Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Bonus Army War (1932)

The Occupy movement seemed to be a unique event, a product of now nonviolent resistance but they were walking in someone else’s footprints, whether they knew it or not. Both share occupation as a tactic.

In January 1932, a march of 25,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians, dubbed "Cox's Army", had marched on Washington, D.C, the largest demonstration to date in the nation's capital, setting a precedent for future marches by the unemployed.

When the Great Depression struck millions of Americans were left hungry and homeless. Over 12 million were jobless out of a labor force of 51 million. Veterans of the war were desperate for relief. So in 1932, a group of veterans in Portland, Oregon led by a man named Walter Waters, decided to go to Washington to lobby for early payment of their promised bonus. They went down to the railroad yards, with a bugle and an American flag, and hopped onto freight trains. They called themselves the Bonus Army. As they moved eastward, their idea caught on. 43,000 marchers—17,000 World War I veterans, their families, and affiliated groups gathered in Washington, D.C., in the spring and summer of 1932 to demand immediate cash-payment redemption of their service certificates. Its organizers called it the Bonus Expeditionary Force to echo the name of World War I's American Expeditionary Force, while the media called it the Bonus March. It was led by Walter W. Waters, a former Army sergeant.The Bonus Army stands as an example of army veterans organizing around veterans’ issues that inspired major labor battles of the next several years. The members showed that movements for social justice could succeed, even in the face of violent repression. Tom Allen, co-author of The Bonus Army: An American Epic, says the movement "was a magnet for the veterans and their families who had nothing. "Suddenly, out of the whole Depression, comes guys doing something," he says. "There was hope there. They have a mission, they have a destination — and it's called Washington, D.C."

The practice of war-time military bonuses began in 1776, as payment for the difference between what a soldier earned and what he could have earned had he not enlisted. Many of the war veterans had been out of work since the beginning of the Great Depression. The World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 had awarded them bonuses in the form of certificates they could not redeem until 1945. Each service certificate, issued to a qualified veteran soldier, bore a face value equal to the soldier's promised payment plus compound interest. The principal demand of the Bonus Army was the immediate cash payment of their certificates. Each veteran was to receive a dollar for each day of domestic service, up to a maximum of $500, and $1.25 for each day of overseas service, up to a maximum of $625 (2010 value: $7,899). Amounts of $50 or less were immediately paid. All other amounts were issued as Certificates of Service maturing in 20 years. During the dying days of the Hoover administration there was record unemployment. President Hoover and Republican congressmen opposed immediate redemption of the military service certificates since they reasoned that the government would have to increase taxes to cover the costs of the payout, and thus any potential recovery would be slowed.

The Bonus Army massed on Capitol Hill on June 17, 1932, building semi-permanent camps with garbage pulled from a nearby junkyard. They set up camp in vacant lots, empty buildings and in an Army-style encampment along the Anacostia River. Discipline in the camp was good, despite the fears of many city residents who spread unfounded "Red Scare" rumors. Streets were laid out, latrines dug. It had its own library, post office and barbershops. The Bonus Marchers produced their own newspaper, the "BEF News". Walters, organized the various encampments along military lines, announced that there would be "no panhandling, no drinking, no radicalism," Retired Marine Corps Gen. Smedley Butler came to speak to the marchers."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."
 Attorney General Mitchell ordered the veterans removed from all government property. Washington police met with resistance, shots were fired and two veterans were wounded and later died. Veterans were also shot dead at other locations during the demonstration. President Herbert Hoover then ordered the army to clear the veterans' campsite. Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur was in command and was supported by six tanks commanded by Maj. George S. Patton. After the cavalry charged, the infantry, with fixed bayonets and adamsite gas, an arsenical vomiting agent, entered the camps. The Bonus Army marchers with their wives and children were driven out, and their shelters and belongings burned. The veterans fled across the Anacostia River to their largest camp and President Hoover ordered the assault stopped. However Gen. MacArthur, feeling the Bonus March was a Communist attempt to overthrow the U.S. government, ignored the President and ordered a new attack. Fifty-five veterans were injured and 135 arrested. A veteran's wife miscarried. 12-week-old baby died in the hospital after being caught in the tear gas attack. Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, later President of the United States, served as one of MacArthur's junior aides and wrote the Army's official incident report which endorsed MacArthur's conduct. The Bonus Army incident proved disastrous for Hoover's chances at re-election; he lost the 1932 election in a landslide to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

According to journalist and eyewitness Joseph C. Harsch, "This was not a revolutionary situation. This was a bunch of people in great distress wanting help.... These were simply veterans from World War I who were out of luck, out of money, and wanted to get their bonus -- and they needed the money at that moment."

Four years later, the WWI vets received their bonuses. And in 1944, Congress passed the GI Bill to help military veterans transition to civilian life.

No comments: