They’re better off, I can hear whoever sent them say, explaining to himself. What good were they? You can’t account for accidents or acts of God. They were well-fed, well- ‘loused, well-treated and, let us suppose, now they are well dead. But I would like to make whoever sent them there carry just one out through the mangroves, or turn one over that lay in the sun along the fill, or tie five together so they won’t float out, or smell that smell you thought you’d never smell again, with luck. But now you know there isn’t any luck when rich bastards make a war. The lack of luck goes on until all who take part in it are gone.
Ernest Hemingway, Who Murdered the Vets? September 7, 1935
On July 28, 1932, the United States Army was ordered to oust thousands of US Army World War I veterans from the streets of Washington D.C. Three tanks, 200 mounted cavalry with sabers drawn, and 300 infantrymen with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets, proceeded through the city, driving everyone from the streets. They launched tear gas grenades at the crowds, and ignited fires in the makeshift camps the veterans and family members had erected over the previous months. Different accounts of the event allege that at least one, possibly two babies died from tear gas inhalation during the attack, though the official investigation would later deny those claims. Area hospitals were reportedly filled with injured people.
It was a violent attack largely condemned by Americans across the nation in the days that followed. But it is a story that is mostly unknown to Americans today, 85 years later.
After World War I ended, many veterans returning to the states found it difficult to find employment. The jobs they held before serving in the military were now filled by people earning higher wages than they had. Veterans’ groups began to lobby Congress for what was then called “adjusted compensation.” This push for additional compensation was derided by many as an effort to obtain bonuses the veterans didn’t deserve, and the veterans were often derogatorily labeled “bonus seekers.”
In 1922, Congress did consider a measure to provide additional compensation, but President Warren Harding vetoed the bill. The veterans’ groups continued their efforts, and in 1924, Congress passed what was popularly known as the Soldier’s Bonus Act. President Calvin Coolidge vetoed the bill, reportedly stating “patriotism which is bought and paid for is not patriotism.” However, his veto was overridden, and the veterans were awarded bonuses.
According to this US history website, “Adjusted compensation was to be paid at the rate of $1.25 per day for time spent in foreign service and at the rate of $1 per day for domestic service. The sum earned by veterans was not to be paid in cash, but was to be used to create a 20-year endowment; in the short term, participants were entitled to borrow up to 22.5 percent of the value of the fund.”
After the crash of 1929, and the resulting collapse of the US economy, many veterans found themselves destitute and they pushed to have the bonuses paid out immediately. In 1932, Texas Representative, Wright Patman, introduced a bill into the US House of Representatives that would do just that.
Walter W. Waters, a former Idaho and Oregon National Guardsman, took notice of this bill and decided something should be done to bring more attention to it. Waters was born in Burns, Oregon, and had served both in the Idaho National Guard in 1910 and the Oregon National Guard with which he went to fight in France in 1917. He was living in Portland, Oregon when Patman’s bill was introduced, and Waters organized a march on Washington D.C. in support of the bill. 250 to 300 men from Portland joined him, and with a banner declaring “Portland Bonus March—On to Washington,” they set off in May of 1932.
The media took notice, and Waters’ group, calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, was given positive coverage in newspapers and radio broadcasts across the nation. They were popularly referred to as the “Bonus Army” and gained wide support from the public, and sympathetic authorities. Many more veterans traveled to Washington D.C. to join in, often riding the rails to get there. Railroad men refused to turn the illegal passengers in, and supporters donated money and food to the veterans.
The Bonus Army veterans began arriving in Washington D.C. on May 25, 1932. Most reports state the group was as large as 20,000 men. They began establishing camps around the city. The largest camp, by the Anacostia River, was named Camp Marks. Veterans and family members erected shelters from scrap material, and the camp was organized like a city with named streets. They set up a post office, a library, and their own newspaper. Waters was strict, and the camp didn’t allow drinking, begging, weapons or fighting. Anti-government, radical talk and Communists were also forbidden.
In spite of this strict rule, however, communists did enter the camps to argue their cause. According to this article on Waters and the Bonus Army, the veterans “seized the communists, held trials, and sentenced them to fifteen lashes. More than two hundred communists were expelled from Bonus Army camps.” This article states, “rumors about communist revolutionaries soon spread throughout the city, and deeply affected the highest levels of government. At the Justice Department, J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation labored to find evidence that the Bonus Army had communist roots, evidence that never existed.” This would later be used as justification for the July 28 attack on the camps.
On June 15, 1932, the US House passed the bill sponsored by Representative Patman, to pay $2.4 billion in bonuses to veterans immediately. It passed with a margin of 211 to 176 one day after Tennessee Congressman Edward Eslick dropped dead from a heart attack while giving a speech in favor of the bill in Congress. The bill went before the Senate on June 17, 1932, and as many as 8,000 veterans waited at the Capitol Building for the decision. The city police had succeeded in keeping another 10,000 veterans from entering the city by raising the Anacostia drawbridge.
It wasn’t until 9:30 that evening that the decision was announced. The bill was defeated by a vote of 62 to 18.
In the days that followed, some of the Bonus Army veterans left the city, but many stayed, vowing to continue the protest until the bonuses were paid. Numerous politicians, President Herbert Hoover included, grew increasingly concerned that the protests would become violent. According to this article, “depression had settled in, the government had been fearful of the possibility of an armed insurrection against Washington. Even before the arrival of the Bonus Army, the army had developed a plan to defend the city with tanks, machine guns, and poison gas.” President Hoover ordered the police to evict the protestors, and on July 28, 1932, the police attempted just that.
A violent clash erupted. One veteran was killed and three policemen were injured. The police chief, Major Glassford, determined that the police could no longer control the situation and agreed to assistance from federal troops. Army Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur ordered the army to put its plan into action, and the US Army hit the streets in force.
General MacArthur held a press conference that night and stated, “had the President not acted today, had he permitted this thing to go on for twenty-four hours more, he would have been faced with a grave situation which would have caused a real battle. Had he let it go on another week, I believe the institutions of our Government would have been severely threatened.”
President Hoover said, “a challenge to the authority of the United States Government has been met, swiftly and firmly. After months of patient indulgence, the Government met over lawlessness as it always must be met if the cherished processes of self-government are to be preserved. We cannot tolerate the abuse of Constitutional rights by those who would destroy all government, no matter who they may be. Government cannot be coerced by mob rule.”
He would order an investigation into the events by the justice department, which ultimately concluded that, “the prompt use of the military to outnumber and overawe the disturbers prevented a calamity.” The investigation report, submitted by Attorney General William D. Mitchell, concluded by stating, “The right to peaceably petition Congress for redress of alleged grievances does not include assemblage of disorderly thousands at the seat of the government for purposes of coercion.”
While the investigation report conceded that the Bonus Army protestors were law abiding and peaceful up until the Senate vote, it focused much attention on the numbers of protestors who had not served in the military during World War I, those that had criminal records, and those that were communists, radicals, and anti-government. It also downplayed the actions of the police and the federal troops, and the number of injuries. The public’s negative opinion of the attack on the Bonus Army wouldn’t change however, and the event certainly didn’t help President Hoover in his re-election bid which he lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt months later.
World War I veterans continued to lobby Congress for the bonuses in the years that followed, returning to Washington D.C. annually. The number of transient veterans in the city was increasingly viewed as a problem and many veterans were sent to rehabilitation camps in the Florida Keys. These were work camps for road construction projects, a way to provide jobs for the men. Unfortunately, hundreds of the veterans were killed by the September 2, 1935 ‘Labor Day Hurricane’ when the camps were not evacuated before the storm. Their deaths prompted Ernest Hemingway to pen his 1935 piece, Who Murdered the Vets? Investigations into whether the deaths were the result of negligence were conducted. One such investigation concluded that there had been negligence, but the report of that investigation was suppressed for decades.
It wouldn’t be until four years after the Bonus Army protest of 1932 and several months after the deaths in Florida that the veterans were finally successful. 3.2 million veterans were paid the bonuses in 1936.