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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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Eyewitnesses, including Eisenhower, insisted that Secretary of War Hurley, speaking for the president, had forbade any troops to cross the bridge into Anacostia and that at least two high-ranking officers were dispatched by Hurley to convey these orders to MacArthur. The general, Eisenhower later wrote, “said he was too busy and did not want either himself or his staff bothered by people coming down and pretending to bring orders.” It would not be the last time that MacArthur would disregard a presidential directive—two decades later President Truman would fire him as commander of U.N. military forces in South Korea for doing just that. (Truman explicitly ordered that Chinese bases in Manchuria should not be bombed, a move that would have caused China to escalate even further its role in the Korean conflict. MacArthur, operating in defiance of the president, attempted to convince Congress that such action should be taken.) Recalling the Bonus Army incident during an interview with the late historian Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower said: “I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch he had no business going down there.”


Around 11:00 p.m., MacArthur called a press conference to justify his actions. “Had the President not acted today, had he permitted this thing to go on for twenty-four hours more, he would have been faced with a grave situation which would have caused a real battle,” MacArthur told reporters. “Had he let it go on another week, I believe the institutions of our Government would have been severely threatened.”


Over the next few days, newspapers and theater newsreels showed graphic images of fleeing veterans and their families, blazing shacks, clouds of tear gas, soldiers wielding fixed bayonets, cavalrymen waving sabers. “It’s war,” a narrator intoned. “The greatest concentration of fighting troops in Washington since 1865. . . . They are being forced out of their shacks by the troops who have been called out by the President of the United States.” In movie theaters across America, the Army was booed and MacArthur jeered.


Democratic presidential nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed immediate payment of the bonus on grounds that it would favor a special class of citizen at a time when all were suffering. But after reading newspaper accounts of MacArthur’s eviction, he told an adviser that “this will elect me.”


Indeed, three months later, Roosevelt would win the election by seven million votes. George Patton, discounting the effect of the Great Depression on voters, later said that the Army’s “act[ing] against a crowd rather than against a mob” had “insured the election of a Democrat.” Hoover biographer David Burner agrees the incident dealt a final blow to the incumbent: “In the minds of most analysts, whatever doubt had remained about the outcome of the presidential election was now gone: Hoover was going to lose. The Bonus Army was his final failure, his symbolic end.”


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