Battle of AnacostiaPrint
The bonus army and its unexpected legacy
By Robert S. McElvaine
March 1, 2005
The Bonus Army: An American Epic, By Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen, Walker & Company, $27
Cutting veterans’ benefits in the midst of a war may be unique to George W. Bush, but veterans have been treated far more shamefully in peacetime during other administrations. The most notorious instance was the forceful military eviction in July 1932 of World War I veterans from the nation’s capital, where they had come to petition for the immediate payment of a bonus due them. Using tanks, tear gas, and fixed bayonets, troops under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur moved on the shantytown in Anacostia Flats where a few thousand veterans of the Great War were encamped, many with their families.
Images of veterans with American flags being forcibly removed from their pitiful dwellings by members of the same military in which they had served during wartime were a public relations and political disaster for beleaguered President Herbert Hoover. The morning after the expulsion, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had become the Democratic presidential nominee a few weeks earlier, told an aide that there was no longer any need to campaign against Hoover.
But, while the incident was unquestionably detrimental to Hoover (who compounded the damage to himself in the closing days of the fall campaign by declaring in a speech at St. Paul, “Thank God we still have a government in Washington that knows how to deal with a mob,” the significance of the “Bonus Army,” as the petitioning veterans were called, must be sought elsewhere. Hoover, after all, was a goner by the summer of 1932, even had there been no Bonus March. His prospects for reelection had been destroyed by the same calamity that had made the veterans desperate for the early payment of the bonus: the Great Depression.
In the closing paragraph of their new book about the Bonus Army—also called the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF), a takeoff on the American Expeditionary Force, the name given American forces in France during the war—Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen rank their subject with such episodes in American history as the Boston Tea Party, Nat Turner’s rebellion, the Alamo, and John Brown’s raid. That assessment rests primarily on four arguments: it was racially integrated at a time when it was highly unusual for any group to be so; the BEF was the first large-scale American example of using the sort of nonviolent protest Mohandas Gandhi was employing in India; the Bonus March—along with such smaller demonstrations as Coxey’s Army in 1894—was the prototype for mass protests in Washington, including those for civil rights in 1963 and against the Vietnam War in 1967 and subsequent years; and, most important, the Bonus Army’s demonstrations led to the enactment of the GI Bill of Rights in 1944, when a new world war was churning out millions of additional veterans.
To this list might be added the cultivation of MacArthur’s penchant for insubordination, which would be increasingly evident and would reach full bloom during the Korean War, when President Harry Truman ended it. One question this book does not satisfactorily answer is the extent of Hoover’s role in the removal of the BEF camp. The evacuation was ordered by Attorney General William D. Mitchell, and the authors say that he “had to be acting with White House approval.” That conclusion is reasonable, but short of certain. What is clear is that Hoover sent a message to MacArthur before the general took his troops across the bridge over the Anacostia River, ordering him not to proceed. The messenger, deputy Army chief of staff Gen. George Van Horn Moseley, said that MacArthur “was very much annoyed in having his plans interfered with in any way until they were executed completely.”
After his victory over unarmed former American troops, MacArthur held a press conference in which he labeled the veterans “insurrectionists” who were “animated by the spirit of revolution.” Hoover certainly had cause to dismiss the defiant general (whom Franklin Roosevelt privately ranked with Louisiana Sen. Huey P. Long as one of the two most dangerous men in America). Instead, the Republican president, perhaps unwilling to admit that he did not have control over the military, assumed responsibility for MacArthur’s action and suffered the political consequences.
Roosevelt would be no more favorably inclined toward early payment of the veterans’ bonus than Hoover. Soon after he took office, FDR slashed $480 million from existing veterans’ benefits. Yet his handling of the Bonus Army itself during its 1933 resurrection was starkly different from Hoover’s. When his aide Louis Howe took Eleanor Roosevelt to the site of the 1933 Bonus camp, one vet captured the symbolism when he said: “Hoover sent the army. Roosevelt sent his wife.” Even when Roosevelt continued to veto bills for early payment of the bonus—including one in 1935 that he personally vetoed before a joint session of Congress and one that finally passed over his veto in 1936—he remained generally popular with veterans.
The Bonus Army has long been a topic of scholarly interest, but this is the most complete story we have of the movement and its after-math. It contains a few small errors, such as saying that there was a fascist dictatorship in power in Germany in 1931 and that the Depression was at its nadir at the beginning of 1932, when the worst point was not reached until a year later, but these are minor annoyances in what is overall an excellent book.
The major arguments of the book to stand up fairly well. Observers of the BEF were “astonished to discover white veterans from Alabama and Mississippi as well as northern and western states sharing billets, rations, and chores with Negro veterans.” This direct challenge to the status quo was likely one of the reasons that some reactionaries were so intent on breaking up the encampment and dispersing its residents. Here, 16 years before Truman ordered the desegregation of the military, the concept of racial integration was embraced by veterans acting on their own.
The largest and most lasting impact of the Bonus Army was its influence on the planning of a comprehensive program to assist veterans of the next war. The GI Bill’s provisions to pay for college or vocational training and for low-cost home loans rank it with Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act as the three most important pieces of legislation passed during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 12-year presidency—and as one of the most powerful and positive laws in all of American history. The American middle class that emerged in the post-World War II years is scarcely conceivable without the GI Bill. Routed ingloriously from their nation’s capital in 1932, the Bonus Army left an unanticipated legacy that helped to ensure both that the next generation of veterans would have no need to march on Washington and that there would not be another economic collapse to create the desperate circumstances that led members of the BEF to petition with their feet.
Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts and Letters and professor of history at Millsaps College.
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