The Bonus March
Sent: Wednesday, August 16, 2000 7:16 PM
To: Bruce K. Melson
Subject: The Bonus March
People & Events
The Bonus March (May-July, 1932)
Few images from the Great Depression are more indelible than the rout of the
Bonus Marchers. At the time, the sight of the federal government turning on
its own citizens -- veterans, no less -- raised doubts about the fate of the
republic. It still has the power to shock decades later.
>From the start, 1932 promised to be a difficult year for the country, as
Depression deepened and frustrations mounted. In December of 1931, there was
a small, communist-led hunger march on Washington; a few weeks later, a
Pittsburgh priest led an army of 12,000 jobless men there to agitate for
unemployment legislation. In March, a riot at Ford's River Rouge plant in
Michigan left four dead and over fifty wounded. Thus, when a band of jobless
veterans, led by a former cannery worker named Walter W. Walters, began
arriving in the capital in May, tensions were high. Calling themselves the
"Bonus Expeditionary Forces," they demanded early payment of a bonus
had promised them for their service in World War I.
Army Chief of Staff MacArthur was convinced that the march was a communist
conspiracy to undermine the government of the United States, and that
movement was actually far deeper and more dangerous than an effort to secure
funds from a nearly depleted federal treasury." But that was simply not
case. MacArthur's own General Staff intelligence division reported in June
that only three of the twenty-six leaders of the Bonus March were
And the percentage within the rank and file was likely even smaller; several
commanders reported to MacArthur that most of the men seemed to be
anti-Communist, if anything. According to journalist and eyewitness Joseph
Harsch, "This was not a revolutionary situation. This was a bunch of
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."
At first, it seemed as though order might be maintained. Walters, organizing
the various encampments along military lines, announced that there would be
"no panhandling, no drinking, no radicalism," and that the marchers
simply "going to stay until the veterans' bill is passed." The
also did its part, as Washington Police Superintendent Pelham D. Glassford
treated his fellow veterans with considerable respect and care. But by the
end of June, the movement had swelled to more than 20,000 tired, hungry and
frustrated men. Conflict was inevitable.
The marchers were encouraged when the House of Representatives passed the
Patman veterans bill on June 15, despite President Hoover's vow to veto it.
But on June 17 the bill was defeated in the Senate, and tempers began to
flare on both sides. On July 21, with the Army preparing to step in at any
moment, Glassford was ordered to begin evacuating several buildings on
Pennsylvania Avenue, using force if necessary. A week later, on the steamy
morning of July 28, several Marchers rushed Glassford's police and began
throwing bricks. President Hoover ordered the Secretary of War to
the affected area and clear it without delay."
Conspicuously led by MacArthur, Army troops (including Major George S.
Patton, Jr.) formed infantry cordons and began pushing the veterans out,
destroying their makeshift camps as they went. Although no weapons were
fired, cavalry advanced with swords drawn, and some blood was shed. By
nightfall, hundreds had been injured by gas (including a baby who died),
bricks, clubs, bayonets, and sabers.
Next came the most controversial moment in the whole affair -- a moment that
directly involved General MacArthur. Secretary of War Hurley twice sent
orders to MacArthur indicating that the President, worried that the
government reaction might look overly harsh, did not wish the Army to pursue
the Bonus Marchers across the bridge into their main encampment on the other
side of the Anacostia River. But MacArthur, according to his aide Dwight
Eisenhower, "said he was too busy," did not want to be
"bothered by people
coming down and pretending to bring orders," and sent his men across the
bridge anyway, after pausing several hours to allow as many people as
possible to evacuate. A fire soon erupted in the camp. While it's not clear
which side started the blaze, the sight of the great fire became the
signature image of the greatest unrest our nation's capital has ever known.
Although many Americans applauded the government's action as an unfortunate
but necessary move to maintain law and order, most of the press was less
sympathetic. "Flames rose high over the desolate Anacostia flats at
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."
Society of the 5th Division