|This Week in History
July 26 - August 1, 1932
Hoover Orders Army To Disperse World War I Bonus Marchers
As the Great Depression deepened, President Herbert Hoover funnelled $2 billion into Wall Street banks and firms through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, while refusing to give any relief to the desperate Americans who were losing their jobs, homes, and farms. He finally granted a few million dollars for work relief, but it was a mere drop in the bucket.
Hoover's advisers, who included Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, assured him that a "hands-off" policy would soon solve the Depression. It was a direct application of Charles Darwin's evil theories of natural selectionthe resulting suffering and death might seem difficult, but the outcome would be a healthier economy. Those who survived the time of trial would be the "fittest." Hoover, although dubious about this extreme solution, also disapproved of massive government intervention, especially any relief which might be seen as a "dole."
The veterans of World War I, the former members of General Pershing's American Expeditionary Force to Europe, had been promised by Congress that they would receive payment on their "adjusted compensation certificates" in 1945. Why, wondered the veterans, in their desperate economic situation, could they not receive their bonus payments immediately? In the spring of 1932, a group of World War I veterans from Portland, Ore. decided to travel to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress to move up the date of their bonus payment.
They were led by Walter W. Waters, a sergeant in the late war, and now an unemployed cannery worker. The group rode freight cars and arrived at East St. Louis on May 21. Officials of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad refused to let them board a freight train for the East, and eventually, the National Guard was called out to load them onto trucks and ship them out of the state. But national coverage of the event attracted other veterans to the march, and by June some 20,000 or so veterans, many with their wives and children, were camped in a "Hooverville" on the Anacostia Flats within sight of the U.S. Capitol.
A delegation of veterans marched to the White House and asked to meet with the President, but Hoover refused. He met with heavyweight wrestling champions and members of the Eta Epsilon Gamma Sorority during that time, but not with the veterans. No member of the administration met with the veterans, but the head of the District of Columbia police, Brig. Gen. Pelham Glassford, tried to make them welcome. He provided them with makeshift housing in empty government buildings, and allowed them to camp on Anacostia Flats. Through the Army, he obtained, presumably with Hoover's approval, tents, cots, and food supplies. He ordered his men to treat the veterans humanely, and made the rounds of their campsites on his motorcycle, offering them encouragement.
Representative Wright Patman (D-Texas), had introduced a bill in the House to authorize immediate payment of the bonuses, and it was passed on June 15. The veterans waited on the Capitol steps on June 17 to hear the results from the Senate, but Hoover lobbied hard for the bill's defeat, and it failed to pass. At this point, many of the dispirited veterans returned home, but a substantial group, estimated between 2,000 and 8,000, stayed on, despite Hoover's offer of railroad fare home. Some of them, in increasingly desperate circumstances, did not have homes to go to.
The veterans who stayed continued to conduct marches around the capital city, some of which were completely silent "dead marches" around federal buildings. On July 11, President Hoover vetoed the Garner-Wagner Relief Bill, which would have provided some aid to the unemployed. On July 23, the veterans picketed the White House. This was too much for Hoover. He told General Glassford of the D.C. Police that if his forces couldn't prevent such "outbreaks", the Army would be called in.
Chains went up at the White House gates, extra guards patrolled the grounds, day and night, and the nearby streets were closed to traffic. Hoover's advisers began to talk about "revolutionary plans" by the supposedly large numbers of Communists and criminal elements within the veterans. In fact, they questioned how many of the bonus marchers were actually veterans.
On July 28, General Glassford reported to the veterans that he had been ordered by "the highest authority" to move them out of the buildings they occupied on Pennsylvania Avenue. Because Glassford had treated them well, the veterans started to move out on their own. Then, one of the D.C. policemen stumbled and his revolver went off as he hit the ground. Another policeman reacted to the shot by thinking the veterans had fired, and he shot into the crowd. Two veterans subsequently died.
The District of Columbia Commissioners then sent a message to President Hoover, saying they could no longer guarantee the peace. Hoover, who was just starting his Presidential campaign against Franklin D. Roosevelt, ordered Gen. Douglas MacArthur to clear the veterans out of the empty government buildings and drive them back to the Anacostia Flats. That afternoon, MacArthur deployed cavalry with drawn sabers and infantry with fixed bayonets up Pennsylvania Ave. Their equipment included tanks, water cannon, and tear-gas cannisters. The troops used both water and tear gas to drive the veterans and their families back to Anacostia Flats. Then, apparently exceeding his orders, MacArthur ordered his men to break up the encampment, sending men, women, and children, some carrying their few possessions, fleeing into the night to take shelter on the roads of Maryland. The encampment subsequently was burned.
An eleven-month-old baby, a victim of the tear gas, died that night in a hospital. When newsreels of the action were shown in American theaters, the crowds hissed and booed. President Hoover, although reportedly furious with MacArthur, took full responsibility and stated that "A challenge to the authority of the United States Government has been met." General MacArthur declared that the "bad looking mob" had been "animated by the essence of revolution." The Justice Department issued a report which said that Communists and criminals had been the masterminds behind the veterans' demonstrations.
Franklin Roosevelt, still Governor of New York, saw newspaper photos of the rout of the veterans, and told Rexford Tugwell that Hoover should have sent out for coffee and sandwiches, and talked to the veterans' delegation. He recanted his former high opinion of Hoover from the days when Hoover was called the "Great Humanitarian" and the "Great Engineer," and said that the army should never have become involved. Roosevelt concluded that "There was nothing left inside the man but jelly; maybe there never had been anything."
Roosevelt was elected President that November, and by the spring of 1933, there was another Bonus Army encamped in Washington. But as the veterans said, "Hoover sent the Army; Roosevelt sent his wife." FDR had the marchers put up in an under-used army fort, where they were given food and medical care. Eleanor Roosevelt came to check on their living conditions, and stayed to have a meal and sing World War I songs with them. President Roosevelt offered them all jobs in the newly formed Civilian Conservation Corps, and 90% of the men accepted. The veterans voted to disperse, and those who wanted to return home were given free railroad passage.
Like Hoover, Roosevelt opposed the early payment of the veterans' bonus. In 1936, Congress actually passed a $2 billion payment to the veterans over his veto. Did that mean that Roosevelt, compared to Hoover, was just a smoother operator, or was something else involved? Roosevelt was dedicated to the concept of the general welfare, and was not a prisoner of ideology, as Hoover had been. In the preface to his 1934 book, "On Our Way," Roosevelt gives us a sense of his outlook. The President briefly reviewed the past year of 1933, and stated that, "The time called for and still calls for planning. This book describes the nature and the purpose of the many factors that were necessary to the working out of a national plan for improvement. In spite of the necessary complexity of the group of organizations whose abbreviated titles have caused some amusement, and through what has seemed to some a mere reaching out for centralized power by the Federal Government, there has run a very definite, deep and permanent objective.
"With regard to the individual excellence of each one of them, I can only repeat what I have often saidthat the individual parts in this planned program are by no means inflexible or infallible. In some respects we may have to change the method; in others, we may not have gone far enough. Time and experience will teach us many things."
In 1933, Roosevelt made many speeches about cutting the national deficit and government spending. He even rescinded all the previous bills about veterans' benefits from various wars and then sponsored a new one which cut benefits. But, at the same time, he directed the Administrator of Veterans Affairs to "conduct a careful study of the effects of these new regulations so that if any injustices or inequalities were found, or if the reductions appeared in some particulars to be too severe, prompt remedial recommendations were to be made to me." The study did indeed show that the cuts were too severe, and twice during 1933, and again in 1934, Roosevelt issued Executive Orders that restored money to the veterans.
President Roosevelt also made a speech before the American Legion in October of 1933, where he stated that, although soldiers wounded in battle would be treated at government expense, once they had returned to civilian life, they would receive no special treatment just because they had once been soldiers. Again, Roosevelt changed his mind over time, and during World War II he made extensive plans for veteran benefits after the war, including the "G.I. Bill of Rights," which would ensure that the neglect and lack of services visited upon the veterans of World War I would never happen again.