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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