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Morton: Controversy in removing the Bonus Army

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On this day (July 29) in 1932, two U.S. Army infantry regiments supported by six tanks and some 700 Washingtom, D.C., police officers forcibly completed the job, ordered by President Herbert Hoover, of removing the so-called Bonus Expeditionary Force.

The marchers had come to Washington to demand immediate payment of promised bonuses, from its “Hooverville” camp located on a swampy, muddy area called the Anacostia Flats in Washington, D.C.

The army commander, in what has ever since been called, by many, a “shameful” abuse of governmental power against its own citizens (many of whom were World War I veterans) was Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur (aided by, among others, future World War II generals Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Maj. George S. Patton).

MacArthur carried out his orders to disperse the Bonus Army with efficiency and, some would later claim, unnecessary force and even brutality. The two-day Bonus March confrontation started July 28, 1932, when U.S. Attorney General William D. Mitchell ordered the removal from all government property of the some 17,000 veterans and the 26,000 other marchers (many of whom were wives, family members, and friends of the protesting veterans).

In the ensuing July 28 fracas, police shot and mortally wounded two veterans (Chicago resident William Huska and Californian Eric Carlson). On hearing of the July 28 shootings, President Hoover ordered MacArthur to clear and completely destroy the veterans’ Anacostia campsite. In the July 29 military confrontation, 55 veterans were injured, 135 were arrested, and the rest were forcibly removed.

What had prompted these veterans and their supporters to march to Washington? In 1924, Congress passed a bill granting bonuses to WWI veterans, which was vetoed by President Calvin Coolidge, who declared in his veto message that “patriotism ... bought and paid for is not patriotism.”

Congress promptly overrode this veto, and enacted the Adjusted Compensation Act, which awarded veterans bonuses in the form of certificates that could be redeemed after 1945.

By 1932, many veterans, like millions of Americans, were greatly depressed, unemployed, financially destitute, and even hungry. Throughout the late 1920s, veteran groups (including The American Legion and The Veterans of Foreign Wars) petitioned Congress to immediately redeem the bonus certificates.

Unwilling during the first years of the Great Depression (1929-1933) to spend the millions of dollars that would be needed to accommodate the growing demand for immediate payment of bonuses, Hoover – and, after 1932, President Franklin D. Roosevelt – refused to acquiesce to the veterans’ demand.

Growing veteran discontent led almost inevitably to the Bonus March of 1932. Ever since the summer of 1932, there has been some support for, but also widespread condemnation, of the U.S. government’s reaction to the Bonus March.

MacArthur, in justification of his use of force, later declared that the Bonus marchers were “a bad-looking mob animated by the spirit of revolution.”

On the other hand, popular humorist Will Rogers praised the marchers as the “best behaved of any 15,000 hungry men assembled anywhere in the world.”

Even Eisenhower – who somewhat unwillingly participated, as an aide to MacArthur, in the two-day confrontation – claimed later that he had, at the time, strongly advised MacArthur against taking any role, as Army Chief of Staff, in the forcible removal of American servicemen from their “Hooverville” encampment.

Of interest, despite his apparent misgivings, Eisenhower was ordered to write the Army’s Incident Report of the military action against the Bonus marchers. The official report endorsed MacArthur’s and the Army’s conduct throughout the two-day skirmish.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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