1932 was a rough year in the old U.S of A. The Great Depression was in full swing and many people were out of a job. The unemployment rate was over 15% and climbing. People were starving with no hope and no way out. There had been unrest beginning in December 1931, when a small hunger march on Washington was led by the communist party. A few weeks later a Pittsburgh priest led 12,000 men to Washington to advocate for unemployment rights. Riots broke out at a Ford plant in Michigan and left four dead and fifty wounded. By May 1932, tensions were high. That was when the Bonus Expeditionary Force started arriving.
Many of those out of work were World War I veterans. In 1924, Congress rewarded them with certificates redeemable in 1945. Veterans up to the rank of major with at least 60 days service each received a dollar for each day of domestic service up to $500 and $1.25 for each day of overseas service up to $625. The bond that each received in 1924 would accumulate compound interest, resulting in an average payment of about $1,000 for each veteran in 1945. This was to be paid for by a trust fund created by Congress through twenty annual installments of $112 million each.
However, in 1932 1945 seemed very far away. Those men needed that $1,000 for their families now. They couldn’t feed their kids with a piece of paper. They started asking Congress to redeem their bonus certificates early. There were approximately 3,662,374 certificates outstanding that the veterans were asking to have redeemed early, which came out to a total payment of about $3.638 billion. The trust fund had a total of $991 million in it through eight annual installments and compounded interest. Early redemption became known as a bonus in Congress, and was debated hotly by the legislative branch. It was bitterly opposed by President Hoover and many senators and members of the House. To put pressure on the government, veterans began coming to Washington. Led by Walter Waters of Oregon, these veterans formed the self named Bonus Expeditionary Force or Bonus Army. Men poured into Washington from all parts of the country, arriving by hopping trains, hiking and hitchhiking. It was estimated by June, there were 20,000 veterans and their families. They were camped out in a shantytown across the Potomac River in Anacostia Flats. Conditions were unsanitary, shanties were built from materials dragged out of a nearby junk pile and they were dependent on donations of food from churches and private citizens. They called this makeshift camp a “Hooverville”, but it’s official name was Camp Marks, in honor of the police captain in whose precinct they were camped.
Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur was convinced this was a communist conspiracy. However, further investigation by MacArthur’s own intelligence division found that only three of the twenty-six leaders of the Bonus March were communists. Discipline in the camps was good, and the marchers tried to make the best of their situation. They laid out streets, dug latrines and all new members had to prove they were honorably discharged. No panhandling, drinking or radicalism was allowed. 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.”
The Marchers had some hope as the Patman Veterans Bill passed the House of Representatives on June 15, 1932. It still needed Senate approval and would probably face a veto from President Hoover. The bill didn’t get that far, and was defeated in the Senate by a vote of 62 -18. By the evening of June 17, 10,000 Marchers were on the Capitol steps waiting for the outcome of the vote. However, the Marchers weren’t giving up. Walter Waters had the marchers sing “America” as they walked back to their camp. The next day, a silent “Death March” began in front of the Capitol and continued until July 17, when Congress adjourned.
Still the Marchers did not disburse. President Hoover, Army Chief of Staff MacArthur and Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley were terrified this would lead to widespread unrest in Washington and the rest of country. Something had to be done. On July 28, Hoover ordered Police Chief Glassford to evict any veterans in any abandoned buildings downtown. A small group of veterans clashed with police, and they fought with nightsticks and bricks. Eventually shots rang out and one of the veterans lay dead, and three more were wounded. Now things were serious.
Army Chief of Staff MacArthur assumed command and rolled five tanks and 200 US horse cavalry down the streets of Washington DC against our own citizens. Eyewitness Fred Blacher was standing on a street corner and recalls the following scene, “By God, all of a sudden I see these cavalrymen come up the avenue and then swinging down to The Mall. I thought it was a parade,” Blacher later said. “I asked a gentleman standing there, I said, do you know what’s going on? What holiday is this? He says, ‘It’s no parade, bud.’ He says, ‘the Army is coming in to wipe out all these bonus people down here.'” Led by Major George S. Patton, the soldiers and tanks drove everyone off the streets. They deployed tear gas and set fire to the shelters erected in town.
By evening on July 28, the army reached Camp Marks. According to the testimony of MacArthur’s aide, Dwight D. Eisenhower, under orders from Hoover and Secretary of War Hurley, troops were forbidden to cross the bridge into Anacostia. Eisenhower reported MacArthur ignored the officers bringing the orders “said he was too busy and did not want either himself or his staff bothered by people coming down and pretending to bring orders.” Eisenhower put it more bluntly during an interview with the late historian Stephen Ambrose. “I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch he had no business going down there,” he said. He went anyway.
MacArthur gave the families 20 minutes to clear out of Camp Marks. Then led the troops in with tear gas and fixed bayonets. The camp was set fire and quickly burned, the flames seen from all over Washington. The Marchers were herded into Maryland and onto National Guard trucks, which took them to Pennsylvania. One baby died from tear gas inhalation. “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.” Soon it was being called the Battle of Washington.
At 11 pm that night, MacArthur held a press conference to defend his actions. “Had the President not acted today, had he permitted this thing to go on for twenty-four hours more, he would have been faced with a grave situation which would have caused a real battle,” MacArthur told reporters. “Had he let it go on another week, I believe the institutions of our Government would have been severely threatened.” Remember, these were American citizens peaceably protesting. They were also veterans, mostly still in uniform, who defended this country by putting their lives on the line.
Newsreel footage of the incident played in movie theaters across the country and showed the public graphic images of violence from that night. The public reaction damaged Hoover’s chances for reelection. In the 1932 election, Franklin D. Roosevelt beat Hoover. When the veterans marched on Washington again in 1933, they were not met with tear gas and bayonets. Instead they were met with a clean camp, three meals a day and meetings with adviser Louis Howe. The first lady made it a priority to meet with them. A compromise was reached and the veterans were employed by the CCC , and they finally got their bonus in 1936.
Sources on request