In 1924 the United States Congress passed the “World War Adjusted Compensation Act”, awarding cash bonuses to veterans of the “Great War”, in which the United States had been involved between 1917 and 1918.
3,662,374 military service certificates were issued to qualifying veterans, bearing a face value equal to $1 per day of domestic service and $1.25 a day for overseas service, plus interest. The total face value of these certificates was $3.638 billion, equivalent to $43.7 billion in today’s dollars and payable to each veteran or his estate upon his birthday, in 1945.
The Great Depression was two years old in 1932, and thousands of veterans had been out of work since the beginning. Certificate holders could borrow up to 50% of the face value of their service certificates, but direct funds were unavailable for another 13 years.
WWI veterans began to arrive in Washington on May 29 to press their case for immediate cash redemption. Veterans set up encampments between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial and around Washington DC, led by former US Army sergeant Walter W. Waters. They were the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” named after the American Expeditionary Force of WWI, though it’s unclear if that’s what they called themselves or a term of derision, used by opponents. The media of the day called them, the “Bonus Army”.
This had all had happened before. Hundreds of Pennsylvania veterans of the Revolution marched on Washington in 1783, after the Continental Army was disbanded without pay.
The Congress fled to Princeton New Jersey on that occasion, and the Army was called up to expel these war veterans from the Capital. Washington, DC was later excluded from the restrictions of the Posse Comitatus Act, making it the only part of the United States where the military can be used for domestic police activity.
17,000 veterans and their families, 43,000 all told, gathered in and around Washington: men, women and children living in tents or in make-shift shelters built out of old lumber, packing boxes and even scrap tin, scavenged from nearby junkyards.
With unemployment at 24 percent, Congressman Wright Patman (D-TX), himself a WW1 veteran, introduced a bill before the House of Representative to make $2.4 billion available, immediately. On June 15, Congressman Edward Eslick (D-TN) literally had a heart attack and died, in the middle of his address.
In the end the House passed the bill which then went over to the Senate for a vote, on June 17. One newspaper described it as “the tensest day in the capital since the war.” 10,000 marchers crowding the Capitol grounds responded with stunned silence when they got the news. The Senate had voted it down, 62 to 18.
“Sing America and go back to your billets” Waters said, and so they did. Marchers would hold a silent vigil in front of the Capitol, a “death march”, until July 17. The day the Congress adjourned.
Marchers were in their camps on July 28 when Attorney General William Mitchell ordered them evicted. Two policemen became trapped on the second floor of a building when they drew their revolvers and shot two veterans, William Hushka and Eric Carlson, both of whom died of their injuries. Two police officers were also killed in the ensuing protests.
President Hoover ordered the Army under General Douglas MacArthur to evict the Bonus Army from Washington. 500 Cavalry formed up on Pennsylvania Avenue at 4:45pm supported by 500 Infantry, 800 police and six battle tanks under the command of then-Major George S. Patton. Civil Service employees came out to watch as bonus marchers cheered, thinking that the Army had gathered in their support. And then the Cavalry was ordered to charge. The infantry followed with tear gas and fixed bayonets, entering the camps and evicting men, women and children alike.
It was a “pitiful spectacle, the mightiest government in the world chasing unarmed men, women, and children with Army tanks. If the Army must be called out to make war on unarmed citizens, this is no longer America.”Washington Daily News
Bonus marchers fled to their largest encampment across the Anacostia River, when President Hoover ordered the assault stopped. Believing that the Bonus March was an attempt to overthrow the government, General MacArthur ignored the President and ordered a new attack, the army routing 10,000 and leaving their camps in flames.
1,017 were injured and 135 arrested. The wife of one veteran miscarried. 12 week old Bernard Myers died after being caught in the gas attack. A government investigation later claimed he died of inflammation of the small intestine, but a hospital employee said the tear gas “didn’t do it any good.”
Then-Major Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of MacArthur’s aides at the time. Eisenhower believed that it was wrong for the Army’s highest ranking officer to lead an action against fellow war veterans. Characteristically blunt he said “I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch not to go down there”.
The bonus march debacle doomed any hope Herbert Hoover had for re-election. Franklin Delano Roosevelt opposed the veterans’ bonus demands during the election, but was able to negotiate a solution when veterans organized a second demonstration in 1933. Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor was instrumental in these negotiations, leading one veteran to comment: “Hoover sent the army, Roosevelt sent his wife”.