History & Culture
The Constitution and Anacostia Park
Freedoms guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution include the right to peaceable assembly to protest even against actions taken by the government. It is one of the most treasured freedoms we enjoy that many in the world do not have. Washington, as the seat of the national government is often the focal point of protests and rallies for policy changes. The National Park Service and the Washington, DC governments have a system of permitting that ensures protection of protestors, property, and the public. On any day there may be a protest on park land in the city ranging from one person with a sign to thousands rallying for some cause. Most are a footnote in history. A few change history. One here at Anacostia fell into those few that change history.
A Grateful Nation
World War I was characterized by massive loss of life and injury from modern weapons of the time, chemical weapons, and long trench warfare. When veterans returned after the war, Congress recognized the nation would not demand additional compensation for their sacrifice and proposed a bill that would establish compensation based on rank and time served that would reward those who had not suffered injury and received lifetime disability compensation. It was a one-time gesture of gratitude to all who served.
Those who received $50 or less got their bonus in full in cash. Those who were to get more than that were to get certificates that would mature in 20 years. This would have paid the average veteran $1,000 in 20 years as opposed to $625 in 1924. Congress passed the legislation over the veto of President Calvin Coolidge.
To meet this cost, Congress established in 1924 a trust fund to receive annual allocations of $112 million dollars each over the next twenty years. These allocations would themselves yield $2.24 billion dollars and the interest would add the amount needed to meet the face value of the certificates. It seemed in 1924 a good agreement where veterans would benefit as they aged and Congress had expressed a nation's gratitude to those who had defended it.
The Stock Market Crashed
At the same time events were happening in the stock market that threatened not just the certificates, but the economy of the nation. Beginning in the early 1920 the stock market prices began to rise and by 1925 stock prices seemed on an ever upward trend. People were borrowing money to buy stocks they thought could only increase in value. Banks caught the stock fever and began investing their customers' assets in the stock market. In March of 1929 there was a minor crash in stock prices and those who had borrowed money to buy stocks found their loans coming due with no profits to pay for them. About the same time steel production slowed and fewer cars were sold. These were further signs of an economy in trouble. That summer prices rebounded and the country as a whole breathed a sigh of relief. By September 3, 1929 the stock market reached its highest peak to that date. Stock market prices began fluctuating but on October 24, 1929 prices plummeted and people began selling stock as fast as they could. By the afternoon the panic ended as bankers willing to invest their own money in the market reassured others that the market was safe. The drops began again four days later and the great stock market crash was in full progress. By 1933 prices were 80% lower than they had been in the 1929 peak and demand for goods dried up across the country throwing people out of work. The banks invested in the stock market held loans not funds, including those of their customers, and the money supply was drying up as banks failed. In March of 1933 when Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated, depositors had lost $140 billion dollars and the banking system had largely failed.
Borrowing Future Earnings
In 1931 over the veto of President Hoover, Congress passed legislation allowing veterans hit by the depression to borrow against their certificate funds. Veterans could borrow up to 50% of the face value of the certificate they were to get in 1945.
By April 1932, the face value of outstanding certificates was $3.638 billion dollars. The loans taken out came to $1.248 billion. The $2.390 billion left in the trust fund was the amount the veterans could get if Congress, again over the President's veto, passed legislation changing the agreement to immediately release the funds instead of waiting until the certificates matured. This became the bonus. Because of the opposition of President Hoover and several members of the Senate and House, the bill would die. The concern was that the country as a whole was trying to work its way out of the economic depression and this additional drain on the budget would weaken an already strained government.
That spring as word of the pending bill spread, veterans began organizing around the county and came to Washington to lobby for passage of the bill. Beginning in May 1932 about 20,000 veterans, some with families, began gathering in Washington, DC to voice support for the legislation to release the funds. Dependent on donations from churches and residents, and living in camps on public grounds this "Bonus Expeditionary Forces or Bonus Army" represented the cross section of America at the time. Many were unemployed, and destitute. Here at Anacostia Park, the largest camp became established. Living in tents and materials hauled from a junk pile, 10,000 veterans, wives and children rallied for the bonus they needed. The camps became the concern of some residents who feared theft and communists. Communists had only recently overthrown the government in Russia and revolution was feared here. Other local residents, some veterans themselves, sympathetic to the marchers desperate situation, brought food and other support. A leader, Walter Waters had the camp lay out roads, dig latrines, and maintain discipline. Newcomers had to show proof of veteran status. The camp here had its own library, post office, and barbershop. Organizers enforced rules of no alcohol, no panhandling, no fighting, and no communists. Retired Marine Corps Gen. Smedley Butler assured them they had the sympathy of the American people.
On June 16 the House passed the bill to release the bonus funds by a narrow margin. On June 17 the Senate rejected the bill by a much larger margin. At this point, most in the city probably expected the matter and the camps to end. Offers were made to help the veterans return home. Few accepted, possibly because they had nothing to return to. Instead they vowed marched and rallied to get their bonus. On July 17 Congress adjourned. Nothing more would be done until their return from summer break.
On July 28, Attorney General Mitchell ordered the evacuation of camps from all government property. Initially clearing 10,000 marchers from the Capitol Grounds area by City Police, resistances was offered and in the fighting shots were fired. Two marchers were killed. They were buried with honors at Arlington Cemetery.
Hoover ordered the military to clear out the marchers but, perhaps in reaction to public outcry, added to stop at the Anacostia River just short of the largest camp. Infantry and cavalry led by General Douglas MacArthur and George Patton respectively were in charge of the removal. Major Dwight Eisenhower was the military liaison to the city police. According to one newspaper report, thousands of civil service employees lined the streets to watch, what seemed, a military parade. The veterans, assuming the military was there to support them, cheered. Then the cavalry charged followed by infantry with fixed bayonets. The public outcry began.
That night the routed veterans retreated here to Anacostia Park. Ignoring, or not getting, directions to stop at the Anacostia River, MacArthur ordered his troops to cross the 11th Street Bridge and route the camp, giving them some time to get out before attacking. In the attack using tanks, tear gas, cavalry, and infantry that followed, two babies suffocated in the tear gas and the hospitals filled with casualties. Eisenhower reported the "scene was pitiful...To see the whole camp in flames just added to the pity." A reporter said the sky was red that night from the fire and the flames could be seen from many parts of the city. It burned into the public conscious.
Within a week the newsreel images, newspaper images, the stories of bayonets, tanks, and tear gas, used against citizens armed with stones and bottles were all over the country. While some supported the action of the government, images made it hard not to be sympathetic to the desperate veterans who lobbied for their bonus in times of need.
A Change in Administrations
Those images may have added to mood of frustration that impacted the presidential election. In March of 1933 Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated. In May, 1933 a smaller group of veterans came to seek their bonus money. Franklin, too, opposed paying the early bonus but offered to sign up 25,000 veterans into the Civilian Conservation Corps. Realizing Roosevelt would not give them their bonus, and with jobs being offered, the marchers left.
Public reaction to the Bonus Army, and other poor of the Depression was mixed. People were sympathetic and others condemned the veterans for making unreasonable demands in hard times. The matter was not settled even when the veterans got their bonus.
The events here raised questions we still seek to answer. How do we help veterans whose lives are disrupted by service? It took 80 years of protest to end slavery, over 50 years of rallies and marches for women to get the right to vote. Does the government have a right to limit the scope of a protest or lobbying effort? How do we distinguish between a single protest or rally and a movement to change government to reflect changes in society? Today's permit system requires groups to self police their members, as Walter Waters did. How should governments work with the group leaders when their self policing fails? Must one administration be held responsible for agreements made by a previous administration in the face of changing circumstances or public opinion? How do we ensure justice among the varied opinions and needs in a diverse culture? How do we balance the needs of the country as a whole and those of the individual citizens that make up the country?
The Bonus Expeditionary Force has passed into history with little attention in the panorama of national events. However, the issues of poverty, agreements made in changing circumstances, justice, and scope of protest continue to echo from Anacostia to today.