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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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In the days that followed, many bonus marchers returned to their homes. But the fight was not over. Waters declared that he and others intended “to stay here until 1945 if necessary to get our bonus.” More than 20,000 did stay. The hot summer days turned into weeks; Glassford and Waters became concerned about worsening sanitary conditions and the dwindling supply of food in the camps. As June gave way to July, Waters showed up at Evalyn Walsh McLean’s front door. “I’m desperate,” he said. “Unless these men are fed, I can’t say what won’t happen in this town.” McLean telephoned Vice President Charles Curtis, who had attended dinner parties at her mansion. “Unless something is done for [these men],” she informed Curtis, “there is bound to be a lot of trouble.”


Now more than ever, President Hoover, along with Douglas MacArthur and Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley, feared that the Bonus Army would turn violent, perhaps triggering uprisings in Washington and elsewhere. Vice President Curtis was particularly unnerved by the sight of veterans near his Capitol Hill office July 14, the anniversary of the day the mobs stormed France’s Bastille.


The three commissioners, appointed by Hoover, who administered the District of Columbia (in lieu of a mayor) were convinced the threat of violence was growing by the day. They worried most about veterans occupying a series of dilapidated, government-owned buildings—and tents, shanties and lean-tos arrayed around them—on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Capitol. Hoover told the commissioners that he wanted these downtown veterans evicted. The commissioners set the ouster for July 22. But Glassford, hoping the vets would leave voluntarily, managed to postpone their expulsion by six days.


On the morning of July 28, Glassford arrived with 100 policemen. Waters, speaking as the vets’ leader, informed him that the men had voted to remain. At 10 a.m. or so, the policemen roped off the old armory; the vets backed down and left the building. Meanwhile, thousands of marchers, in a display of solidarity, had begun massing nearby. Just after noon, a small contingent of vets, pressing forward in an attempt to reoccupy the armory, were stopped by a phalanx of policemen. Someone—no one knows who—began throwing bricks, and policemen began swinging their nightsticks. Even though several officers were injured, no shots were fired and no police pistol was unholstered. One vet ripped Glassford’s badge from his shirt. In a matter of minutes, the fight was over.


The scene remained quiet until shortly after 1:45 p.m., when Glassford noticed vets skirmishing among themselves in a building adjacent to the armory. Several policemen went in to break up that fight. Accounts differ as to what happened next, but shots rang out. When the ensuing melee ended, one veteran lay dead, another mortally wounded. Three policemen were injured.


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