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Marching on History

When a "Bonus Army" of World War I veterans converged on Washington in 1932 to demand a promised payment, MacArthur, Eisenhower and Patton were there to meet them

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But if the press ignored the integration phenomenon, it made much of a small Communist faction within the ranks of the veterans, giving credence to the official line that had been expressed by Theodore Joslin, who was President Hoover’s press secretary: “The marchers,” he asserted, “have rapidly turned from bonus seekers to communists or bums.”


Meanwhile, at the Justice Department, J. Edgar Hoover, the 37-year-old director of the Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner of the FBI), was coordinating efforts to establish evidence that the Bonus Army had Communist roots—a charge that history does not substantiate.


As rumors about Communist revolutionaries swirled throughout the city, Congress deliberated on the fate of the veterans’ payments. By June 13, Patman’s cash-now bonus bill, authorizing an appropriation of $2.4 billion, finally had made it out of committee and was headed toward a vote. On June 14, the legislation, which mandated the immediate exchange of bonus certificates for cash, came to the floor. Republicans loyal to President Hoover, who was determined to balance the budget, opposed the measure. Representative Edward E. Eslick (D-Tenn.) was speaking on behalf of the bill when he slumped over and died of a heart attack. Thousands of Bonus Army veterans, led by holders of the Distinguished Service Cross, marched in Eslick’s funeral cortege. The House and Senate adjourned out of respect. The following day, June 15, the House of Representatives passed the bonus bill by a vote of 211 to 176.


The Senate was scheduled to vote on the 17th. Over the course of that day, more than 8,000 veterans gathered in front of the Capitol. Another 10,000 were stranded behind the Anacostia drawbridge, which police had raised, anticipating trouble. Debate continued into the evening. Finally, around 9:30, Senate aides summoned Waters inside. He reemerged moments later to break the news to the crowd: the bill had been defeated.


For a moment it looked as if the veterans would attack the Capitol. Then Elsie Robinson, a reporter for the Hearst newspapers, whispered in Waters’ ear. Apparently taking her advice, Waters shouted to the crowd: “Sing ‘America.’ ” When the veterans ended their song, most of them headed back to camp.


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