Last updated: July 25, 2023
Throughout its history, Washington, DC has been the destination of demonstrators seeking to promote a wide variety of causes. Most of the time, the gatherings have been peaceful. One of the exceptions was the Bonus army in March of 1932.
After victory in World War I, the US government promised in 1924 that servicemen would receive a bonus for their service, in 1945. The bonus was also known as the “Tombstone Bonus.” Then, the Great Depression hit, beginning with the stock market collapse of 1929. By 1932, the Depression was still dragging on, with no end in sight. Out of sheer desperation, some of the veterans decided to march on Washington to ask for the bonus right away.
If the movement had an official beginning, it would have been in Portland, Oregon. 400 veterans had gathered there by May 17, 1932, under the leadership of a fellow veteran, Walter M. Waters. They began a long trek to Washington aboard a freight train, loaned to them for free by the rail authorities. After exiting the train in Iowa on May 18 they hitched rides and walked the rest of the way to Washington. Smaller splinter groups reached the capital on their own. By June 1, some 1,500 men, some with their families, were in Washington.
They camped out in homemade shanty towns. The major sites included 12th Street and B Street, NW (the latter is now Constitution Avenue), 3rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, and the largest, 30 acre site on the Anacostia Flats.
The Anacostia site was given the name Camp Bartlett, after its owner John H. Bartlett, former Assistant Postmaster General and former Governor of New Hampshire who let the veterans camp there.
It was also on June 1 that DC police superintendent, Brigadier General Pelham D. Glassford, first entered the picture. In the coming weeks, he was to prove more sympathetic to the men than the other authorities, and they appreciated it. He asked Congress for $75,000 to feed the marchers, a request that was turned down.
Two weeks later the US House of Representatives did in fact vote to provide the bonus, but the US Senate rejected it. President Herbert Hoover had promised the veto the bill. Things stayed in an unsettled condition for the next few weeks, with some veterans leaving but even more arriving, until their number reached somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000.
Then, on July 28, the Hoover administration sent in the army and police to expel the marchers from Washington. The troops were led by General Douglas MacArthur, who would later serve in World War II and in the Korean War. His troops included infantry and cavalry and numbered 800, though an additional 2,700 were kept in reserve nearby, in case they were needed.
Another World War II name, George S. Patton, was also taking part. Sadly enough, one of the people he routed was a Joe Angelo, who had saved Patton’s life in World War I, by dragging the wounded Patton into a nearby shell hole and staying with him through the night. Patton now said, “Undoubtedly this man saved my life, but his several accounts of the incident vary from the true facts.”
The bonus veterans were in no mood to leave, so the army began using tear gas and bayonets to drive them away, and employing torches to set fire to the shanty towns. The camp at 3rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue also saw something new in American history: five tanks, armed with machine guns, rumbling about the streets of Washington.
How did the army troops feel about doing this? One claimed, “We hate this more than they do, but they brought it on themselves.”
Some veterans retreated to Camp Bartlett, figuring they might be left in peace there, for the government’s orders were to clear federal land, while Camp Bartlett was on private property. It didn’t help, the army had orders to clear Camp Bartlett too.
While all this was going on across the city, many civilian Washingtonians were caught up in the violence, many trying to escape the clouds of tear gas. One bystander kept shouting at the troops, “The American flag means nothing to me after this.” MacArthur threatened to have the man arrested, who promptly quieted down.
There was one fatality. A veteran named William Hashka, from Chicago, was caught in police fire near the US Capitol.
After it was all over, the authorities involved gave their reactions. President Hoover released a statement on July 28, in which he twice referred to “so-called bonus marchers,” and added, “An examination of a large number of names discloses the fact that a considerable part of those remaining are not veterans; many are Communists and persons with criminal records.”
MacArthur added, “It was animated by the essence of revolution.” He added that only about 10% of the men driven away from the camps were actually genuine veterans.
On July 29, Vice President Charles Curtis was making a speech in Las Vegas, when hecklers raised the events in Washington. Curtis shouted back, “You cowards, I’m not afraid of any of you.”
Also on July 29, General Glassford denied that he had wanted the troops to clear out the camps, or that his police couldn’t have handled the situation peacefully, before violence broke out. He also blamed the removal order for causing all the trouble, and had opposed the use of troops.
As for the newspapers of that day, the Associated Press released a list briefly describing their editorial reactions. Out of 30 papers, 21 more or less supported the government’s response. The Ohio State Journal, of Columbus, Ohio, for instance, wrote: “President Hoover chose the course that Lincoln chose, that presidents have always chosen.”
On the other hand, the Chicago Herald and Examiner, referring to President Hoover by name, called his actions “sheer stupidity” that were “without parallel in American annals.”
Four years later, in 1936, the veterans did get their bonus, when Congress voted the money over President Franklin Roosevelt’s veto. In 1944, while World War II was still raging, Congress passed the G.I. Bill, to assist veterans in receiving a higher education.