July 28, 2017
President Herbert Hoover watched from his White House window as the veteran’s camp burned, knowing his bid for a second term was over. No one would believe, or care, that Major General Douglas MacArthur defied his orders. MacArthur had already set the stage by holding an impromptu press conference claiming communism and government overthrow were the objectives of the march. MacArthur’s brazen actions would forever tarnish Hoover’s reputation and get lost in MacArthur’s legend.
We are quick to assume that the military would never be used against American citizens. But it can, and already has. It all stemmed from soldiers returning home from Europe after World War I, quickly realizing that civilians had benefitted far more than they had financially from the war effort. After putting their lives on the line for the country, WWI veterans argued they should be properly compensated for their lost wages while fighting across the sea.
This wasn’t the first time Congress faced angry veterans. In 1783 hundreds stormed the capital in Philadelphia demanding they receive, not bonus pay, but simply the wages promised to them during the Revolutionary War. (See Mutiny On The Congress-Vol.3) However, the concept of delivering bonuses to soldiers, equating their earnings to those not serving, was established in 1776. At that time, military service bonuses were given in land grants, but a cash-only system replaced it after 1860 due to lack of available land.
The WWI veterans received a $60 bonus, much smaller than previous wars. This led the newly created American Legion to appeal Congress for a larger bonus. President Calvin Coolidge vetoed legislation on May 15, 1924, stating, “patriotism…bought and paid for is not patriotism.” A few days later, Congress overrode his veto, authorizing the World War Adjusted Compensation Act. Government issued certificates to veterans promising $1.25 per day serving abroad and $1.00 per day served in America. These bonds matured in 20 years, allowing Congress time to raise funds in a trust for the full amount of the over 3.662 million certificates distributed, worth more than $3.638 billion dollars.
When Vice-President Coolidge and President Warren Harding entered office in 1921, the country’s economy was in dire straits due to Progressive Democrat President Woodrow Wilson’s government spending, which included debt incurred from World War I. The financial situation far exceeded the Wall Street Crash of 1929, yet Harding and Coolidge avoided a depression by lowering taxes and dramatically cutting government spending. This resulted in the economic boom known as the “Roaring 20’s”. (see The Forgotten President-Vol.2) During this time, veterans did not mind the delay in bonus payment.
Things quickly changed following the 1929 crash shortly after Hoover took office. Instead of reducing government as his predecessors did, Hoover increased government spending, which heightened the depression. By 1931, many veterans were in a desperate state. Congress authorized legislation allowing veterans to access a portion of their certificate value in the form of loans. Hoover vetoed this bill, claiming taxes would have to be raised to cover the funds, which would only deepen the depression.
Led by Walter Waters of Oregon, distressed veterans needing cash to provide for their families began marching on Washington D.C. in May of 1932. Starting with about 1,000 veterans, by June the number had grown to approximately 20,000. The protesters vowed to stay in Washington until they were given some relief. Shantytown camps were established on the outskirts of D.C., across the Anacostia River in Anacostia Flats. Veterans dubbed themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF) after their American Expeditionary Force (AEF) title while overseas. (see Duty First)
In June, the House of Representatives approved the printing of $2.4 billion to pay the certificates. This would have devalued the already depressed dollar, causing the Senate to vote it down. With the summer recess coming, both houses of Congress offered veterans travel money to get back home, which most accepted. However, roughly 2000 veterans and their families that were homeless and jobless remained in Washington.
Walters, the representative of the veterans and the city’s superintendent of police, Pelham Glassford, a fellow veteran, maintained order and civility through constant communication. That all changed in July. John Pace of the American Communist Party infiltrated the BEF. Wanting to cause chaos, many speculate Pace escalated the veteran’s anger and aggression. Regardless of how much influence he truly had, Hoover’s administration viewed the presence of Communists as a new and dangerous threat to the country.
On July 28th, Secretary of War Patrick Hurley ordered the evacuation of buildings scheduled for demolition. These were the very buildings the veterans were using as housing. Not only did the veterans refuse to obey Glassford and his officers, they began throwing bricks and stones at them. One officer suffered a fractured skull while Glassford himself was assaulted. In the chaos, officers fearing for their safety fired upon the veterans. One veteran was killed and another was mortally wounded.
The officers withdrew while Glassford consulted the Board of Commissioners, who quickly called on Hoover to deploy Federal troops to restore order. Hurley contacted MacArthur, instructing him that, “You will have United States troops proceed immediately to the scene of the disorder. Surround the affected area and clear it without delay. Any women and children should be accorded every consideration and kindness. Use all humanity consistent with the execution of this order.”
The ranking officer, MacArthur defied military protocol, and the advice of his aide, Major Dwight Eisenhower, and took an active role in the action. He led the infantry while Major George S. Patton commanded the Calvary, assisted by six tanks. Thousands of civil service employees lined the streets to watch the troops arriving with great enthusiasm, believing the troops were there in support of the veterans. Reality struck when Patton yelled, “Charge.” Onlookers cried, “Shame! Shame!” as WWI veterans now faced the very same tanks they fought alongside in Europe.
Hoover sent word to MacArthur twice to not cross the Anacostia Bridge, yet MacArthur had his own agenda. Intelligence reports indicated the BEF planned to remain in Washington, inciting violence that would encourage Communist rioting in major cities across the country. Rebellious pushback against government officials in recent events across the country, such as speeches on college campuses, already raised concerns. Truly fearing revolution, MacArthur ignored Hoover’s orders and stormed across the bridge towards the veterans’ camp. Realizing the urgency of the situation, someone raced across the bridge waving a white shirt, imploring for time to safely remove woman and children. An hour was granted.
When the hour was up, soldiers began using tear gas to evacuate the camp. But soon the camp was ablaze in fire. No one knows for sure if MacArthur ordered the burning or if the veterans set the fires themselves. However, in the chaos, a woman miscarried, and a 3-month-old baby and 12-year-old boy died due to the gas. In addition, 54 protesters were injured and 135 arrested.
MacArthur explained his actions in an impromptu press conference. “It was animated by the essence of revolution. They (veterans) had come to the conclusion, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they were about to take over in some arbitrary way either the direct control of the government or else to control it by indirect methods. It is my opinion that had the President let it go on another week the institutions of our government would have been very severely threatened.”
Liberty, this is an example of two sides, both with legitimate reasoning for their positions, but taking unproductive actions.
The veterans were hungry, homeless, and needed work. They just wanted someone to listen. However, while peaceful protests are a Constitutional right, throwing items at the police is not.
On the other hand, Hoover and MacArthur were trying to stop what they thought was a Communist overthrow. Nevertheless, going after American veterans may not have been a well thought out tactic. As a result, they ushered in Franklin D. Roosevelt, the most progressive socialist President America ever experienced until Barack Obama.
Hoover didn’t support expediting the bonus to the veterans. But to make matters worse, he wouldn’t even meet with the BEF. Roosevelt didn't favor hastening the bonus either, but when camps arose during his administration, he provided a campsite and three meals a day. He sent his wife, who ate with the veterans and listened to their memories of the war. This allowed the veterans to feel that someone was at least listening. As part of the New Deal, FDR offered them jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). So, even though Roosevelt vetoed the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act in 1936, which Congress overrode, he had already won the hearts and minds of the veterans.
Understanding the WWI veterans’ Bonus March puts President Donald Trump’s 2016 win into perspective. After eight years of Barack Obama’s policies that actually mirrored Roosevelt’s, Americans were in dire straights economically. What they were most tired of was a government that didn't listen to them. Obamacare forced many Americans out of full-time positions or out of work completely. At the same time, the taxes and increased fees of the healthcare plan choked American’s barely getting by while decreasing the quality of their insurance. Voters saw relief in Trump as they did in Roosevelt because he listened and spoke their language. In Roosevelt’s case, he took advantage of the situation and implemented extensive government programs and policies, which actually prolonged the depression by years.
While Roosevelt’s programs did help Americans in the short-term, including my own family, the New Deal increased the National Debt from $22 billion to $33 billion in just a few years. Roosevelt grew government and people’s dependence on it, while limiting private business. The New Deal remains the perfect example of the cure being worse the than the illness. This stands in sharp contrast to Coolidge’s reduction of government spending, taxation and overall governmental power. His policies reduced the National Debt from $5 billion to just $3 billion in seven years. As a result, through pure capitalism, the economy rebounded quickly and mightily because the government got out of the way of the innovators.
In 2017, 100 years after America entered WWI, we find ourselves in a similar situation as 1932. Communists and socialists are again calling for rebellion, inciting violence and inducing chaos on college campuses across the country. The communists direct the actions of Black Lives Matter, the “99%”, and various anti-American groups for their own benefit. We’ve already seen several attacks on police and millions of dollars of damage done to towns and campuses across the country. People are calling on Congress for economic relief, primarily the repeal of Obamacare. This is a simple return to the decrease in size and scope of government that Coolidge embraced. Republicans campaigned on this idea for eight years. And now that they have the chance, all they can produce are excuses.
People are hurting, Congress isn’t listening, revolutionists are ready and no one has learned a darn thing from the Bonus March.
That’s my 2 cents.
UNLEARNED LESSONS OF THE BONUS MARCH