Miniseries #3: Summer of '32

The Prrrologue:

In the year of Our Lord, 1924, a bill passed by the United States Congress, then signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge, granted veterans of the First World War 'Adjusted Service Certificates'. It was thought a good idea. The certificates were, essentially, souvenirs; warrants of recognition for honorable duty in the defense of these United States that could, if the bearer so chose, be redeemed for a fistful of cold, hard cash after a maturation period of twenty years. It was a bonus, in other words; the kind one always receives in grateful tribute from one's employer for any job worth doing done well. In less than a decade, however, the unfiltered reality of Capitalism, American Style, soon dawned on everyone, and as a result the country found itself plunged into the sort of full-scale economic depression no one makes movies about anymore.

In June of 1932, some 15,000 veterans from across the nation -- carrying with them their wives, their children and greater or lesser degrees of desperation -- gathered as one in Washington, D.C. to petition that same United States Congress to enact legislation that would in effect force the War Department to do away with the maturation cycle and cough up the bonuses . . . now. Sponsored enthusiastically by the great Texas populist Wright Patman (who, some 40 years thereafter, would conduct the earliest Congressional inquiries into the abyss of mendacity that was Richard Nixon's 1972 Presidential campaign), the bill sailed through the House, then struck a reef in the Senate where, by its very nature, it was pronounced Dead On Arrival. In the meantime the petitioners, assuming style and title of The Bonus Expeditionary Forces, dug themselves in along the banks of the Anacostia River for the long haul, constructing a vast encampment of makeshift housing that announced to everyone with eyesight that The Bonus Marchers had no intention of leaving the nation's capitol without seeing their grievances redressed; just like it says in the Constitution. In honor of Washington's Chief Executive, they called these do-it-yourself cities Hoovervilles.

Within a month's time, President Herbert Hoover, unflattered by the honor and recognizing that the "depleted federal treasury" line really wasn't fooling anybody, asked the marchers to please go back where they came from. Congress suddenly snapped into action and kicked loose just enough money for carfare, and some of the marchers did take flight. But when the sweeping generosity of Washington's gesture failed to enchant the majority, the always-relaible D.C. Police were sent in to break some heads, while newspapers began the standard cycle of dark speculation on the presence of Anarchists, Communists and other "foreign radicals" in sinister control of Bonus Marcher ranks. The protest, despite the weight of this harassment, endured. On July 28, requesting that "all humanity consistent with the due execution of this order" be used, President Hoover asked Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Douglas MacArthur to clear out the Hoovervilles and send everybody home. And, with all consistent humanity, that's what he did.

Bringing to bear the full might of the US Army's 3rd Cavalry from Fort Myer, Virginia, and the 12th Infantry Regiment out of Fort Howard, Maryland, Gen. MacArthur unleashed an unremitting mandate from the US Capitol in the form of tear gas, unsheathed bayonets and plain, ordinary firepower. When it ended and the fires went out, over 1,000 marchers . . . and their wives . . . and their kids . . . were injured, four were dead, and the Anacostia flats -- once all the Hooverville lumber had been carted away -- resembled nothing less than a battlefield aftermath from that Civil War which suddenly must have seemed a lot closer in time to some Americans than it had just two months prior.

But with Franklin Roosevelt (that radical) in the White House, the Bonus Army returned to Washington one year later. Deploying his more winning charm, Roosevelt managed to buy off the marchers with construction jobs on the Overseas Highway, extending Route 1 to the Florida Keys. It was literally the least he could do. On Labor Day of 1935, some 250 former protesters were killed when a Hurricane demolished the unfinished project. Within a year, perhaps as a way of fending off the ravages of irony, Congress caved in (overriding a Presidential veto) and gave their last full measure of devotion; paying the two dollars to what remained of the Bonus Expeditionary Forces.

So ended the long Bonus March



























Vanwall said...

I always found it interesting that MacArthur was sent in just a few days after an appearance at the camp by the highly respected Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, Ret., double CMOH holder, a far better soldier/patriot than most of the Washington crew put together, especially Hoover and MacArthur. Butler was in full sympathy with the Bonus March's aims, and must've been salt in the wounds for Hoover and Co. - but not enough to ignore Butler's abilities and his public respect; within a few months some of the most reactionary of them, Prescott Bush included, were deluded enough to approach Butler with a military coup in mind - the Business Plot to overthrow the government and establish a fascist state. They misjudged Butler - he went public and the plot was stillborn, but you can catch the whiff of frenzy in both of these incidents.

Stacia said...

I always wondered what the forces MacArthur brought in thought about fighting veterans.

The government has a long history of screwing over its soldiers. While he did get a lot of tuition paid on the GI bill, I was always surprised at what little dad got in his retirement years for serving in WW2: a little extra ($45, I think) in his social security check and a small flat grave marker that has probably sunk into the ground by now.

Tom Sutpen said...


What I've found fascinating about the Gen. Butler incident is how it was immediately erased from the public memory banks. It's the sort of event that ought to be prominent in any 20th Century American History text, but virtually nothing has been written about it. Depressing.


Excellent point. The record of the US government in honoring the service of its non-famous veterans has always been apalling to one degree or another. The GI Bill was undeniably positive, but it wouldn't even exist if Washington hadn't been terrified by the specter of another public relations nightmare such as the Bonus March; which ought to tell anyone an awful lot about how receptive our institutions really are to public protest.

The soldiers under MacArthur's command may not, I fear, have had many qualms about what they were doing. The press had already been sounding the drumbeat that the Bonus Marchers were a pack of Anarchists (in fact there were a few Anarchists involved in the march, which says absolutely nothing about the merits of their cause), and MacArthur genuinely seemed to believe that they represented some form of invading army of dark intent. Once you designate someone as The Enemy for a sufficient length of time, I daresay that professional soldiers will then have little trouble pointing . . . and firing . . . at anyone, even war veterans. I don't condemn them for it, nor do I make excuses on their behalf. That kind of dehumanization is just the nature of the institution.

Tommy O'C said...

You've omitted that MacArthur exceeded his orders. He was supposed to push the marchers back across the river. Nothing more. This is verified in American Caesar by William Manchester, as well as other more recent, better researched accounts.
(Sometimes, the smoke has to clear before history can be accurately assessed.) Hoover sent verbal orders to MacArthur not to attack the Hooverville across the Anacostia. Mac's second in command, Dwight D. Eisenhower, did his best to dissuade his vainglorious C.O. to no avail. Hoover then had a written order hand-delivered to MacArthur specifically ordering him NOT to attack the Hooverville and to allow the marchers to retreat across the Anacostia. The messenger made it clear to MacArthur that the order was from Hoover and what it contained. MacArthur is said to have walked away, refusing to read the message, completely disregarding his commander in chief's instructions, and attacked and destroyed the Hooverville. Hoover was blamed for the treatment of the Bonus Marchers and MacArthur was hailed as a savior of the Republic.