On this date in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, the “Bonus Expeditionary Force,” a group of 1,000 World War I veterans seeking to cash in their veterans’ bonus certificates, arrived in Washington, D.C. Though Congress issued the $1000 certificates in 1924, they were not redeemable until 1945. But vets could not wait that long. In these hard times they needed that bonus now, otherwise they would starve to death years before their payout came.
By mid-June, the vets had set up a massive encampment of the homeless, a “Hooverville,” named for Pres. Herbert Hoover and his cynical inaction in the face of widespread hunger and despair. By the end of the month other veteran groups made their way to Washington, hitching rides, hopping trains, and hiking, swelling the Bonus Marchers to some 20,000 strong, most of them unemployed veterans in difficult financial straits.
Pres. Hoover refused to address them, but the veterans did find an audience with a congressional delegation. Soon a debate began in the Congress over whether to meet the demonstrators’ demands. As deliberation continued on Capitol Hill, the Bonus Army built a shantytown across the Potomac River in Anacostia Flats. When the Senate rejected their demands on June 17, most of the veterans dejectedly returned home. But several thousand remained in the capital with their families. Many had nowhere else to go. The Bonus Army conducted itself with decorum and spent their vigil unarmed.
However, many believed them a threat to national security. On July 28, Washington police began to clear the demonstrators out of the capital. Two men were killed as tear gas and bayonets assailed the Bonus Marchers. After the vets resisted being evicted by the police, Hoover ordered an Army regiment to clear them out. Infantry and cavalry supported by six tanks were dispatched with Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur in command. They rolled into Anacostia Flats, forcing the Bonus Army to flee. MacArthur then ordered the shanty settlements burned.
Major Dwight D. Eisenhower served as MacArthur’s liaison with Washington police, and Major George Patton led the cavalry. This was a direct violation of the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the armed forces being used against U.S. citizens.
Many Americans were outraged. How could the army treat veterans of the Great War (to end all war) with such disrespect? Hoover maintained that political agitators, anarchists, and communists dominated the mob. But facts contradicted his claims. However their political outlook had matured since 1918, nine out of ten Bonus Marchers were indeed veterans, and 20 percent were disabled. Despite the fact that the Bonus Army was the largest march on Washington up to that point in history, Hoover and MacArthur clearly exaggerated the threat posed to national security. As Hoover campaigned for reelection that summer, his actions turned an already sour public opinion of him even further to the bottom.
Hoover lost his reelection bid in November to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and a page in United States history turned.