This Day in History: The “Bonus Army” comes to Washington, D.C.
On this day in 1933, a so-called “Bonus Army” protests in Washington, D.C. Less than one year earlier, the original Bonus Army had been driven out of town by none other than General Douglas MacArthur.
The U.S. Army forcing U.S. veterans out of town? Not a pretty sight.
The concerns driving the marchers began years earlier, in 1924. Congress had then approved a bonus to World War I veterans. President Calvin Coolidge vetoed that bill, citing economic concerns, but Congressmen would have none of it. They overrode Coolidge’s veto, thus enacting a veterans’ bonus of $1 for each day of domestic service and $1.25 for each day of service overseas. Those payments added up fast: The long-term cost was in the billions! The federal government couldn’t then afford such a payment, so (with certain exceptions) the certificates issued to veterans were not redeemable until 1945.
In other words, Congress made a promise that it could not finance, then left it to future taxpayers to come up with the money.
The decision came back to haunt Congress pretty quickly. When the Great Depression hit, veterans wanted to redeem their certificates sooner rather than later. In 1931, Congress passed a law that effectively gave veterans an advance on part of their bonus, in the form of a loan. But by 1932, veterans wanted the rest of their bonuses—in cash.
About 20,000 veterans descended on Washington. A few lived in parks and condemned buildings, but most eventually lived in a shanty town on the outskirts of D.C. (pictured). The veterans were led by Walter Waters, a former cannery worker. He had strict rules and fully expected the veterans to assemble peacefully. Things went well at first. Veterans peacefully marched in protest, and a Bonus Bill passed the House on June 15. Unfortunately for the veterans, the bill was defeated by the Senate two days later. The Bonus Marchers continued to protest, but Congress adjourned in mid-July. The federal government offered to buy veterans train tickets to return home. Some accepted the offer. However, many others remained.
At this point, things began to deteriorate. Thousands of hungry, destitute people were still in the city. Making matters worse, rumors swirled that communists had infiltrated the camp. Federal and D.C. officials began to fear violence, riots—even a government takeover. On July 28, the D.C. Police Chief tried to expel the Bonus Army. Unfortunately, someone began throwing bricks. A little later, as police tried to break up a skirmish, shots rang out. Ultimately, the Army was called in.
By 4:30 p.m., tanks were rolling through town and infantry were using tear gas to drive veterans out of the city. By evening, the encampments in the city had been cleared and President Herbert Hoover had issued orders to have the pursuit stopped. Unfortunately, General MacArthur ignored the order. His troops continued across a bridge into the shanty town. Soon, it was ablaze. To this day, no one really knows who started the fire.
MacArthur and Hoover both claimed that national security justified their actions, but the public didn’t really believe them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hoover failed to win re-election later that same year.
Some protestors later returned to Washington. The new President’s approach was entirely different from Hoover’s. FDR dispatched the First Lady to meet with protestors. Eventually, many of them were given jobs in the newly created Civilian Conservations Corps.
As one veteran reportedly commented at the time: “Hoover sent the army, Roosevelt sent his wife.”
Bonus May Pass Over President’s Veto: Coolidge Says Measure is Unsound Economically and Not Justified (Roseburg News-Review; May 16, 1924)
Eyewitness account of Evalyn Walsh McLean (excerpt printed in “Father Struck it Rich,” by McLean)
FBI Records: The Vault (Bonus March; Part 1 of 3)
Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen, Marching on History (Smithsonian magazine; Feb. 2003)
Paul Dickson, Thomas B. Allen, The Bonus Army: An American Epic (2004)