military officers involved, it proved politically disastrous for Hoover, and it is considered a contributing factor to his losing the 1932 election in a landslide to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Police Superintendent Glassford was not pleased with the decision to have the Army intervene, believing that the police could have handled the situation. He soon resigned as superintendent.

MGM released the movie Gabriel Over the White House in March 1933, the month Roosevelt was sworn in as president. Produced by William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures, it depicted a fictitious President Hammond who, in the film’s opening scenes, refuses to deploy the military against a march of the unemployed and instead creates an “Army of Construction” to work on public works projects until the economy recovers. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt judged the movie’s treatment of veterans superior to Hoover’s.

During the presidential campaign of 1932, Roosevelt had opposed the veterans’ bonus demands. A second bonus march planned for the following year in May by the “National Liaison Committee of Washington,” disavowed by the previous year’s bonus army leadership, demanded that the Federal government provide marchers housing and food during their stay in the capital. Despite his opposition to the marchers’ demand for immediate payment of the bonus, Roosevelt greeted them quite differently than Hoover had done. The administration set up a special camp for the marchers at Fort Hunt, Virginia, providing forty field kitchens serving three meals a day, bus transportation to and from the capital, and entertainment in the form of military bands.

Administration officials, led by presidential confidant Louis Howe, tried to negotiate an end to the protest. Roosevelt arranged for his wife, Eleanor, to visit the site unaccompanied. She lunched with the veterans and listened to them perform songs. She reminisced about her memories of seeing troops off to World War I and welcoming them home. The most that she could offer was a promise of positions in the newly created Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). One veteran commented, “Hoover sent the army, Roosevelt sent his wife.” In a press conference following her visit, the First Lady described her reception as courteous and praised the marchers, highlighting how comfortable she felt despite critics of the marchers who described them as communists and criminals.

Roosevelt later issued an executive order allowing the enrolment of 25,000 veterans in the CCC, exempting them from the normal requirement that applicants be unmarried and under the age of 25. Congress, with Democrats holding majorities in both houses, passed the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act in 1936, authorising the immediate payment of the $2 billion in World War I bonuses, and then overrode Roosevelt’s veto of the measure. The House vote was 324 to 61, and the Senate vote was 76 to 19.

In Literature

The shootings are depicted in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna.

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