Bonus Army

Bonus Expeditionary Force protesting in Washington, D.C
Bonus Expeditionary Force protesting in Washington, D.C

During the summer of 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, as many as 25,000 World War I veterans calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force marched on Washington, D.C., to ask Congress for bonuses promised for wages they had lost while in service to their country. The bonuses, authorized in 1924, would not mature until 1945, but the former servicemen clamored for any small portion that would aid the survival of themselves and their starving families.

Many of the desperate vets inhabited abandoned downtown buildings or erected makeshift abodes of cardboard, wood, and tin in a shantytown located across Washington's Anacostia River. Peaceful demonstrations and parades past the capitol were organized by Walter Waters.

President Herbert Hoover refused to meet with Waters or the other vets. The House of Representatives passed Texas representative Wright Patman's bill for accelerated payment, but the Senate defeated the measure by a vote of 62 to 18.

With Congress set to recess for the summer, some of the protesters accepted an offer of free transportation back to their homes; others had nowhere else to go. With the help of superintendent of police Pelham Glassford, many others defiantly remained in Washington.

On July 28 Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley ordered Glassford to remove the emaciated veterans, many of whom occupied condemned buildings. Feeling betrayed, veterans hurled rocks at the police, who opened fire, killing one and wounding another. That afternoon 600 federal troops led by General Douglas MacArthur moved on the marchers in compliance with the president's order to evict.

MacArthur, perhaps convinced that these were communists, not veterans, exceeded his orders and attacked the desperate itinerants with tanks, gas grenades, and cavalry; MacArthur ordered the troops across the Anacostia River, where fire was set to the Bonus Marchers' makeshift village, killing three and injuring 54, including children and women.

Public sentiment favored the Bonus Marchers. President Hoover could not escape the wrath of an astonished U.S. public that rebelled at such harsh tactics. It was a final straw in his decisive loss in that fall's election.

Hoover's Democratic successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, while opposing payment of the bonus, created the Civilian Conservation Corps, setting aside jobs for many veterans; soon after his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, met with a small group of marchers in 1933. In 1944, during World War II, Congress passed and Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill of Rights, the United States' first-ever comprehensive and reliable benefit system for its military veterans.