Today’s post comes from Alice Kamps, a curator at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
It would not be Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s last act of insubordination. Decades later, his recalcitrance cost him his career. But this time there would be no discernible consequences, at least not for him. Against direct orders from the President, MacArthur ordered his troops across the bridge to the enemy encampment. The fires they set burned through the night, creating a hellish image that capped a brutal operation. Many Americans were horrified by the day’s events. The makeshift shelters that fed the flames had been built by their fellow citizens.
Gaunt and grizzled, some with families in tow, tens of thousands of impoverished World War I veterans traveled to Washington, DC, in 1932. Many had been out of work since the beginning of the Great Depression three years earlier. Americans followed their progress in the news as the travelers hopped freight trains and hitched rides across the country. They called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF). The public called them the Bonus Army. They came to the nation’s capital to demonstrate for immediate payment of their military bonus certificates that weren’t redeemable until 1945.
The movement was extraordinary in many ways, not least because this army, unlike the U.S. military, was integrated. Black and white marchers began arriving in May. They set up multiple camps near the Capitol, lobbied Congress for relief, and asked if their brothers could spare a dime. Living and protesting together in harmony, the Bonus Army proved that the color line was not as indelible as many believed.
President Herbert Hoover opposed immediate payment of the bonus, but he was not unsympathetic to the veterans’ plight. According to Kenneth Whyte, author of Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times, the President “quietly distributed food, clothing, blankets, and camp kitchens to their encampments,” in Washington, DC, and nearby Anacostia.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur, however, was unmoved. He believed the Bonus Army was rife with extremists plotting “a reign of terror.” Rumors about communist infiltration of the demonstrators found traction in the city. “There were, in fact, radicals and Communists among the bonus seekers,” according to Thomas B. Allen and Paul Dickson, authors of The Bonus Army: An American Epic, “but they were an ineffective minority disdained and dismissed by the main body of the BEF.”
The American public was largely sympathetic to the Bonus Army. In fact, the BEF’s efforts met with some success. After weeks of lobbying, on June 15 the House of Representatives passed a bill for early payment of the bonus. But two days later, the Senate roundly defeated it.
With that, many believed the marchers should admit defeat and return home. As summer temperatures rose and sanitary conditions in the camps deteriorated, pressure to end the protest mounted. But the marchers vowed to remain. On July 28 city police moved to evict BEF members camped out in a group of abandoned government buildings scheduled for demolition. The day ended in flames and disillusion.
Newsreel footage compiled by the U.S. Army Signal Corps documents the escalating series of events. After evicting men from the abandoned buildings, scuffles broke out between police and protesters. Two marchers were shot and killed by police and multiple officers were injured. Then the military took over—200 mounted cavalry proceeded in formation down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Thinking it was a parade in their honor, the veterans clapped and cheered. To their horror, they soon realized the military was there to attack them. Wielding bayonets, 400 infantry marched behind the cavalry. Without warning, they donned gas masks and lobbed gas grenades. Armored tanks brought up the rear. As protesters and onlookers fled the fumes, troops set fire to shanties lining the streets. That evening, President Hoover sent an envoy with the command that MacArthur chose to ignore—do not pursue the fleeing protesters over the bridge to their settlements in Anacostia.
President Hoover, in the midst of a reelection campaign, tried to explain the use of military force against the veterans as necessary to prevent “further bloodshed among the bonus marchers and the police, and possibly innocent bystanders.” But the government’s use of the military to attack its own veterans shook the nation. These men, like many of their fellow citizens, were down on their luck, asking the nation they had served for help in a time of need. “I voted for Herbert Hoover in 1928,” a reader wrote to the Washington Daily News. “God forgive me and keep me alive at least till the polls open next November!”
President Hoover was aware of the effect the crackdown might have on his campaign. His most trusted adviser, Theodore Joslin, recorded the President’s concerns following the military crackdown on the BEF. “We are opposed by 10,000 unemployed, 10,000 bonus marchers and 10 cent corn. Is it any wonder that the prospects are dark?”
Franklin D. Roosevelt declined to bring up the incident in his campaign against Herbert Hoover. But after Hoover spoke out against Democrats during Harry S. Truman’s campaign for Senate in 1938, Truman questioned the morality of “the man who as President of the United States ordered the Regular Army out to shoot down poor broken veterans of the World War.”
Largely because of the economic depression, Hoover’s reelection was indeed doomed. The problem now belonged to President Roosevelt, who also opposed the bonus. The Bonus Army marched again in 1933. Cartoonist Clifford Berry depicted a gleeful Herbert Hoover reading news of the new administration’s continued clashes with the BEF.
In 1936, Congress finally passed a bill over President Roosevelt’s veto. The Bonus Army had achieved its objective. Perhaps more importantly, they forced the nation to take notice. The “magnificent legacy” of the Bonus Army, according to writers Allen and Dickson, is the 1944 GI Bill, which provided education benefits and housing loans to returning World War II vets.
Unfortunately, the bill was designed with loopholes that allowed state administrators to deny many of its benefits to Black veterans. Most Black Americans were barred from the home loans and educational opportunities that helped build a thriving middle class for white America. While Black and white members of the Bonus Army were united in their cause, ultimately they did not benefit equally from their efforts.
Read more about the Bonus Army in the Hoover Presidential Library blog.