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The march of the Bonus Army

August 17, 2007 | Page 8

ERIC RUDER looks at a forgotten chapter in the struggle of U.S. veterans.

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How happy to be a soldier
Of the old Red, White and Blue
Paid like a banker in time of war,
And cared for afterward too,
With a job and a home in the city
Or a fertile farm in the dell,
For like Princes, we treat our Veterans--
We do, like Hell!
--from "The Happy American"

WITH THE Great Depression causing mass unemployment and bread lines across the U.S., some 40,000 veterans of the First World War made their way to Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1932 to demand immediate payment of a bonus under a law passed several years earlier.

The law granted compensation of a $1 a day for stateside service and $1.25 a day for overseas service to each veteran, but payment was delayed until 1945--leading veterans to derisively refer to the money as the "Tombstone Bonus," because you would die before you collected it.

What else to read

Paul Dickson and Thomas Allen's The Bonus Army: An American Epic is an excellent and comprehensive book on this episode in history, despite the undercurrent of anti-communism that runs through it. Irving Bernstein's The Lean Years and Harvey Klehr's The Heyday of American Communism each have sections on the Bonus marchers.

For an excellent book on the hidden history of workers' resistance and the socialist tradition in the U.S., read SW columnist Sharon Smith's Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States.


Facing the dire circumstances of the depression, veterans wanted Congress--which had already paid off debts and bonuses owed to corporations and war profiteers--to take care of veterans, too.

As the number of veterans who pledged to camp in the nation's capital until they received their bonuses grew, alarm swept through the political establishment.

"If the farmers of this nation who are suffering united, as these men have united, and with the same abandon, started a march upon the Capitol, and joined ranks with those of the city whose souls have been seared with misery during the past few years, it would not be difficult for a real revolution to start in this country," wrote California's Republican Sen. Hiram Johnson in a letter to his son.

On July 28, Gen. Douglas MacArthur--aided by then-Majors Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton--led 200 cavalrymen, 400 infantrymen with fixed bayonets, and five tanks against the largest of the protesters' encampments near the Anacostia River.

MacArthur's troops drove the veterans out and burned the camp to the ground. By the end of the day, two veterans were dead, and dozens more--as well as many civilian onlookers--were wounded.

That night, President Herbert Hoover sat in the Lincoln Study of the White House and looked out the window at a fiery red that filled the sky over Washington.

Seventy-five years later, this forgotten chapter in U.S. history stands as a proud achievement in the history of American war veterans fighting for a better life for themselves and their families--and a reminder of the brutality that the U.S. government will use against those standing up for social justice.

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THE U.S. military had drafted some 3.5 million Americans to fight in the "Great War," and many had to leave civilian jobs that paid 10 times what they got for their service in the military.

A total of 116,708 U.S. soldiers perished in the First World War, and another 204,000 came home wounded. There was a federal job training program for disabled veterans, but very little help for the tens of thousands of veterans who suffered from "shell shock"--what today is called post-traumatic stress disorder.

About half a million African Americans were among those drafted into the military, but when they returned to the U.S. as part of a victorious war effort, they were seen as a threat because they sought employment in industries that had long excluded them. Lynchings were on the rise, and in Washington, D.C., in 1919, mobs of white soldiers and sailors carried out attacks on Black residents.

Political opposition to the passage of bonus legislation, which had already become a public debate in 1920, took on racist overtones. In a resolution, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued against the bonus because "the half million Negroes in the South, who probably would receive $500 or $600 each, would immediately quit work until the money was spent."

In an editorial, the Cleveland Advocate, an African American newspaper, linked this racism to the plight of white veterans, calling the Chamber of Commerce's resolution "an insult to the race, and a most reprehensible injustice to the white world war veteran."

That year, bonus legislation passed in the House and stalled in the Senate--a pattern that repeated itself most years until a bill finally passed in 1926, but with payment deferred until 1945.

After the Great Depression struck, various protests took place across the U.S.--marches of the unemployed and homeless, demonstrations for food relief and protests for veterans' benefits.

In March 1932, some 4,000 men and women marched on the Ford's River Rouge production facility with a list of demands to present to management. When they were denied entry, a scuffle broke out, and police opened fire, killing four workers.

The Ford Massacre, as it became known, as well as the general state of unrest, led the U.S. military to establish an officer's class on domestic disturbances at the Army's Tank School at Fort Benning, Georgia. "Federal troops have been used in the suppression of domestic disturbances on more than a hundred separate occasions," the tank officers learned, "and there is every reason to believe that troops will be called on again, for the same purpose."

Veterans learned that Hoover planned to veto any bonus bill, and a few began making their way toward Washington to put muscle behind their demand for immediate payment. Some veterans from Portland, Ore., started the trek, picking up press coverage and inspiring others to set out.

Getting tens of thousands of people to Washington was no easy task. Some veterans hopped freight trains, some hitchhiked, and in some states, National Guard vehicles were used to transport people eastward.

When the railroad bosses got word of the men hopping freights, they tried to get the veterans cleared off trains. In city after city, however, the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF)--as the Bonus marchers dubbed themselves--found ways to "persuade" the railroad bosses.

In Council Bluffs, Iowa, some BEF members were former railroad workers. As a train cleared of veterans started on its way, it had to stop because a couple cars had come uncoupled. The train operators recoupled them and started again, but the train became uncoupled at another point. Finally, the engineer said that he wouldn't move the train until the veterans were allowed on. In Caseyville, Ill., BEF men soaped the train tracks, tying up some B&O trains for 12 hours until they were allowed on board.

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THE BONUS marchers streamed into Washington, settling into some two dozen camps and abandoned buildings throughout the city. The largest was Camp Marks in Anacostia, which ultimately became a tent city housing some 15,000 veterans, plus many wives and children.

One of the most remarkable features of the camps--and one of the least remarked on by mainstream newspapers--was that Black and white soldiers lived side by side in them, even though Jim Crow segregation defined the South, as well as life in the military.

Roy Wilkins, then a reporter for NAACP's publication Crisis, traveled to Anacostia to write about what he saw. "There I found black toes and white toes sticking out side by side from a ramshackle town of pup tents, packing crates and tar-paper shacks," wrote Wilkins. "Black men and white men, veterans of the segregated army that had fought in World War I, lined up equally, perspired in sick bays, side by side.

"For years, the U.S. Army had argued that General Jim Crow was its proper commander, but the Bonus marchers gave lie to the notion that Black and white soldiers--ex-soldiers in their case--couldn't live together."

Sightseers and supporters packed some 10,000 automobiles and trucks to catch a glimpse of the camps, according to police, and the Army's Military Intelligence Division stepped up its espionage activities, placing spies among the marchers.

In early July, the Army secretly moved several tanks close to the capital. Major Patton shared his ideas on how to deal with "unruly" citizens with other military leaders, who were conducting secret anti-riot training near Washington.

"If you must fire, do a good job--a few casualties become martyrs, a large number an object lesson," said Patton. "When a mob starts to move, keep it on the run...Use the bayonet to encourage its retreat. If they are running, a few good wounds in the buttocks will encourage them. If they resist, they must be killed."

On June 15, the House had passed a bill calling for immediate payment of the bonus. Attention turned to the Senate. Some 6,000 veterans camped in front of the Capitol building the next day to put pressure on senators.

Congress was set to adjourn on July 16, and by July 1, police estimated that 21,000 veterans were camped out around Washington, with more arriving every day. Congress began seeking out ways to induce the veterans to leave. But few accepted the offers of free transportation out of Washington and back to their homes.

Congress adjourned without passing the bill, but the veterans vowed to stay until they got their bonus. Many had no reason to leave because they had no jobs or homes to return to.

Hoover, in collusion with Washington's district commissioners, looked for a reason to evict the marchers. He settled on giving an order to clear veterans squatting in some abandoned buildings near the Capitol to make way for a building project in the area that today is known as Federal Triangle.

As word got out that police had been dispatched to clear the buildings, veterans from Camp Marks began streaming toward the site of the confrontation. Just before noon, the U.S. attorney general gave a new order that all government property, not just the buildings, was to be cleared.

Some 4,000 veterans were massed at the site of the building evictions when a policeman who was meeting with resistance drew his gun and killed two of the marchers. MacArthur had been meeting since morning with his aides, and the confrontation gave him the pretext he needed to call in troops to "break the back of the BEF," he said. "It will all be done tonight."

MacArthur's men charged the marchers and a large number of spectators alike. "Men and women were ridden down indiscriminately," reported the Baltimore Sun. "The mad dash of these armed horsemen against twenty to thirty thousand people who were guilty of nothing more atrocious than standing on private property observing the scene was bitterly commented on by spectators."

Patton seemed particularly satisfied by the bedlam he observed from his horseback perch. "Bricks flew, sabers rose and fell with a comforting smack, and the mob ran," he wrote. "Once, six men in a truck threw a regular barrage of bricks, and several men and horses were hit. Two of us charged at a gallop, and had some nice work at close range with the occupants of the truck, most of whom could not sit down for some days."

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ONLY IN 1936 was a cash-now bonus finally passed--after Congress voted to override Franklin Roosevelt's veto. But the memory of the march of the Bonus Army--and the broad sympathy it evoked--was no doubt a key factor in the bill's final passage.

Hoping to head off a replay of militancy among returning soldiers after the Second World War, Congress passed a GI Bill of Rights in 1944 that provided, among other things, money for higher education, loan guarantees for home and farm mortgages, and unemployment pay for up to a year. At $500 a year, the education benefits were enough to pay for tuition at Harvard University.

But the struggles of veterans didn't end there. Veterans of the U.S. war in Vietnam first waged a battle to end that war, and then to get recognition of and treatment for PTSD, as well as compensation for illnesses caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Today's veterans will also have to fight battles--for better medical care, to bring the troops home and to get the disability payments that they are due.

The march of the Bonus Army is a rich part of this tradition of veterans' struggles, and its lessons are relevant to all those committed to the struggle for justice.

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