Today in 1932, veterans of the First World War began arriving in Washington, DC for a rally. This was the beginning of what would become known as the Bonus Army, the largest gathering of veterans in the nation's history up to that time. What transpired over the course of the next two months weeks forever change the relationship between the US federal government and those who risked life and limb in service to their nation.
1932 was one of the worst years of the Great Depression. In the United States, unemployment reached 25%. Public stocks traded on Wall Street lost so much value that some of them would not regain their pre-1929 worth until the 1950's. In the midst of this were over 4 million men who had served in the American military during the First World War. Like the rest of the public, these men were suffering. They, however, had an "ace in the hole": The Adjusted Service Certificate Law of 1924. This federal law granted veterans of the Great War bonus certificates beginning in 1925 that could be exchanged for cash in 20 years. In 1932, the maturation date for the bonus certificates was still 13 years in the future. Many of the veterans simply could not wait that long---as they saw it, the money was theirs and they needed it now. The marchers also had retired Marine General Smedley Butler on their side, a two-time Medal of Honor recipient who was, at that time, the most highly decorated living American.
By early June, more than 31,000 veterans and their family members were camped within sight of the Capitol Building. The event for which they had gathered came to pass on June 17 when the US Senate voted on the Patman Bonus Bill, an act that would have moved the pay date for the bonus certificates from 1945 to immediately. The bill had been approved by the House of Representatives but was rejected by the Senate. As a sort of conciliation, Congress appropriated funds to help pay for the Bonus marchers' journey back home. Some members of the Bonus Army accepted this stipend and went home. Thousands of others stayed, hoping to force their government to reconsider its position.
June moved into July and the Bonus Army was still camped in Washington. On July 28th, police attempted to clear some of the marchers from land that was about to become a construction site. Violence ensued, during which two marchers were shot and killed and several police were wounded before a retreat was called. At that time, the District of Columbia was directly administered by the federal government and was entirely federal property. Thus, when the district's commissioners informed President Herbert Hoover that they could no longer maintain order, Hoover called on the Army to remove the Bonus Army by force.
Two nearby infantry and cavalry regiments were called upon to do the job, the 3rd Cavalry and the 12th Infantry. The 3rd Cav was commanded by Major George S. Patton, himself a veteran of the First World War. In overall command of the area was General Douglas MacArthur, the Army Chief of Staff. On the General's command staff was another major, Dwight Eisenhower, who served as the General's liaison to the Washington police.
By 4:45 P.M., July 28th, 1932, the troops were massed on Pennsylvania Ave. below the Capitol. Thousands of Civil Service employees spilled out of work and lined the streets to watch. The veterans, assuming the military display was in their honor, cheered. Suddenly Patton's troopers turned and charged. Soldiers with fixed bayonets followed, hurling tear gas into the crowd.
By nightfall the Bonus Army had retreated across the Anacostia River where Hoover ordered MacArthur to stop. Ignoring the command, the general led his infantry to the main camp. By early morning the camp's inhabitants were routed and the camp in flames. Two babies died and nearby hospitals were overwhelmed with casualties. Eisenhower later wrote, "the whole scene was pitiful. The veterans were ragged, ill-fed, and felt themselves badly abused. To suddenly see the whole encampment going up in flames just added to the pity."
Surprisingly, some of the Bonus marchers again traveled to Washington in 1933, this time to meet with their new President, Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who did not want to pay the bonus either, was much smoother in his approach than Hoover had been. His wife Eleanor visited the marchers' camp and talked many of the men into signing up for federal jobs to help build a new roadway that would connect the Florida Keys to the rest of the state. Sadly, 259 veterans were killed while working on the highway when the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 tore through southern Florida. After that disaster, public support for the veterans became so strong that Congress overrode the President's veto and paid the bonus in 1936.
While the Bonus marchers would have to wait several years to see their demand become a reality, their effort helped millions of veterans who had not yet served. In 1944, the US Congress passed the G.I. Bill of Rights, which provided returning veterans with money for education and loan guarantees for new homes, among other benefits.