The Bonus Army, an American epic by Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allan, tells one of the many stories of the post-war lives of disgruntled American veterans.
During the summer of 1932, in the middle of the Great Depression, the Bonus Army was born in Portland, Ore. with 200 men. It would end with more than 45,000 World War I veterans flocking to Washington, D.C., in one of the greatest moments of nonviolent civil disobedience our country has ever known. Demanding pay promised to them eight years earlier, veterans, many with their families, squatted in 20 makeshift shantytowns and tent cities known as Hoovervilles.
Fearing the veterans were controlled by communists and would turn violent, the federal government intervened. Led by President Herbert Hoover and Generals Douglas MacArthur and George Patton, the authorities drove the veterans out of Washington with tanks, tear gas, and bayonet-tipped rifles and then burned down the camps.
The actions performed by veterans that summer had a profound effect on the practice of civil disobedience in America, even though the tale of the Bonus Army was one left out of many history books. Paul Dickson, co-author of The Bonus Army, talks about how this story from the past still has implications today.
Real Change: Can you describe what the Bonus Army was, and why it came about?
Paul Dickson: The Bonus Army was the biggest public event of the Depression. The Bonus Army is about a group of guys who had fought in World War I and had been promised a bonus, which they hadn’t gotten. Each soldier received $1 a day during the war, and a $1.25 if you were overseas. They had to buy their uniform and war bonds with the money, and then it was promised to them immediately after the war. Most of the soldiers were making much more than this before being drafted.
Let’s say you were a shipyard worker. You would have gotten paid between $16 and $17 a day. After the war, Congress agreed that soldiers wouldn’t get their pay until 1945, and that seemed to have settled it. But in 1932, a group of veterans headed up by Walter W. Waters organized 200 of his buddies, who decided to hop freights back to Washington, D.C., to go lobby for the bonus they were promised. They left Portland with what they had on their backs and an American flag. By the time they reached Washington they had picked up 10,000 veterans.
The men in the Bonus Army thought anyone had the right to go to Washington and lobby for their rights. To the average American, these guys deserved to get paid. The big companies had gotten paid after the war, money was going to foreign countries who had been devastated, and the Bonus Army believed the people who had fought the war deserved to be paid, too.
Here, a week after leaving Portland, the Bonus Army began to realize that people were welcoming them as warriors of the Depression, just as people in France had welcomed them as Yanks, referring to their service in the World War.
RC: Can you talk about some of the highs and lows the Bonus Army faced on their journey from Portland to Washington, D.C.?
Dickson: At first, people were afraid of them, but they started to realize they were not a threat. They were just a group of veterans going to get paid. Part of the resistance from Americans was based on race. There were 800,000 blacks (African-Americans) who fought in World War I, and the Bonus Army was Black and white alike. The country had never seen anything like this before.
The message it sent to the power structure was loud and clear. Most congressmen, especially from the South, grew up believing races would never be able to get together and organize, but the Bonus Army did. The federal government, from the time the Bonus Army was on the freight trains headed east, had infiltrated the group. Some of the intelligence reports said the Bonus Army had “Negros, people with Jewish features, and poor whites” all working together — the establishment was very nervous.
They ran into various authority figures who didn’t want them, but by and large, the people loved these guys. You have to take into account the times. There were so many homeless people just wandering around the country looking for work, but there was no work. Well, the Bonus Army were wandering too, but they wandered with a purpose. Most Americans viewed these guys as heroes, not only because they fought in World War I, but because they had the courage to go get things straightened out. And they were nonviolent.
Once in D.C., the camps were pretty much self-governed. We have found evidence that 20 camps existed. Waters created a leadership group that ran them as military camps: no drinking, no guns, [so] nobody could say they were bums. In fact, records show the crime rate went down when they were in Washington. The worst you could say they were doing was panhandling.
RC: According to the book, most of the camps in D.C. that summer were not segregated. In fact, in a time when the Ku Klux Klan had influence in D.C., and Blacks and other minorities were being oppressed around the country, the Bonus Army was working together. What message did that send to the country?
Dickson: It’s interesting — nobody knew about it. The blacks were invisible to the country. During that time, period papers didn’t acknowledge the black community. For example, the Negro baseball leagues were extremely popular, but no paper in the country covered the leagues. But the African-American newspapers took notice, reporting that thousands of black and white families were living side-by-side. There was no Jim Crow in the Bonus Army. And this was 1932.
RC: Can you talk about some of the different sympathizers who helped the Bonus Army?
Dickson: Almost all of the great journalists and writers of the time were sympathizers. In fact, you would have reporters writing news stories with pro-bonus slants, while editorial boards were coming out against the veterans.
Also, Walsh McLean, one of the richest women in the world, was fascinated by the group. One night she went into a restaurant and ordered 2,000 sandwiches, and got a thousand cartons of cigarettes and passed them out to the people. It was like a scene in a Woody Allen film.
You have to understand the place was like a huge carnival. There were musicians, jugglers, speakers — the people of Washington loved it.
They also sold their own newspaper the same way Street Roots is doing, and they would make up postcards and sell them.
Despite what was going on in the world, they were a hopeful group in a time when people didn’t have any hope. They had no money, no jobs, nothing, and they set out to change it.
RC: General Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, and a young Dwight D. Eisenhower all took part in sweeping thousands of veterans out of the nation’s capital. All of this before they would be thrust into history forever. MacArthur disregarded orders from the president on the conduct of the sweeps, something he would later be reprimanded for during the Korean War. Can you expand on some ironies of these circumstances?
Dickson: I think it reflects what kind of men they would later become. The day of the sweeps, Patton was on horseback with a saber.
MacArthur was acting like it was all-out warfare. It was ridiculous. His orders from the president were to get them out of downtown, but he went in and burned many of the camps to the ground along with people’s only possessions — cars, clothes, photographs — you name it.
Eisenhower, however, is documented saying that this was wrong and it was a police matter and it wasn’t the job of the military to be dealing with civil affairs. Eisenhower was a thoughtful logistics man. History would later reveal all of these things.
RC: One of the main arguments the federal government made to sweep the encampments was of communist activity in the camps. Communists and fascists had active members in the Bonus Army, but the majority of the veterans were just average American citizens. What are your thoughts about this?
Dickson: You have to take into account the time period. The wheels were coming off the country, a lot of people were flirting with communism and fascism. Nobody knew how history was going to turn out — there were about 150 communist veterans in the camp. When federal agents tried to prove all the men in the Bonus Army were criminals, radicals, and communists, they pulled up people’s records. The only thing many of the men were guilty of is vagrancy. Their only crime was being out work.
The men, women, and children living in the camps were not communists. They didn’t want to overthrow the government, they just wanted their bonus.
RC: What did the Bonus Army accomplish for the longterm?
Dickson: I think the biggest thing they did was pave the way for the G.I. Bill after World War II. History has shown us that governments take people from the working and poor classes of society and ask them to fight great wars, and then dump them back into those societies. After World War II, veterans coming home were at least offered benefits. It helped create the middle class. If you’re going to ask a person to fight, it’s only right that the government should take care of them — the Bonus Army was just one example of this throughout history.
RC: Looking at all of the federal cuts to veterans benefits, and having more than a half a million veterans sleeping on the streets every year (according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans), do you see a correlation with the past and our current conflict?
Dickson: The business of war is a terrible thing. What has to happen is a new GI Bill of Rights. If they need education, medical care, and financial support, they should get it. But as I’m sure you are aware, that’s not the direction we are headed.
After the Bonus Army was swept away, many newspapers and policymakers thought they should just go home, but they had no home, so they spread out in camps all over the country. And there are remnants of those camps with veterans living in them in cities all across the United States still today.
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