31 Days of History: 20 July

On this day in history, 19 July 1932 (77 years ago), the US Army forcibly broke up and dispersed the “Bonus Expeditionary Force”, a group of World War I veterans, their families, and affiliated groups who had been protesting in Washington, DC.

In 1924, the 4.7 million US military members who had served in World War I had been promised a ”Service Certificate”. The Service Certificate granted WWI veterans a "bonus" certificates that would be redeemable after a maturation period of 20 years. It used a simple equation: $1 dollar in cash for each day served in the United States and $1.25 dollars for each day served abroad.

This was a great deal for many veterans—the only problem was that the certificated matured (or became redeemable) in 1945, and many of the veterans had been out of work since 1929. Three years of unemployment and hard times resulted in many veterans beginning to call for an immediate redemption of their Service Certificates. Some 17,000 veterans descended upon DC to call for their bonuses, bringing with them an additional 10,000-20,000 (the actual number is unknown) women, children and associated people. Calling themselves the Bonus Army (the term “Bonus Expeditionary Force” is a play on the “American Expeditionary Force” that the US sent to Europe during WWI), they made their largest camp at Anacostia Flats across the river from the Capitol. They lived in shantytowns--shelters built from materials dragged out of a junk pile nearby - old lumber, packing boxes and scrap tin covered with roofs of thatched straw. They were determined to wait.

Discipline in the camp was good, and followed a military hierarchy. Streets were laid out, latrines dug, and formations held daily. Newcomers were required to register and prove they were genuine veterans who had been honorably discharged. The leader, Walter Waters (former Army veteran) stated, "We're here for the duration and we're not going to starve. If the Bonus is paid it will relieve to a large extent the deplorable economic condition."

On 17 June the Senate was voting on a bill, already passed by the House, to immediately give the vets their bonus money. 10,000 marchers crowded the Capitol grounds expectantly awaiting the outcome, but were met with bad news. The Senate had defeated the bill, 62 to 18. The veterans began a silent "Death March", around and around the Capitol that would last until 17 July, when Congress adjourned.

A month later, the federal government ordered all Bonus Veterans to leave DC. They refused, insisting upon their right to peaceable assemble until they received their bonuses. On 20 July, DC police attempted to force the Bonus Army to leave. The result was a violent altercation, with DC police firing tear gas and two veterans being killed.

Tragically, 8 days later, President Hoover ordered the US Army to get involved. Two regiments (roughly 6,000 soldiers), under command of Gen Douglas MacArthur and assisted by Major George Patton and Major Dwight Eisenhower, fixed bayonets and forcibly drove the Bonus Army from their shelters, burning everything to the ground. Hundreds of veterans were injured and several were killed—it was a low point in federal government/veteran interaction.

Gen Patton gives order during the eviction

Burning "Hooverville"

Following his election, President Franklin D. Roosevelt handled the veterans with more skill. He issued an executive order allowing the enrollment of 25,000 veterans in the Civilian Conservation Corps and other federal jobs across the county. Ultimately, the “bonus” was paid out in 1936. Incidentally, the Bonus Army's activities can also be seen as a template for political demonstrations that frequently occur in our nation’s capital.

No comments: