History is a foreign country to many students and to far too many Americans as well. The call for using the military to quell protests in Washington, D.C. is not without historical parallel. The story of the bonus march on Washington has been ignored or forgotten by contemporary pundits.
In 1924, Congress rewarded veterans of the First World War with bonuses of a bit more than $1,000 per soldier, but they were not scheduled for full payment until 1945.
Unemployed veterans petitioned for immediate payment to alleviate the economic hardships of former servicemen who had lost their jobs in the early days of the Great Depression. In 1930, over President Hoover’s veto, the Democratic Congress voted to pay the veterans a little more than half of the amount promised. More than 20,000 veterans of the World War Expeditionary Force with their wives and children from all over the country descended on Washington in the spring and summer of 1932 and promised to stay until Congress approved legislation to pay the balance of the bonuses.
By June the veterans who styled themselves as the Bonus Expeditionary Force were camping in shacks and tents across the river from the capital and occupying vacant buildings in the city. In mid-June, the House of Representatives passed a bill that authorized the immediate payout of the bonus, but the Senate rejected the bill. President Hoover, concerned about balancing the budget, continued to oppose the veterans request. Most of the veterans returned home but an estimated 2,000 to 10,000 had nowhere to go and remained with their families to engage in protests.
Many in the Hoover administration saw the bonus marchers as a threat to national security. In mid-July, President Hoover ordered the police to clear the bonus marchers out of several abandoned federal buildings that they were occupying.
When the evictions began, several marchers threw rocks at the police, who then opened fire. Two veterans were killed and an ugly riot followed. The local authorities appealed to President Hoover for help. The violence provided him with the excuse he had been seeking to use force, and he ordered the United States Army to help police clear out the buildings.
Late in the afternoon of July 28, General Douglas MacArthur, the Army chief of staff, undertook the assignment with the assistance of his aide Dwight D. Eisenhower. He led the Third Cavalry under the command of George S. Patton, along with two infantry regiments with fixed bayonets, a machine-gun detachment, and six tanks that, for the first time in American history, drove down Pennsylvania Avenue in pursuit of the marchers. The troops used tear gas to drive the veterans out of the buildings and then through the crowded streets of the capital.
As the marchers retreated, General MacArthur exceeded his orders, just as he would do in Korea two decades later, to secure the building and contain the marchers at their camp. He pursued them to their Shantytown across the Anacostia River and ordered his troops to burn the tent city where the former servicemen and their families camped. Reportedly, 55 veterans were injured and 135 arrested.
When General MacArthur met with the press later he said: “That mob down there was a bad-looking mob. It was animated by the essence of revolution”. He sought to justify his actions by arguing that the bonus marchers were attempting to overthrow the government.
The Battle of Anacostia Flats outraged many Americans and marked the low point of President’s Hoover’s tenure. The bonus march contributed to his defeat to Franklin Roosevelt three months later and was a catalyst for social change.
In 1936, Congress finally passed, over President Roosevelt’s veto, a bill to disburse about $2 billion in bonuses. The march laid the foundation for the G. I. Bill of Rights in 1944, which provided Second World War veterans with funds for college, housing and other benefits.