How veterans set the precedent for America’s greatest protests
It all started in 1924. The U.S. government promised veterans a bonus of $1.25 for every day of foreign service during the Great War, and a dollar for every day served stateside. The only caveat was that it would not be paid out until 1945. Young and filled with American pride, these veterans came home and set to work, content with the promise of their future bonuses. They put the war behind them, bought homes, had families, and worked right up until the stock market crash of 1929 ravaged the country.
Rendered jobless by the Great Depression, many of the GIs needed money: their bonuses.
As the Depression deepened, protests around the country mounted. December 1931 saw a communist-led hunger march on Washington. And after the New Year, a Pittsburgh priest led 12,000 jobless people to Capitol Hill to petition for unemployment legislation. But the soldiers of World War I, deeming themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Force,” stormed D.C. in an entirely unprecedented way.
At one point, Marine Corps Gen. Smedley Butler addressed the marchers, saying, “I never saw such fine Americanism as is exhibited by you people. You have just as much right to have a lobby here as any steel corporation. Makes me so damn mad, a whole lot of people speak of you as tramps. By God, they didn’t speak of you as tramps in 1917 and ’18.”
As many as 20,000 former soldiers and their families had converged on Washington in the summer of 1932, the height of the Great Depression, to support Texas Congressman Wright Patman’s bill to advance the bonus payment promised to World War I veterans. Congress had authorized the plan in 1924, intending to compensate the veterans for wages lost while serving in the military during the war. But payment was to be deferred until 1945. Just one year earlier, in 1931, Congress overrode a presidential veto on a bill to provide, as loans, half the amount due to the men. When the nation’s economy worsened, the half-bonus loans were not enough, and the unemployed veterans now sought the balance in cash. Known as Bonus Marchers, they came in desperation from all across the nation, hopping freight trains, driving dilapidated jalopies or hitchhiking, intent on pressuring Congress to pass the legislation. The administration vehemently opposed the measure, believing it inflationary and impractical given the $2 billion annual budget deficit.
Hoover, upset by the continued presence of the Bonus Marchers, now had the excuse he was looking for to expel them from the capital. He directed Secretary Hurley to unleash MacArthur, who received the following instruction: ‘You will have United States troops proceed immediately to the scene of the disorder. Surround the affected area and clear it without delay. Any women and children should be accorded every consideration and kindness. Use all humanity consistent with the execution of this order.’
Not surprisingly, MacArthur now executed his orders in a manner seemingly designed to maximize media attention. In a highly unusual but characteristic decision — one purportedly against the advice of his aide, 42-year-old Major Dwight Eisenhower — he chose to oversee the operations in the field with the troops. Military protocol called for a commanding officer to remain at headquarters. This was especially true for MacArthur, whose post was administrative rather than operational. So while he charged General Perry Miles with carrying out the eviction, MacArthur assumed the real responsibility. Although no other situation offers an exact comparison, MacArthur’s action was as if General Maxwell Taylor, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1963, had led National Guard troops to the University of Alabama to confront Alabama Governor George Wallace.
Arguing that Hoover had overreacted to the situation, Black said, ‘As one citizen, I want to make my public protest against this militaristic way of handling a condition which has been brought about by wide-spread unemployment and hunger.’ The New York Times hinted that other senators felt the same. Indeed, it was a common charge hurled by the opposition party during that fall’s presidential election. Senator Hiram Johnson, speaking in Chicago a few days before the presidential vote, dubbed the incident ‘one of the blackest pages in our history.’ Hoping to evoke feelings of sympathy and patriotism, he continued, noting that the displaced veterans had been hailed as heroes and saviors only a decade earlier: ‘The president sent against these men, emaciated from hunger, scantily clad, unarmed, the troops of the United States army. Tanks, tear-bombs, all of the weapons of modern warfare were directed against those who had borne the arms of the republic.’
The public soon followed Black’s lead. Frustrated by Depression-era economics and in tune with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s comparatively more aggressive assistance programs after he assumed the presidency, the public increasingly questioned the government’s response to the plight of the Bonus Army. Many came to see it as callous and heavy-handed. Theater audiences reacted to Bonus Army newsreel footage with choruses of boos.
Ever conscious of his own place in history, MacArthur blinked. At least publicly the general would voice a more sympathetic view of the marchers he once routed. At first he had called them a ‘bad mob,’ but gradually time, or concern over public opinion, softened his expressed view. In his memoirs, MacArthur took credit for supplying the marchers with tents and rolling kitchens, and declared them a ‘vanguard of a starved band,’ remembering the whole affair as a ‘poignant episode.’
If it was a purposeful attempt to improve his image, it failed. His reputation has remained forever scarred. MacArthur biographer William Manchester called his actions that day ‘flagrantly insubordinate’ and ‘indefensible.’ Another historian, echoing Manchester’s sentiment, said the general acted ‘with overzealous determination and reckless impulsiveness.’