The Bonus Army

I have been read­ing The Glo­ry and the Dream; A Nar­ra­tive His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca 1932 — 1972 by William Man­ches­ter. It pret­ty much begins with the sto­ry of the Bonus Army. The Bonus Army was com­prised of about 20,000 World War I vet­er­ans along with their fam­i­lies and oth­er sup­port­ers. They had come to Wash­ing­ton to claim the bonus that Con­gress had promised them at the end of WWI. Con­gress had said the bonus would be paid in 1945, but it was now 1932 and in the depths of the Great Depres­sion. The vet­er­ans had no jobs, no homes, no food and felt that get­ting the bonus was their only hope for relief of any kind. So they came to Wash­ing­ton and set­tled in to wait for their bonuses.

Brigadier Gen­er­al George Mose­ley proposed

to arrest the bonus marchers and oth­ers “of infe­ri­or blood,” and then put them in con­cen­tra­tion camps on “one of the sparse­ly inhab­it­ed islands of the Hawai­ian group not suit­able for grow­ing sug­ar. There, he sug­gest­ed, “they could stew in their own filth.” He added dark­ly, “We would not wor­ry about the delays in the process of law in the set­tle­ment of their indi­vid­ual cases.” *

For­tu­nate­ly, that pro­pos­al was not tak­en up.

Although the bonus army behaved well, even­tu­al­ly the police tried to clear them from a build­ing and some bricks were thrown and some police weapons fired and a cou­ple of marchers killed. News of this arrived at Pres­i­dent Hoover’s desk and the Pres­i­dent ordered in the army.

The Bonus Army was rout­ed with Cal­vary and tear gas, backed by infantry and tanks. The camp

was a jum­ble of pack­ing crates, fruit crates, chick­en coops, burlap-and-tarpa­per shacks, tents, lean-tos, wrecked tour­ing cars, and dun-col­ored, tepee-like shelters **

and was burned.

These were World War I vet­er­ans!! The House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives had vot­ed to give them their bonus, but the Sen­ate vot­ed against it. The Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States ordered the mil­i­tary to clear out the peace­ful camp of vet­er­ans. And the mil­i­tary did it. It is dif­fi­cult for me to get my mind around the idea that there could be Amer­i­cans so heart­less, but there it is.

This was 1932. Just 79 years ago.

A sec­ond, small­er Bonus March in 1933 at the start of the Roo­sevelt Admin­is­tra­tion was defused with promis­es instead of mil­i­tary action.

In 1936, a Demo­c­ra­t­ic-led Con­gress over­rode Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt’s veto to pay the vet­er­ans their bonus years early.

Even FDR was not will­ing to pay the bonus­es early!!

As var­i­ous con­ser­v­a­tive politi­cians offer up pol­i­cy pro­pos­als such as elim­i­nat­ing min­i­mum wage or unem­ploy­ment insur­ance, they always cloak them in lan­guage that sounds as if they believe every­one will be bet­ter off. Some of these politi­cians might actu­al­ly believe that is so, but I doubt all of them do so. The fact of the mat­ter is, there are plen­ty of peo­ple in the coun­try today who sim­ply are not con­cerned with what does or does not hap­pen to the low­er class.

The polit­i­cal debate in Amer­i­ca today pre­tends oth­er­wise. It is, sup­pos­ed­ly, a debate about what is best for the coun­try. The dirty secret is one side sim­ply does not fac­tor the well being of the low­er class into it’s cal­cu­lus of what is best for the “coun­try”.

Hey, it’s not like they are advo­cat­ing a cav­al­ry charge into an unarmed army of vet­er­ans who only want what they have been promised.

* The Glo­ry and the Dream, page 11

** ibid, page 16

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