Municipal Government

July Labor History Part II

July 29, 2016 

The Bonus Army Scuffles with Washington, D.C. Police Officers

By Bill Hohlfeld

On July 28, 1932, an event took place that changed the courser of American history and culture forever. Following the orders of U.S. President and Commander-in Chief, Herbert Hoover, the U.S. Army 12th Infantry regiment commanded by Douglas MacArthur and the 3rd Calvary Regiment, supported by six battle tanks commanded by Major George Patton violently evicted the Bonus Army from their Washington, D.C. encampment. The so called bonus army was comprised of World War One Veterans who, living in dire poverty, asked that they receive their bonus early.

In 1924, Congress passed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act that granted World War I veterans a one-time pension check in 1945. But, by 1932, these soldiers could wait no longer. Out of work and with no prospects due to a 25% unemployment rate, they could not feed their families. To make it worse, Veterans struggled with what must have been PTSD, as Veterans Administration studies in 1930 and 1931 showed that veterans had unemployment nearly 50 percent higher than non-veterans of the same age. They began to demand the immediate payment of their bonus. In no way a fortune, ($1 a day for military service up to a maximum of $625) it would be enough to at least temporarily bring them back from the brink of disaster.They created a Hooverville in Anacostia, in what is today Anacostia Park. The veterans created a
sanitary camp, despite being in Washington during the summer. The camp did not welcome non-veterans or other radicals who might want to turn the event to their purposes. To stay in the camp, people had to prove their veteran status and eligibility. They could, however bring their families. Approximately 20,000 veterans traveled to Washington during the summer of 1932.

On June 15, 1932, the House passed the Bonus Bill that would grant the bonuses immediately. Hoover, however, refused to show support for the bill, or for that matter, even to meet with the veterans. And, though the House passed the bill, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected it, 82-18. For the most part, the Bonus marchers accepted their defeat. Congress even passed a bill to pay for their transportation to go home. Most left, but not all. Herbert Hoover was very nervous about the remaining bonus marchers. The Washington police force had no patience for the Bonus marchers and neither did the military. The remaining marchers began squatting in government buildings. Hoover ordered them cleared. The police were happy to do so. This led to skirmishes. That led Hoover to order MacArthur to clear out the camp. MacArthur burned the whole camp. After he demolished the camp, he told the press that the Bonus Army was full of communists.

The country was shocked at the horrible treatment of impoverished veterans, the same men who had undergone the ravages of war and sacrificed so much to defeat the evils of fascism were now being hounded and herded as though they were criminals. It brought to light the utter indifference of Herbert Hoover to the desperate poverty the nation faced. This would be the final nail in his political coffin and urge the vast majority of the nation to turn toward the New Deal ideology of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While the Bonus Army was not a movement with a radical or unionist agenda, it was a clear expression of activism that was transforming the working classes by the early 1930s and would lead to the greater explosions of worker activism in the next few years that would force the government to pass laws like the National Labor Relations Act, Social Security Act, and Fair Labor Standards Act.

July 29, 2016

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