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This Day in Labor History: July 28, 1932

[ 59 ] July 28, 2016 |

Bonus_marchers_05510_2004_001_a

On July 28, 1932, the U.S. Army 12th Infantry regiment commanded by Douglas MacArthur and the 3rd Calvary Regiment, supported by six battle tanks commanded by Major George Patton violently evicted the Bonus Army from their Washington, D.C. encampment. This violent action and horrible treatment of impoverished veterans shocked the American public and demonstrated the utter indifference of Herbert Hoover to the desperate poverty the nation faced, helping to seal his overwhelming defeat that fall that ushered in the widespread change of the New Deal that would follow.

The Great Depression absolutely decimated the American working class. Unemployment shot up to 25 percent by the winter of 1933, while underemployment affected perhaps an additional 25 percent of workers. Herbert Hoover was simply unable to deal with these problems. Hoover was a man with a long humanitarian record, but he was very much a Progressive in a period where the voluntarist response to social problems that movement valued no longer worked. Charges that the Hoover didn’t care about the poor are overstated. But he simply could not accept any large-scale state involvement in solving the problem. By the summer of 1932 he had slightly moved off his position, but widescale social programs were anathema. Even more horrifying to him was worker activism.

In 1924, Congress passed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act that granted World War I veterans a one-time pension check in 1945. Calvin Coolidge vetoed this bill because of course Coolidge would veto a bill that gave anyone a dime, but Congress overrode the veto. But by 1932, these soldiers needed that money now. They faced unthinkable poverty. They could not feed their families. What difference did it make if it was 1932 or 1945, veterans thought. So they began to demand the immediate payment of their bonus. The bonus was not a huge amount of money. It paid veterans $1 a day for service while in the U.S. and $1.25 in Europe, up to a maximum of $500 in the U.S. and $625 in Europe. That $625 is about $8000 today. This was not going to make people rich. But it was something at time when something is exactly what was needed.

As the Depression deepened, Congress did allow veterans to borrow against the value of the certificates. Originally they could borrow up to 22 percent of the total, but in 1931 Congress expanded this to 31 percent. Congressional support for paying the entire bonus grew. In January 1930, 170,000 desperate veterans applied for the loans–in 9 days. Veterans struggled with what must have been PTSD, as Veterans Administration studies in 1930 and 1931 showed that veterans had unemployment nearly 50 percent higher than non-veterans of the same age. Beginning in 1930, Congress began exploring new bills to help veterans, but none became law. On June 15, 1932, the House passed the Bonus Bill that would grant the bonuses immediately.

At the same time, veterans began descending on Washington, DC demanding the immediate payment of the bonus. Organizing this protest was an organization you might not expect today–the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The VFW was really struggling in the early 1920s. But after 1929, its membership exploded because it supported the immediate payment of the bonus, while the American Legion, a proto-fascist anti-worker organization, opposed it. They created a Hooverville in Anacostia, in what is today Anacostia Park. The veterans created a sanitary camp, despite being in Washington during the summer. The camp did not welcome non-veterans or other radicals who might want to turn the event to their purposes. To stay in the camp, people had to prove their veteran status and eligibility. They could however bring their families. Approximately 20,000 veterans traveled to Washington during the summer of 1932.

Beginning in March, the VFW aggressively lobbied for the bonus. VFW leaders presented Congress with a petition from 281,000 veterans demanding their money. Veterans camping was an annual event for the VFW. So the act of setting up in one place was not radical, nor unusual, although the official 1932 encampment was in Sacramento. But in 1932, encamping in DC had a specifically politically agenda. The movement for a specific Bonus Army came out of Oregon, where veterans began organizing for an encampment in Washington, DC. They hopped trains and headed east. Thousands joined them. The VFW did not precisely endorse the Bonus Army and it wasn’t quite affiliated with it, but there was a lot of support for it and many VFW locals sent supplies and provided other forms of support. Hoover refused to even meet with the veterans, although he spoke at American Legion conventions on at least two occasions. And while the House passed the bill, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected it, 82-18.

For the most part, the Bonus marchers accepted their defeat. Congress even passed a bill to pay for their transportation to go home. Most left, but not all. Herbert Hoover was very nervous about the remaining bonus marchers. The Washington police force had no patience for the Bonus marchers and neither did the military. The remaining marchers began squatting in government buildings. Hoover ordered them cleared. The police were happy to do so. This led to skirmishes. That led Hoover to order MacArthur to clear out the camp. But Hoover was pretty clear–this was not to be violent. MacArthur disobeyed his orders and burned the whole camp. After he demolished the camp, he told the press that the Bonus Army was full of communists. That Douglas MacArthur, what an American hero. MacArthur’s actions absolutely devastated Hoover’s re-election chances, if he still had them in July 1932. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would obliterate Hoover in November, creating a rare complete realignment of American politics. The VFW strongly supported Roosevelt, wanting revenge on Hoover for what happened to the Bonus Army.

The Bonus Army was not a movement with a radical or unionist agenda. But it was a clear expression of activism that was transforming the working classes by the early 1930s and would lead to the greater explosions of worker activism in the next few years that would force the government to pass laws like the National Labor Relations Act, Social Security Act, and Fair Labor Standards Act. Interestingly, Roosevelt was not a big supporter of paying the bonus either. There was another march in 1933. FDR provided them a camp site in Virginia and 3 meals a day but did not publicly support their goals. Finally, in 1936, Congress passed a bonus bill. FDR vetoed it. But Congress overrode it and much of the bonus was paid early.

I borrowed from Steven Ortiz, “Rethinking the Bonus March: Federal Bonus Policy, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Origins of a Protest Movement,” in the July 2006 issue of Journal of Policy History, in the writing of this post.

This is the 185th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • rea

    Eisenhower was MacArthur’s chief aide at the time, but claimed to have advised against it.

    • cpinva

      I don’t really doubt this at all. in fact, Hoover calling out the Army for a domestic issue may, itself, have been in violation of the law, since this was clearly a civilian event. from my reading, I get the distinct impression that MacArthur wasn’t particularly popular with his men. his screw up in the Philippines (he assured FDR that the country’s defenses against an expected Japanese invasion were adequate. the fact is, he did really nothing to prepare for it, with the reasonably expected results.) should have consigned him to a permanent stateside staff position.

      he acted every bit the imperial roman general, and most of the non officers couldn’t stand him. it finally caught up with him in Korea, when his ego and big mouth got him sacked by Truman.

      • I’ve never spent much time reading about MacArthur’s career other than the various high and low points, but he always seemed to be better at playing a general than being a general. He had the look and swagger, but seemed to consistently overestimate himself and underestimate his opponents. One of the underrated breaks the U.S. caught was having him in the Pacific where the Army had much less to do than in Europe.

        • BiloSagdiyev

          I’ve never spent much time reading about MacArthur’s career other than the various high and low points, but he always seemed to be better at playing a general than being a general. He had the look and swagger, but seemed to consistently overestimate himself and underestimate his opponents.

          To include underestimating Chinese troop strength in northern Korea. How in the hell you can do that, I don’t know. Always assume there’s a zillion of ’em!

          • timb

            That was a political decision. He convinced himself that the Chinese would NEVER fight an America with nuclear weapons. Sheer dumbassery

            • He wanted to invade China during WWII to get at the million strong Kwantung Army, as I recall. That’s got to be a Hall of Fame Bad Idea.

              • timb

                Whenever MacArthur had political ideas, they were bad! He was a terrible person

            • BiloSagdiyev

              Ah. Well, to his credit, he was also lobbying for the use of tne nukes we had. Well, that’s not creditable, but the internal logic…

              Funny how the American right loves to bellow his quote about there being no subsitute for victory! when, in the nuclear age, “not starting a nuclear war” is a great substitute for not victory in little regional squabbles, yet they never remember his invocation about avoiding major land wars in Asia. I think he was right about that one… and now I learn that he didn’t follow that one, either.

      • BiloSagdiyev

        I don’t really doubt this at all. in fact, Hoover calling out the Army for a domestic issue may, itself, have been in violation of the law, since this was clearly a civilian event. from my reading, I get the distinct impression that MacArthur wasn’t particularly popular with his men

        He was, however, very popular with himself. And he was good with the press, and that helped him attract a throng of followers who yearn for, well, you know. We’re going through it again, except their Petraeus was taken away, so somehow… the Vulgar Talking Yam will do.

        • Sev

          Old root vegetables never die; they just sprout new versions of themselves.

      • timb

        You mean after the brilliant plan that turned the war around?

        MacArthur was a penis and a publicity hound, but he was a fine military mind

        • BiloSagdiyev

          Are you talking about Inchon? That’s the kind of thing that you’re a genius if it works out, and a total asshole if it falls on its face. All while gambling with men’s lves.

          • timb

            It was a strategic master stroke. The North Koreans didn’t think it could be done, but the US Navy and MacArthur did. He saved thousands of lives by not throwing divisions into the pocket at Pusan….

            ….then pissed those lives away when he was too stupid to believe China would join the war

            • BiloSagdiyev

              I would admit that he… had his moments.

      • Murc

        I get the distinct impression that MacArthur wasn’t particularly popular with his men.

        This isn’t true. MacArthur was enormously popular with his men.

        But specifically his men, i.e the Army. The Marines hated his guts. The rank-and-file were convinced that he was specifically trying to get as many Marines as possible deliberately killed, with malice aforethought. (This wasn’t true. MacArthur had many faults but deliberately sending divisions to die in the pursuit of inter-service rivalries wasn’t among them.)

        He was a brilliant general in the tactical and strategic sense, but there’s a bit more to being a general than that. One of your jobs is to nurture talent and leave the service in better shape than you found it, and MacArthur was only sort of good at that. He destroyed the careers of a lot of officers whose only flaw was they wouldn’t join his cult of personality.

        Now, this wasn’t a big deal until Korea, because he was in fact nurturing talent, it just had to be talent that thought Douglas MacArthur walked on water. But the saga of Ned Almond was basically a long saga of MacArthur letting a bitter, spiteful malcontent run a major war into the ground just to get back at Marshall.

    • John F

      It is within the realm of the possible that Ike would have told McArthur it was a bad idea, and if he had done so, McArthur would have ignored him.
      the relationship between Ike and McArthur did eventually irretrievably break down- but later- after Ike serve under McArthur in the Philipines

      • timb

        MacArthur hated Ike for eventually out-ranking him. Was it Eisenhower’s fault that Marshall was a brilliant man?

  • Peterr

    Finally, in 1936, Congress passed a bonus bill. FDR vetoed it. But Congress overrode it and much of the bonus was paid early.

    Early, that is, by Hoover’s timetable. Rather late by the time table of the Bonus Army — and I’m sure too late for some.

    It’s interesting to think about this in terms of the Occupy movement that came two generations later. There are some parallels, but also significant differences — like the very specific focus to the Bonus Army’s demands vs the more amorphous stuff from Occupy, and the very clear self-policing of the camps to keep that focus and not let it be hijacked by others or lost in a sea of other concerns by the Bonus Army.

    Thanks, Erik.

  • Woodrowfan

    the DC police were, at least initially, supportive. Their chief was a WWI vet and some of the Marchers were guys who served under him.

  • TM1

    For those of you who dare to get out of the boat, Amity Shales thinks Coolidge was underrated and the vetoing of a WWI pension was a great thing, because pensions for war veterans is an “entitlement”.

    • timb

      So, who’s the worst public intellectual in America (I round up calling a hack like Shales an intellectual)?

      1) Amity Shales
      2) Niall Ferguson
      3) Victor Davis Hanson

      I have to vote Shales, because I think in some corner of the smart world, people still think of her as doing scholarship.

      • Woodrowfan

        she has a BA in English and thinks that makes her a historian. oye

        • rea

          Hanson at least has a doctorate, although not in history.

      • Bill Murray

        To quote The Minutemen, it’s a 3-way tie for last.

        Also, it’s Schlaes not the more normal sounding Shales

        • At least VDH can lay claim to being an intellectual without being laughed out of the room. I mean, I think he’s the worst, but at least he’s got the degrees and put in the time at actual universities. If Amity is a public intellectual, then so am I.

          • elm

            Right, to stick up for VDH a little, my understanding is that he actually knows his stuff in his narrow academic specialty (not my field, but I’ve read an essay he wrote about his speciality that was intended for a general audience and it was pretty interesting.) His problems come when he tried to talk about anything currently going on.

            Schlaes is an uninformed idiot on every subject as far as I can tell.

            • BiloSagdiyev

              Right, to stick up for VDH a little, my understanding is that he actually knows his stuff in his narrow academic specialty …

              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeNsPE5XUXA

            • timb

              He knows his stuff, but his narrative history for lay people is chock full of his strange judgements and prejudices, e.g., he loves the Thebians and hates Alexander the Great for burning the place to the ground. I read one of his books where he spent half the book (seemingly) complaining that Alexander was a warmonger. Pre-Iraq, of course.

              • Latverian Diplomat

                I don’t find those particular judgments that strange. The Thebans destroyed the Spartan slave state, which was terrible even by Greek standards, and Alexander is a very problematic figure to say the least.

                He has some pretty significant flaws, but I think he’s on defensible ground on those two issues.

                • timb

                  I didn’t say it was wrong. I said it was thrown in your face on every page. I am, for instance, quite the fan of Alexander, while recognizing his bad points. I do not to read about Hanson’s emotional judgments on every page of a book devoted to lauding the Thebians for kicking Spartan ass, since, you know, the two are sort of unrelated

        • timb

          Thanks

      • Jestak

        4) Heather MacDonald

        • timb

          How did I forget that bile-filled waste of flesh?

    • so-in-so

      Of course she does, isn’t her shtick RW contrarianism vs. accepted history?

    • BiloSagdiyev

      My doctor told me not to get off the boat at Amity Shlaes Shoal. He says it’s covered in lead paint chips and causes untold brain damage.

      • Bill Murray

        The Schlaes mangoes are excessively rotten, rotten to the core

      • (((Hogan)))

        The Amity Shlaes Horror, they call it.

        • LosGatosCA

          She ax murders you and your family members brains.

  • Bruce Vail

    And while the House passed the bill, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected it, 82-18.

    How could 100 senators vote on it in 1932 when there were only 48 states?

    Great post anyway. I love to hate McArthur. I read American Caesar about three years ago and came away with a more nuanced appreciation of the man. But that wore off.

    • Keaaukane

      I felt that Manchester was being far too kind to MacArthur. He down played and white washed the deep and serious flaws and mistakes that make up MacArthur.

      • Bruce Vail

        There is a lot of ‘on the one hand, this’ and ‘on the other hand, that’ in Manchester’s book.

        Manchester credits him with being an unusually skillful military commander, while also being a huge asshole as a politician and a human being.

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      “How could 100 senators vote on it in 1932 when there were only 48 states?”

      The bill was SO unpopular that several Senators time-traveled from the future to vote against it.

      • LosGatosCA

        Obama time traveled back and cast the 4 additional votes – all for the bill.

    • Emily68

      I think it was Manchester’s book that described a lecture tour MacArthur took after Truman fired him. It said that “thousands of Oregonians cheered him in Seattle.” I know you’re not supposed to write in library books, but I penciled in a ? in the margin.

      • Bruce Vail

        Hah! I dusted off my copy and found that passage. I penciled in a ? in your honor.

  • DrDick

    while the American Legion, a proto-fascist anti-worker organization

    Nice to know some things never change.

    • rea

      Not sure the VFW is much better nowadays.

      • DrDick

        Sadly true.

    • timb

      The Legion is VERY active in helping vets navigate the VA Disability and pension system. They help for free and give pretty damn good advice for lay folks. So, politically, nothing has changed, but they do now seem to actually care for vets.

      • Happy Jack

        Yep. You’d have a hard time making it through the process without them.

    • Caepan

      Or as my late father – a veteran of WW2 and the Korean War – used to derisively say about the American Legion, “The Legion? Hell, anybody can join them!”

      • DrDick

        My father a WWII veteran, who was on Guam, Saipan, and Iwo Jima, had no use for any of those groups. More than anything else, he wished he could forget that experience.

        • Like your father, mine

          had no use for any of those groups. More than anything else, he wished he could forget that experience.

          I have to assume that that, too, was true of my father; he spoke to me (or even in my presence) of any of his experiences (in the Marines, later in the Army) only three times that I remember in 22 years. It was only recently (perusing newly on-line records) that I confirmed my vague memory of the third of those instances (a memory contradicted, decades later, by my mother), from which I learned that he had ended his Army service seconded to the Eighth Air Force in England—which would fit with my (equally vague) impression that he remembered too well having worked (in what capacity, I don’t know) with the actual flight crews who didn’t come back.

          • timb

            My (step)grandfather NEVER spoke of his WW2 experiences and I was a huge history buff and so wanted to know. When the emphysema he contracted from smoking (a habit started by C rations in WW2) was close to killing him, he confessed to his children that he was in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge and won a Silver Star climbing a church steeple under fire to locate a radio antenna.

            After reading about Bastogne in Ambrose’s book some years ago, I felt I understood completely why the cold, death, and murder of that week would inspire 50 years of silence. RIP

            • DrDick

              Mine only spoke rather vaguely about his until near the end of his life, which is when I learned he was one of the demolition men who sealed the caves where the Japanese were entrenched, which gave him nightmares into his 70s (as did watching the Japanese civilians commit suicide there, rather than surrender to the Americans).

        • sparks

          My father was a WWI vet who was as silent as the tomb when it came to any war experiences he had. We didn’t even know of it until after he died and we found his honorable discharge as a foreign soldier fighting for the US Army among his personal papers. During his years battling a stroke, I got suspicious that he had fought in a war. He often seemed lucid but was obviously off in a different time, calling friends to warn of imminent aerial bombardment.

  • slf

    Do I recall correctly this was the first use of tear gas against a group in the US? It was shocking to the public because of the association with gas warfare in WWI.

  • ringtail

    One of the great heroes of Marine Corps lore, 2-time Medal of Honor winner Smedley “The Fighting Quaker” Butler was a supporter of the Bonus Army. He was also a far left leaning [probable] socialist and critic of war profiteering.

    I like to bring him up when people impugn leftists or socialism as unpatriotic.

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