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
(for those who require one)
And, of course, that is what all of this is -- all of this: the one song, ever changing, ever reincarnated, that speaks somehow from and to and for that which is ineffable within us and without us, that is both prayer and deliverance, folly and wisdom, that inspires us to dance or smile or simply to go on, senselessly, incomprehensibly, beatifically, in the face of mortality and the truth that our lives are more ill-writ, ill-rhymed and fleeting than any song, except perhaps those songs -- that song, endlesly reincarnated -- born of that truth, be it the moon and June of that truth, or the wordless blue moan, or the rotgut or the elegant poetry of it. That nameless black-hulled ship of Ulysses, that long black train, that Terraplane, that mystery train, that Rocket '88', that Buick 6 -- same journey, same miracle, same end and endlessness."
-- Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather
-- Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather