What prompted the Bonus Army movement may need some context. In 1924, Congress passed a bill, over President Calvin Coolidge’s veto, to compensate World War I veterans: $1 a day for domestic service, $1.25 for each day served overseas. Those entitled to $50 were to be paid immediately, but those due more would receive certificates redeemable only upon their deaths or in 1945, whichever came sooner.
As the Depression deepened, many veterans felt they could not wait for their “Tombstone Bonus.” One of the most impatient was Walter W. Waters, an out-of-work former Army sergeant who, on March 15, 1932, stood up at a meeting in Portland, Oregon, and urged his fellow veterans to hop a freight train to Washington to claim the money that was rightfully theirs. By May 11 Waters had stirred up enough support that 250 Oregon veterans joined him on his march.
Newspaper coverage of their trek, by rail and truck, inspired marches by veterans across the country. When Waters and his men reached Washington on May 29 several hundred others had already arrived—and soon tens of thousands were encamped in Anacostia Flats and other areas in the northeast quadrant of the capital.
Dispatched by The New Republic to cover this grassroots phenomenon, John Dos Passos reported on what he saw in June 1932 (later collected in In All Countries):
Anacostia Flats is the ghost of an army camp from the days of the big parade, with its bugle calls, its messlines, greasy K. P.'s, M. P.'s, headquarters, liaison officers, medical officer. Instead of the tents and the long tarpaper barracks of those days, the men are sleeping in little leantos built out of old newspapers, cardboard boxes, packing crates, bits of tin or tarpaper roofing, old shutters, every kind of cockeyed makeshift shelter from the rain scraped together out of the city dump.
. . . One of the strangest sights Pennsylvania Avenue has ever seen was a long line of ex-service men, hunched under their bedticking full of straw, filling up a long stairway in the middle of a particularly demolished fourstory garage that the police department had turned over to them. The cops and ex-service men play baseball together in the afternoon; they are buddies together.
The arrival of the bonus army seems to be the first event to give the inhabitants of Washington any inkling that something is happening in the world outside of their drowsy sunparlor. . . . In the Anacostia streetcar two mail carriers and the conductor started to talk about it. “Well, they say they'll stay here till they get the bonus if they have to stay here till 1945 . . . . Terrible to think of men, women, and children starvin' and havin' to beg charity relief with all the stuff there is going to waste in this country.” . . . One of the mail carriers was from Texas and had just come back from a trip home. He'd seen them plowing under last year's unharvested cotton. “We got the food, we got the clothing, we got the man power, we got the brains,” he said. “There must be some remedy.”When one proposed remedy—a cash-now bill to appropriate $2.4 billion to the veterans—passed the House but failed to pass the Senate, many bonus marchers accepted defeat and left. But more than 20,000 stayed. And the Hoover administration grew anxious. On July 28, just shy of two months after the encampment began, the Washington police began the process of removing the marchers. A skirmish around the armory led to shots being fired, a veteran was killed and three policemen injured. President Hoover called in General Douglas MacArthur to resolve the crisis. Paul Dickson and Thomas Allen, authors of The Bonus Army: An American Epic, chronicle what followed in an excellent article in Smithsonian Magazine:
What happened next is etched in the American memory: for the first time in the nation’s history, tanks rolled through the streets of the capital. MacArthur ordered his men to clear the downtown of veterans, their numbers estimated at around 8,000, and spectators who had been drawn to the scene by radio reports. At 4:30 p.m., nearly 200 mounted cavalry, sabers drawn and pennants flying, wheeled out of the Ellipse. At the head of this contingent rode their executive officer, George S. Patton, followed by five tanks and about 300 helmeted infantrymen, brandishing loaded rifles with fixed bayonets. The cavalry drove most pedestrians—curious onlookers, civil servants and members of the Bonus Army, many with wives and children—off the streets. Infantrymen wearing gas masks hurled hundreds of tear-gas grenades at the dispersing crowd. The detonated grenades set off dozens of fires: the flimsy shelters veterans had erected near the armory went up in flames. Black clouds mingled with tear gas.
By 7:00 p.m., soldiers had evacuated the entire downtown encampment—perhaps as many as 2,000 men, women and children—along with countless bystanders. By 9:00, these troops were crossing the bridge to Anacostia.
There, Bonus Army leaders had been given an hour to evacuate the women and children. The troops swooped down on Camp Marks, driving off some 2,000 veterans with tear gas and setting fire to the camp, which quickly burned. Thousands began the trek toward the Maryland state line, four miles away, where National Guard trucks waited to drive them to the Pennsylvania border.Four years later, under the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, the cash-now bonus act finally became law. By June 1936 veterans were cashing checks that averaged about $580 per man. Nearly $2 billion would eventually get distributed to three million World War I veterans. The G.I. Bill, for World War II veterans, would follow in 1944.
Also of interest:
- The Suburban Emergency Management Project has a several-part series of pages on “what really happened” at the “Bonus Army Spectacle”
- “Paul Bunyan” by John Dos Passos, a previous Story of the Week
- “John Dos Passos, 1896–1970: Modernist Recorder of the American Scene” by Townsend Ludington in The Virginia Quarterly Review