U.S. troops set fire to a Bonus Army camp.
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
U.S. troops set fire to a Bonus Army camp. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Many expected it would end badly, but hardly like this. By early summer 1932, about 20,000 men, many of them war-era veterans, and a sprinkling of women and children had occupied makeshift quarters in Washington’s Anacostia Flats neighborhood and several unused federal buildings nearby.

Facing mass unemployment, they urged Congress to authorize early payment of a World War I bonus due in 1945, an expenditure of $2.4 billion that Time magazine called “printing-press money.”

Commanded by “natural born leader” Walter Waters of Portland, Oregon, the Bonus Expeditionary Force showed tight discipline. “Seven thousand of them paraded one evening in quiet order up Pennsylvania Avenue,” Time reported.

Washington Police Superintendent Pelham Glassford, a onetime army brigadier, proved to be a major supporter of the protesters, helping secure supplies and keeping the peace by brokering disputes. President Herbert Hoover, believing the whole movement was a Communist revolt, reportedly considered firing Glassford.

The House passed the bonus bill, but the Senate overwhelmingly defeated it, 62 to 18, and Congress pledged to provide $100,000 for the marchers’ transportation home.

While Waters trekked to New York soliciting food donations, an actual Communist, John Pace, denounced Waters’s “dictatorship,” Time reported.  When a thousand conservative veterans threatened Pace, Glassford moved in, loudly supporting Pace's right to free speech and defusing the confrontation. Equally important, few of the veterans took up the offer for a free trip home.

Their cause may have been lost, but the Bonus Army kept marching around Congress, pledging “to stay until 1945." Firebrand retired Marine General Smedley Butler delivered an invective-filled address on July 19.

“You have as much right to lobby here as the United States Steel Corporation,” he said.  “You hear folks calling you fellows tramps, but they didn’t call you that in ’17 and ’18.”

Two days later, federal authorities ordered the Bonus Army to vacate public lands and buildings before Aug. 4. Under city rules, federal marshals enforced such orders.

Men began leaving. Yet at 9 p.m. on July 28, well before the deadline and following several daytime clashes, military forces headed by General Douglas MacArthur surrounded the main camp at Anacostia, "wheeled their tanks into position, unlimbered their gas bombs and gave the thousands of veterans there 30 minutes in which to evacuate,” the New York Times reported.

Chaos ensued, and soon veterans and others fled from tear gas, soldiers wielding fixed bayonets and mounted horsemen “striking those within reach with the flat of their blades.” Meanwhile, the camps were set alight, burning brightly well past midnight.

The New York Times reported that Hoover had ordered the eviction, shifting control from city police and federal marshals to the army. Crushed, the marchers straggled home, and the nation’s press enthusiastically condemned them, even as a few voices, including Time, argued that the administration’s actions had shamed the nation.

And so it had. Four people were killed in the eviction. Although Hoover claimed that fewer than half the Bonus Army men were veterans, the Veterans Administration put the figure at 94 percent. War Secretary Patrick Hurley charged that “Reds” had provoked the battles, but Washington officials released every Red suspect for lack of evidence.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at the University of Rutgers, Camden, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this blog post: Philip Scranton at scranton@camden.rutgers.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this blog post: Kirsten Salyer at ksalyer@bloomberg.net.