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–by Joanna Hallac

This Saturday marks the anniversary of the confrontation between the so-called “Bonus Army”—a group of unemployed World War I veterans who converged on Washington, DC and the Capitol in the spring and summer of 1932 to petition Congress to follow through on bonuses promised to them for their service in the Great War—and federal troops in DC. President Hoover had dispatched U.S. Army troops, led by Douglas MacArthur, then the Army Chief of Staff, to defuse the situation; however, the result was far from peaceful. The confrontation was another in a long line of terrible moments during the Great Depression, perhaps none more disturbing than this episode.

Bonus marchers on Pennsylvania Ave. heading toward the Capitol, 1932 (Library of Congress)

They began arriving as early as March and April, tens of thousands of Army veterans of WWI, many of whom slept in makeshift tents on the National Mall and in sleeping bags on the Capitol’s west front lawn. Initially, there was hope that Congress would meet their demand for early payment of the promised bonuses for their service, despite the Depression and the fiscal crisis facing Congress and the country. The House actually passed a version of the bill on June 15, 1932, despite a promise of a veto by President Hoover, but the measure was defeated in the Senate two days later.

Bonus Army marchers gathered on the lawn of the Capitol carrying petitions for payment of promised bonuses, 1932 (Library of Congress)

By July 21st, it became clear that the Army and police were getting ready to move into the Bonus marchers’ makeshift camps, the largest contained in the Anacostia flats. When met with initial resistance, including some Bonus Army vets throwing bricks at police, President Hoover ordered his Secretary of War, on July 28th, to take care of the situation. Led by General MacArthur, the Army troops (including Major George S. Patton) began forcibly pushing the veterans out and destroying their makeshift camps along the Mall in the early hours of the day, using tear gas to help disperse the crowds and with their swords drawn. By the time night crept in on July 28th, hundreds of people were reported injured.

WWI vets from California spend the night on the Capitol grounds, 1932 (Library of Congress)

Concerned about appearing as if the government was overreacting, especially toward a group of distinguished war veterans, President Hoover ordered MacArthur not to pursue the retreating Bonus marchers over the bridge to their main encampment on the other side of the Anacostia River. MacArthur, in his first documented act of defiance of a U.S. president, ignored the order and, after several hours of allowing as many people as possible to evacuate, continued over the bridge anyway. Interestingly, Dwight Eisenhower was an aide to MacArthur during this period and apparently advised him not to get personally involved in removing the marchers. In speaking about it, Eisenhower said MacArthur “did not want to be bothered by people coming down and pretending to bring orders,” and that he simply “paid no attention” to the order. Not long after MacArthur and his troops marched over the bridge to destroy the main encampment and force out the last of the Bonus Army veterans, a massive fire broke out in the camp, destroying lots of property and making news headlines the next day.

Veterans, part of the Bonus Army, staging a march on the Capitol, 1932 (Library of Congress)

Not surprisingly, this all helped FDR win the 1932 presidential election against Hoover. In fact, FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Bonus Army in their encampment in Virginia when they returned in 1933, in stark contrast to the actions taken by the Hoover administration. It was a sad and disturbing episode in our history, parts of which were played out on the lawn of the Capitol and in the halls of Congress. We have too many times turned our backs on the brave soldiers who fought and died (many who still are today) for our country. Our veterans have always and will always deserve as much help as we can give them for the sacrifices they and their families have made in defense of our country. Hopefully, the anniversary of this event serves as a needed reminder of that point for us all.

Sources consulted:

PBS: American Experience