On July 28, 1932, the usual peaceful atmosphere of Washington D.C. was broken by the sound of tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue. The silence was shattered by the sound of gunshots, while the air smelled of tear gas. It was on this day that Staff General Douglas MacArthur conducted a raid on World War I veterans, who had come to Washington to support the passing of the Patman Bill, which would have given the veterans their promised bonus several years earlier than planned. The bill passed through the House of Representatives; however, it was struck down in the senate by a large margin. This prompted many “bonus veterans” to remain in Washington, causing the government to attempt to eradicate them from the Capitol. The result was an excessive amount of force by General Douglas MacArthur, ending in the death and injuries of many of these entitled former soldiers.
During the summer of 1932, thousands of war veterans flocked by the thousands to nations Capital. At their peak, their numbers totaled almost twenty thousand. This great collection of veterans took place in the midst of one of the darkest periods in America’s history, the Great Depression. The Great Depression began in 1929 due to a combination of many factors. The most immediate cause was a stock market crash. On a day that has come to be known as Black Thursday, October 24, 1929, panic selling occurred as investors saw the value of their stock drop drastically.
The Great Crash of 1929 caused many to lose huge sums of money. Loss of capital, in addition to the public uneasiness about their financial security, caused spending to decrease. This trend, known as under-consumption, was in fact the overriding cause of the Great Depression. The stock market crash was in now way responsible for this trend, but contributed to its existence. The cause of under-consumption during the late 1920’s was a result of the immense productive capabilities of the capitalist system. During World War I, the United States turned into an economic superpower. In a spectacular amount of time, the United States surprised Germany by supplying the allies with weapons, food, and other necessities before the Germans could win the war in Europe. Eventually, the Americans began to send their own troops over to Europe to fight as well. New and improved technology and an enormous workforce made this type of production possible. In fact, from 1916 to 1920, the US saw their gross national product almost double from 56 billion to 87.2 billion respectively. (Economic History). The gross national product is a measure of the total market value of all the goods produced by a country’s citizens and capital over a one-year period. By looking at this statistic, one can see how much the economy picked up during WWI.
This boom in production carried over into the years following the war, and much of the 1920’s was filled with prosperity and economic growth. This cycle soon began to wane however, as industry began producing more than it could actually sell. This idea contributes to a hypothesis championed by the economist, Karl Marx, who stated that there is always a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. In a nutshell, his hypothesis states that surplus value is equal to surplus labor time. However, Marx states that as capital grows, surplus labor time decreases, causing surplus value to decrease as well. This cycle is detrimental to corporations, who as they see profits falling, look to produce more goods. Doing so however, only serves to put them deeper in this vicious cycle, where they are producing much more than the public can consume.
The Bonus Veterans, like everyone else in the country during the depression, suffered immensely from unemployment and poverty. During the depression, the unemployment rate soared to the highest in history at 25%. The veteran’s protest and unrest was no anomaly during this time. Many similar and severe protests occurred around the country, as desperation for food, housing, and money increased. For example, in Arkansas a group of five hundred armed farmers attempted to obtain food from a Red Cross official. When this failed, they took the supplies of food by force. In Sioux City, Iowa, dairy farmers declared a farm strike and attempted to block any shipments of produce from reaching their city. Similar strikes and demonstration broke out across the country, many accompanied by violence. In 1933, farmers from Nebraska pushed past police and marched on the Capitol, demanding that congress pass a law halting the payment of farm debt. In Crawford County, Iowa, angry farmers and local police in violent skirmished until the governor intervened (DISCovering U.S. History).
It is true that there was violence between the Bonus Veterans and Washington. However, the violence was a result of an unnecessary amount of force on the part of General Douglas MacArthur. The Bonus Veterans did not come to Washington D.C. to fight or injure local police or government officials. When the Patman Bill was introduced, they simply gathered in Washington to show their support. Many of the veterans came with their wives and children. It is doubtful that if any veterans expected violence, they would have risked the lives of those closest to them. For two months there were few arrests and minimal violence. The veterans and their families camped in the Anacostia flats along the Potomac River, while a handful occupied vacant buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue. The veterans were poor however, and the issue of food soon became a big problem.
“I wished then for the power to turn off the lights and use the money thereby saved to feed the hungry. When Jock and I rode among the bivouacked men I was horrified to see plain evidence of hunger in their faces; I heard them trying to cadge cigarettes from one another. Some were lying on the sidewalks, unkempt heads pillowed on their arms. A few clusters were shuffling around” (Evalyn Walsh McLean: Eyewitness to History).
One can imagine how difficult the situation must have been for these veterans. Just ten years ago, they had fought courageously for their country, risking their lives when America desperately needed them. Now, their bonuses were denied when they need their country to help them. They were starving, hot, thirsty, dirty, and homeless, pleading for early compensation. One man lived in “a barrel filled with grass, another in a casket set on trestles, still another in a piano box which he labeled “Academy of Music.” Some of the men dug caves in the clay embankment, and all trudged through a deep ooze of mud after the summer rains, fighting flies by day, mosquitoes by nigh” (John D. Weaver). These examples are just a taste of how bad things were for the veterans during the summer of 1932. In their situation, anything that could be remotely useful was of dire importance.
“There are shelters built of egg crates, of paper boxes, of rusty bed springs, of O. D. blankets, of newspapers, of scraps of junked automobiles, of old wall-paper, of pieces of corrugated iron rooting, of tin and bed ticking, of the rusty frames of beds, of tin cans, of rusty fence wire, of straw, of parts of baby carriages, of fence stakes, of auto seats. The man who can salvage an auto top from the dump has a mansion in this strange city” (Thomas Henry: American Heritage).
Police Chief General Glassford, who was in charge of handling the Bonus Expeditionary Force, recognized the problems of poor shelter and hygiene. He attempted to assuage the problems of the veterans by asking Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley for help. “Mr. Hurley refused to be of any assistance, stating that the Federal Government could not recognize the invasion” (American Heritage: John D. Weaver).
Glassford attempted to obtain cots, bedding and rolling kitchens, however all attempts failed. When all cries for help failed, the police chief took it upon himself to feed and care for the unemployed veterans. He asked wealthy friends for donations, passed a hat around at local sporting events, and held a fundraising show at a local burlesque house. He proceeded to convince the National Guard to donate bedding, and enlisted the help of nurses. When the head of police is helping and giving aid to protesters, it is obvious as to how much of a threat the veterans really were. In fact, when Chief Glassford was asked whether or not the Bonus Expeditionary Force was dangerous or not, he said, “Dangerous? No, except for the danger of gradual rust and rot which attacks those with no occupation and no incentive. These are just middle-aged men out of a job” (American Heritage: John D. Weaver).
However, instead of helping the harmless veterans, government officials and local citizens began to lose patience. It is important to note that the veterans were simply executing their first amendment right, the right to assemble. The bonus army continued to protest despite having the bill struck down in the senate, forming picket lines around many government buildings including the White House.
On July 28, 1932, tension increased as police were told by the Treasury Department to remove those veterans holing up on Pennsylvania Avenue. However, leader of the Bonus Veterans, Walter W. Waters, was promised the day before that he would have four days to complete the evacuation of those living on Pennsylvania Avenue. The next morning however, he received news of the Treasury Department’s mandate. He had ten minutes to evacuate two hundred men from the premises. “The forces of government were doing their best to egg on the men of the B.E.P. into some sort of riot,” said Waters as he remembered Secretary of War Hurley’s promise that troops would be called in at any sign of trouble. Fighting resulted, while Glassford attempted to keep the peace. In the afternoon however, a brawl between police and veterans resulted in the death of two veterans, who the police shot during the altercation.
President Hoover agreed that the presence of federal troops was necessary, and ordered General Douglas MacArthur to make and “independent assessment of the scene” (DISCovering U.S. History). Instead, he went well beyond what he was asked to do. The general sent three hundred armed infantry, mounted machine guns, 5 tanks, and two hundred cavalry into the Bonus Army’s camp. “Men, women and children fled shrieking across the broken ground, falling into excavations as they strove to avoid the rearing hoofs and saber points. Meantime, infantry on the south side had adjusted gas masks and were hurling tear gas bombs into the block into which they had just driven the veterans” (Paul Y. Anderson: American Heritage). More than one hundred veterans were injured, while the federal troops used tear gas on both the protesters and onlookers. “Some fell in front yards jammed with Negro women and children,” said Anderson of the tear gas bombs thrown. “One appeared to land on the front porch of a residence. Two small girls fell to the sidewalk, choking and screaming. But the veterans were beyond the street intersection more than fifty yards away. This gas was intended for the spectators…” Additionally, President Hoover had ordered the general to show restraint and not enter into the Anacostia flats. Directly disobeying, MacArthur did just that. After pushing the veterans out of the Capitol, he followed them into the flats, where he used more tear gas and caused a ravaging fire to destroy the veteran’s makeshift shelters. The veterans attempted to defend themselves, but armed only with bricks and rocks, they were driven out of Washington D.C. More than one hundred veterans were injured during this one sided battle, as many veterans fled for their lives.
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