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The Bonus March (May-July, 1932)

Bonus Army

summer of 1932



The Hungry Army

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

--1st Amendment to the Constitution

In 1932, America and much of the rest of the world found itself trapped in The Great Depression. This was unlike any other economic disaster before or since. Across America, wages dropped and unemployment was rising at an alarming rate. According to the 1930's census, nearly 2.5 million able bodies persons where unemployed. People were desperate, and many families were forced to go without food or shelter. In the eyes of the people, the government was not doing enough, and so groups of people began to organize themselves to protest the inaction. One of these groups, comprised solely of jobless veterans from the First World War, organized a massive lobbying effort in order to receive aid for themselves, and their families. Government had promised these veterans a bonus for fighting and helping to win the war, but there was a catch. The bonus was not going to be paid until 1945, thirteen years later. So, in the late spring of 1932, they organized themselves and began to petition that the bonus be paid immediately. They were able to rally thousands of veterans from all across the country and lead them on a march to Washington.

In May of 1932 an ex-Sergeant named Walter Walters, and about 1000 other veterans began the march to Washington. The goal was to directly lobby congress into paying the bonuses. They began in Portland, Oregon, and when they reached Washington DC, a month later, their numbers had swelled to more than 3,000. On June 17th the Senate debated the bill that would have granted immediate payment of the bonus. Congress rejected the proposal, arguing that it was too expensive. Outside, all of the marchers, who had renamed themselves the Bonus Army, had been assembled awaiting the verdict. When the news of the defeat reached the marchers outside they were furious. Walter's, ever the patriot, instead of joining in the growing chorus of boos, asked the men to "take it on the chin, and show them that we are patriotic Americans." He then led them in the singing of America as they left the steps of the Senate. The saga was far from over however, because there were still all of these men left in Washington. Many of them had been forced to bring their families with them. Once in the Capitol, they set up makeshift housing and lived in anything they could fashion into resembling a home. These tents and makeshift huts, housing over 25,000 men, women and children dotted the Washington landscape. Their presence in the Nation's Capitol was a grim reminder to the harsh realities of the Depression. America, which had just proven in war to be the strongest nation in the world, couldn't adequately feed and care for the men who had served their country.

Though the Bonus Bill had been defeated, a large amount of the marchers stayed, as they had nowhere else to go. A slight chance that the bill might be revived before Congress ended its summer session was also whispered. As the summer session came and went, the bill was never again raised. It looked like they were out of luck. Herbert Hoover, the Republican President at the time, was largely responsible for sweeping this issue under the rug. Due to the terrible economic situation, his concern was balancing the budget. Hoover did have a problem. What was he do with all of the homeless families that were practically living in his front yard? As the months wore on clashes between the Bonus Army and the DC police grew. The men were restless, and since the vast majority was still unemployed, and had no hope of ever be employed, tempers flared. The situation soon came to a head. A gathering of the Bonus Army became agitated, due to their situation and began a small riot. Two of DC policemen controlling the situation panicked. They shot and killed two of the veterans. Hoover was concerned that this incident would lead to widespread disruption. Some of the marchers were attacking - both verbally and physically - some of the senators. Hoover decided to have the remaining members of the Bonus Army and their families - at this time numbering around 10,000 - forcibly removed, an action that probably cost him his presidency.

On July 28, 1932, President Hoover ordered the United States Army to remove, with force, the Bonus Army from Washington, DC. Armed with gas masks and bayonets, the army began to burn down the tents and huts, the marchers only homes, and used tear gas to hold the men at bay. Two days later, all 10,000 people had been striped of their only shelter, and turned away from the only help that existed. The tear-gassing had resulted in the deaths of two infants and many hundreds were injured. As the news spread to the rest of the country, people were horrified. The strongest army in the world was using its might against its own citizens. Not only that, these were veterans who had served in that same army. Hoover was criticized in papers across the country. The main point of contention was, that the Bonus Army had committed no crime. Hoover was threatened by their presence, and overreacted to the situation. This was a fatal blunder, and scarred his presidency. In the election of that same year, he was trounced in a landslide victory by Franklin Delanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who is largely credited with bringing America out of the funk of the Depression, credited Hoover's acts against the Bonus Army to be a key component of his victory. It was quite clear the vast majority of Americans, regardless of what their views on war, did not condone the treatment the veterans received. These people, after all, had risked death for their country.

The first amendment to the constitution is the one amendment that nearly everyone recognizes. This amendment guarantees freedom of speech, and also the right to peaceably organize and protest. Without this right, many of the laws and social realities that we take for granted would probably not have occurred. Many of liberties we take for granted, such as Civil rights and women's suffrage, depended on the ability to organize large groups of people in protest of injustices. The Bonus Army was just another example of this expression. The freedom that is guaranteed in America is largely due to the struggles of everyone who has lived before. The Bonus Army, a group of veterans, led a peaceful effort to try and alleviate the suffering for themselves and those around them. They were met with violence for merely expressing their right to free speech. Though they did not get their bonuses paid, their sacrifice was not in vain. With Roosevelt's election to office, enabled by their struggle, he was able to lift the country out the depression.

The Team


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Burn that book! It's on the best-seller list
Irene - Doomed to poverty: Mexican Americans and the Depression
Making A Difference - A little fresh paint can go a long way
Stephen - For Rent: 1 cardboard box, doubles as an apartment during hard times
Daphne - The nation goes belly up on Black Tuesday