Jobless veterans of the world war were also increasingly restive. They had trouble finding work because they were older—not old, but in their thirties and forties—and in 1932 employers looked to younger men to endure the stresses of the speedup, the stretch-out, and other rigors of the American workplace. The Veterans Bonus Act of 1924, enacted in gratitude for their war service and over Calvin Coolidge’s veto, had promised them $1 a day for time spent stateside and $1.25 a day for service overseas. But while payments of $50 or less were made immediately, those owed more than that could not collect until 1945, when what were actually insurance policies established in their names would mature. In the desperate conditions they and their families were now enduring, thirteen years was an impossible length of time to wait for payments that would average around $1,000. Veterans who were out of work and out of money reasoned that their country could better express its gratitude by paying them immediately, even if the amount fell short of what it would be at maturity.
A Texas congressman and veteran, Wright Patman, took up the immediate-payment cause and Congress passed a bill in 1931, but Hoover vetoed it. Patman kept trying, but the issue languished until an army sergeant from Portland, Oregon, who had been in the world war had a stroke of genius in what today would be called product branding. Walter W. Waters, who had been laid off from his cannery job, decided that personal lobbying by veterans would turn the tide. In the late spring of 1932, he assembled 300 Portland-area veterans for a “march” on Washington. The genius was in their name; he called his men the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF), after the doughboys who had set out for Europe in the spring of 1917 as the American Expeditionary Force. Waters’s Bonus Army, as it became known, left for Washington in May in stock cars commandeered at a Union Pacific railyard.
As word spread, veterans from across the nation packed their bags, assembled their families, and joined the move on Washington. They found widespread sympathy along the way. Railroad yard workers hitched empty boxcars onto freight trains for the veterans to ride in. Towns assembled bands and parades to cheer them on. Restaurants donated food, and local posts of the American Legion, whose national office opposed immediate payment of the bonus, took up collections. By the time the Oregon veterans crossed the Mississippi, local police and politicians were helping them move east, first in private vehicles and then in National Guard trucks that took them through Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and finally Maryland and into the District of Columbia.
By the end of May more than 3,000 men and their families had reached the nation’s capital. Police superintendent Pelham Glassford was again prepared, and directed most of them to a campsite in southeast Washington next to the Anacostia River. From their bivouac across the 11th Street drawbridge, they could see two national icons—the masts of the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” the legendary nineteenth-century warship that was visiting the Washington Naval Yard; and beyond it to the north, the dome of the U.S. Capitol, which was the focus of their bonus hopes. Glassford had procured some National Guard tents. These were quickly filled, so the camp expanded with makeshift huts in the manner of Hoovervilles around the nation—and the veterans kept on coming until the Bonus Expeditionary Force numbered almost 20,000 men, women, and children.
The administration’s response was to ignore them.
The veterans settled in. Waters, who had assumed the title of “commander,” ran the camp in semi-military fashion. Bugle calls echoed across the rows of tents and shacks, calling the veterans to drill. Medics staffed a first-aid tent where they treated mosquito bites, stomachaches, and other ailments. Provisional MPs kept order, and the B.E.F. News provided weekly information updates. A well-known Washington radio preacher, Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, conducted worship services, and the Salvation Army set up a library. A mess tent provided by Glassford served up meals of bread and stew washed down with coffee for 6 cents a day per person, which was raised from donations. The bonus marchers were so taken by their treatment that they named their bivouac Camp Marks, a salute to police captain S. J. Marks, the commander of the district’s Eleventh Precinct, which adjoined the camp.
On June 15, the House of Representatives passed Congressman Patman’s newest bonus bill, but it would have cost almost $2 billion, a figure that frightened budget balancers. When the Senate killed it two days later, some of the veterans responded with a three-day “death march” around the Capitol. Waters vowed to stay in Washington until the bonuses were granted, and called for reinforcements.
The influx of new arrivals overflowed Camp Marks, and many of them moved into a former commercial tract along Pennsylvania Avenue three blocks west of the Capitol. Others occupied abandoned buildings on the Mall near the Washington Monument. The Pennsylvania Avenue buildings, owned by the Treasury Department, had been scheduled for the wrecking ball to make way for a new government complex that would become the Federal Triangle. Indeed, demolition had already started, with the building fronts knocked down, exposing the interiors, when the veterans started to arrive back in May. Glassford had allowed some of them to occupy these buildings, which they called “bonus forts,” and the new men and their families took over the surrounding area until about 2,000 people were encamped there. On July 5 the veterans massed on the Capitol steps, waving signs signaling their determination to wait the Congress out. “No Pay, All Stay,” read one placard.
The summer lengthened. Humidity and heat blanketed the low-lying capital, fraying nerves and shortening tempers. But in general, the veterans were orderly, and the few Communists among them spent their days haranguing sparse audiences in a large meeting tent that had been set up in Camp Marks. It was on these few that General Douglas MacArthur, the army chief of staff, focused. His loathing of Communism dated back a dozen years to the Red Scare, and although the veterans represented no threat to Washington, he added troops to the city’s army garrison, ordered additional troops at Fort Myer, Virginia, into anti-riot training, and made sure tanks were standing by.
And by now the veterans were beginning to test the city’s patience. Downtown businesses complained that the ragged campers moving through the streets, and their shantytowns, river bathing, and flyblown latrines, were hurting sales as well as the image of the nation’s capital. It did not help that Waters was now strutting around in boots and jodhpurs and talking of forming an organization of “Khaki Shirts” to fight “the sordid scheme of special privilege.” Congress scolded Glassford, who had taken funds from his own pocket to help feed the veterans, for admitting them to the District and letting them camp on government property. Meanwhile, the veterans staged boxing matches at Griffith Stadium (home of the Washington Senators baseball team) to raise money, wandered about, and waited, hoping that the visible evidence of their distress would finally move a majority in Congress.
The president continued to ignore them. He said meeting with them wasn’t possible; he didn’t have the time. He had found time, however, to meet with National Geographic Society president Gilbert Grosvenor and flyer Amelia Earhart, to whom he awarded a gold medal. Meanwhile, barricades went up around the White House, impeding traffic and pedestrians alike.
On July 11, Hoover vetoed a $2 billion public works jobs plan that might have sent the veterans home, calling it “a squandering of public money.” He signed another bill eagerly, however. This provided $100,000 in interest-free travel loans to the veterans, to be repaid when they finally got their bonuses. The bill imposed a July 15 deadline to accept the loans, so it was clearly designed to encourage them to leave the capital before Congress adjourned the following day. Those who did apply had their fingerprints taken, which the United States Bureau of Investigation, later to become the FBI, used to probe for criminal records and evidence of Communist involvement. They took their travel money, and began to trickle out of Washington by rail and road. But several thousand stayed, and new arrivals continued to roll in.
When the final gavel fell on the congressional session, it left the veterans with no rationale for staying on. Their reservoirs of public sympathy were spent. Editorial pages that had supported them now called them ungrateful squatters thumbing their noses at authority. The administration spread suggestions that they were dominated by criminals and Communists and that the “better elements” had all gone home. Attorney General William D. Mitchell charged that they had “practically levied tribute” from small merchants. Finally, on July 28, Hoover directed that the “bonus forts” along Pennsylvania Avenue be cleared.
It was an oppressively hot day. A pair of treasury agents appeared in the morning, ordered the veterans to leave, and went away when they refused. An hour later Glassford roared up on his big blue motorcycle and repeated the order, backed by police with nightsticks. After conferring with Waters, the veterans and their families began bundling up their clothes and cooking pots and taking down their faded flags, preparing to depart.
When word of the evictions reached Camp Marks, some of the veterans there dashed across the 11th Street drawbridge before the police could raise it and converged on Pennsylvania Avenue and 3rd Street. Even so, the evictions proceeded peacefully for several hours. Then a new group arrived that pushed its way through police ropes and started hurling bricks and rocks pulled from the debris of the half-demolished buildings. Bricks struck Glassford, but he shook them off and headed for a vantage point on the second floor of one of the buildings, two policemen behind him. Those two were attacked with bricks, a loaded garbage can, and their own nightsticks, and at that point several policemen started shooting. One veteran fell dead and another collapsed with mortal wounds. Glassford shouted, “For God’s sake, stop shooting! Put your guns away and don’t shoot again!” His officers obeyed, but word of the clash reached the White House. Hoover ordered Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley to send in the army.
MacArthur was ready, his troops and tanks on call at Fort Myer on the other side of the Potomac. At about four-thirty in the afternoon, the 200-man Third Cavalry, mounted and with sabers drawn, moved from the staging area at the Ellipse below the White House past the Treasury Building to Pennsylvania Avenue. Behind the cavalry came machine gun carriages and trucks carrying six small tanks, followed by some 400 infantrymen with bayonets fixed to their rifles and blue tear gas bombs hanging from their belts. MacArthur, in full dress uniform, sat in one of two staff cars bringing up the rear. It was the end of the workday, and as they neared the bonus forts in the evacuation zone thousands of office workers filled the streets. At first both the veterans and the civilians, on the north side of the avenue across from the roped-off forts, thought the military display was a parade and started to applaud. Then the cavalry, led by Major George S. Patton, wheeled into the crowd.
The civilians scattered one way and the veterans another as cavalrymen swung the flats of their sabers. Some were ridden down and trampled, including Senator Hiram Bingham of Connecticut. Spectators and veterans began to boo and jeer the troops. At the buildings they were supposed to be evacuating, veterans now formed a line and raised flags. The cavalry focused on them, driving at the points in the line where the flags were waving.
Behind the cavalry, the infantrymen put on gas masks and policemen tied handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths. Then the soldiers entered the gaping buildings and threw tear gas bombs to clear the rooms. Gasping for breath, veterans and their wives streamed out clutching their children and what possessions they could carry. The troops drove them in the direction of the 11th Street Bridge and Camp Marks across the river, the cavalrymen hurrying them along. “It was like sons attacking their fathers,” one of the marchers recalled.
MacArthur paused on the north side of the river while his forces ate at a field kitchen and darkness fell across the capital. Hoover sent explicit orders that they were not to cross the river, but MacArthur ignored this; he was, he said, too busy to be bothered by “people coming down and pretending to bring orders.” At 9:22, he led a column of infantry toward the bridge. The cavalry followed.
The veterans had already started to evacuate their makeshift shelters, but some families still remained when the foot soldiers arrived, hurling tear gas bombs and driving the residents toward the edges of the camp. A seven-year-old boy was trying to save his pet rabbit when a soldier laced into him, shouting, “Get out of here, you little son of a bitch!” and stabbed his bayonet into the boy’s leg. Ambulances sped to carry away the casualties. Two infants died, apparently from the tear gas. At 10:14 the troops doused the tents and shacks with gasoline and started torching them. Patton’s cavalry moved into the camp at 11:15 to finish them off. By midnight the glow of flames could be seen from the White House, where Hoover was just learning that MacArthur had ignored his orders.
As the Bonus Army scattered toward the city limits and into the countryside, the White House began the job of blaming the marchers. Hoover claimed most of the “real veterans” had gone home when they were offered travel loans and that “a considerable part of those remaining are not veterans; many are Communists and persons with criminal records.” He blamed them for leading the others into “violence which no government can tolerate.” He repeated the charge in a September letter while releasing a U.S. Bureau of Investigation report on the events on July 28. It referred to “the extraordinary proportion of criminal, communist, and non-veteran elements amongst the marchers.” MacArthur, meanwhile, had already said that only one in ten of the ousted men were “real” war veterans.
In fact, a Veterans Administration survey of the bonus marchers showed that 94 percent of them had army or navy records, that 67 percent had served overseas, and that 20 percent were disabled.
Editorial pages around the country supported Hoover in calling out the army. The New York Times charged the bonus marchers with “defying decency,” with “insolent lawlessness,” and with insubordination “almost amounting to insurrection.” The Boston Herald called the march a holdup by “the undeserving,” and the New York Daily News, in a photo caption, described them as “B.E.F. reds.” But on the following morning, photos of the routed veterans, the soldiers torching their camps, and the smoldering remains told a different story. It seemed to many that the Bonus Army’s major crime had been to embarrass the administration by calling attention to the poverty and unemployment that had occurred on Hoover’s watch. One decorated veteran, headed back to Pennsylvania after the rout from Washington, was given a ride by journalist Malcolm Cowley. “If they gave me a job, I wouldn’t care about the bonus,” he said.
Unleashing the army on jobless men who had fought for America in the world war left a sour taste that would last through an election season already well under way.