1932 saw an unlikely protest movement flourish in the U.S. Thousands of World War I veterans, many facing unemployment and the hardships of the Depression, wanted the government to pay off their service certificates early, immediately and in cash. When the government refused to pay out, they sparked a showdown between Washington and the Bonus Expeditionary Force.
Led by former Sergeant Walter Waters, the Bonus Army had simple demands. War veterans had long been granted bonuses payable long after their service ended. Intended to compensate veterans for earning less in military than civilian life, veterans had come to expect bonuses as their right. President Calvin Coolidge refused to fulfill those bonuses, remarking that patriotism bought and paid for was not patriotism.
In 1924, Coolidge had vetoed a bill that would grant World War I veterans bonuses—only for Congress to overrule him, passing the World War Adjusted Compensation Act. Payable in 1945, Adjusted Service Certificates granted a maximum $625 plus compound interest per veteran.
After 1929’s Wall Street crash, many veterans, unemployed and often almost destitute, wanted their money early. In 1932, 32,000 members of the Bonus Army and their supporters, some 43,000 people in all, marched on Washington to get it.
After the passage of the 1924 Act, 3.6 million certificates with a combined value of around $3.6 billion had been issued. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover issued statements opposing immediate payment, concerned that taxes would have to rise and economic recovery be weakened as a result. Hoover’s mishandling of the Bonus Army would destroy his already slim chances of re-election.
Related: 13 Remarkable Books About the Great Depression
Slums and improvised camps built by the unemployed and homeless were already being called "Hoovervilles" and the Bonus Army were about to build the largest, most conspicuous Hooverville in the country on the Anacostia Flats. In June 1932 they did so.
Contrary to propaganda of the time, the camps were not filthy slums, nor were they heavily infiltrated by Communist agitators. Although they did try to infiltrate the Bonus Army, Communists were routinely expelled under the camp policy of ‘Eyes front, not left’ and their recruiting literature destroyed. The Bonus Army themselves were also routed and evicted. Washington refused to tolerate their continued presence.
The Flats were a short boat-ride from Washington D.C., only separated from the Capitol by the Anacostia River. Initially, Superintendent Glassford of the D.C Police worked with camp leaders to ensure order.
To live in the camps, new arrivals had to prove they were veterans and been honorably discharged. Firm camp discipline including daily parades and inspections ensured order. That civilized, reasonable approach proved only temporary. Congress was about to debate whether veterans would receive immediate payment.
The Wright Patman Bonus Bill passed the House of Representatives on June 15, 1932, allowing prompt payment of veterans’ bonuses. By then, thousands of marchers had gathered around the Capitol itself. But on June 17, the Senate voted against the Bill.
Having won and then lost, the Bonus Army were disillusioned, disappointed, and angry. Washington politicians, deeply aware of the Army's numbers and proximity to the Capitol, were fearful.
Related: The Dust Bowl: How Ecological and Agricultural Change Worsened the Great Depression
An Army intelligence report had suggested the Bonus Army were heavily infiltrated by Communists intending simultaneous uprisings in Washington and other major cities. Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur, avowedly anti-Communist, believed the report. He also led the military response.
Glassford had recommended the campers be left alone, hoping they would slowly drift away. Washington disagreed and pushed Glassford to disperse them, forcibly if necessary.
When police dispersed them, the marchers quickly returned. So did the police, fatally shooting veterans William Hushka and Erik Carlson. Both were later buried at Arlington National Cemetery with honors.
With the marchers now more determined than ever and police seemingly unable to disperse them, harsher measures were adopted. Attorney-General William Mitchell ordered their removal from all government land and property. The D.C Commissioners requested federal troops via President Hoover who passed the request to Secretary of War Patrick Hurley. Hurley ordered MacArthur to send troops.
Related: 10 Wall Street Books About the High-Stakes World of Finance
Among their commanders was then-Major George Patton who, like MacArthur, achieved prominence during World War II. The Bonus Army soon faced 500 infantry, 500 cavalry, 800 police officers and six tanks, clashing in the afternoon and evening of July 28, 1932. Patton personally ordered a cavalry charge near Pennsylvania Avenue in the afternoon. The confrontation, many witnesses felt, was unnecessarily violent.
According to MacArthur’s assistant, George van Dorn Moseley, MacArthur disobeyed Hoover’s orders not to cross the Anacostia River. The campers in Washington itself had been largely dispersed that afternoon and attacking the Anacostia camp was not considered necessary.
According to other aides including future President Dwight Eisenhower, MacArthur never received Hoover’s orders. MacArthur’s troops advanced with fixed bayonets and Adamsite, arsenic-based tear gas, was used liberally. The makeshift buildings and campers’ belongings were burned and the campers evicted with severe casualties on both sides.
One veteran’s wife miscarried and a 12-week-old baby died of enteritis, according to the Army report. A hospital spokesman later remarked that Adamsite had not done the boy any good. Hushka and Carlson were dead.
At least 55 other campers were injured and 135 arrested. Around 70 police officers were also injured. The Army’s official report, written by Eisenhower, endorsed MacArthur’s action. Privately, Eisenhower had disagreed with MacArthur’s aggressive style, especially against veterans and their supporters.
Superintendent Glassford, opposed to military intervention and appalled by the results, quickly resigned. Hedging his bets, Hoover claimed he had never ordered MacArthur to clear the camp but still endorsed his decision.
Related: Our Forgotten Heroes: Why Don’t We Talk About World War I?
The next day, decorated veteran Joe Angelo, who had saved Patton’s life during the war, met him on behalf of his fellow veterans. Patton remained entirely unmoved.
MacArthur, who believed the intelligence reports of an impending Communist coup, had given him his orders. Patton had obeyed them and would continue doing so. That they were former comrades and Patton owed Angelo his life made no difference whatsoever.
Hoover would lose the 1932 election to Franklin Roosevelt whose attitude, despite opposing immediate payment, was far more reasonable and politically astute. When a second group of marchers arrived in 1933, the National Liaison Committee of Washington received a special encampment with field kitchens, transportation, and entertainment.
Roosevelt also offered 25,000 jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of his New Deal program, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the camp personally. With a job guarantee for the marchers and the feeling that they had been heard, this march on Washington left its participants in a much more content place than its predecessor.
Finally, four years after the first march, Congress passed the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act (over President Roosevelt's veto) allowing prompt payment of $2 billion in bonuses. Veterans received bonds that could be held for three percent interest each year—or immediately redeemed for cash.
It's believed that this cash had an impact on the whole country's economy—scholars tie the one percent GDP growth in 1936 to the payments. The veterans were finally heard, and their needs assisted the U.S. once again in its own time of need.