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The Bonus Army camp burns within sight of the U.S. Capitol. (Image: Signal Corps/National Archives)

Marching on History

When a "Bonus Army" of World War I veterans converged on Washington, 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.

 

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.

 

For two months, General MacArthur, anticipating violence, had been secretly training his troops in riot control. By the time the deadly conflict commenced, MacArthur, acting on orders from the president, had already commanded troops from Fort Myer, Virginia, to cross the Potomac and assemble on the Ellipse, the grassy lawn across from the White House. His principal aide, Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower, urged him to stay off the streets and delegate the mission to lower-ranking officers. But MacArthur, who ordered Eisenhower to accompany him, assumed personal command of the long-planned military operation.

 

What happened next is etched in the American memory: for the first time in the nation’s history, tanks rolled through the streets of the capital. MacArthur ordered his men to clear the downtown of veterans, their numbers estimated at around 8,000, and spectators who had been drawn to the scene by radio reports. At 4:30 p.m., nearly 200 mounted cavalry, sabers drawn and pennants flying, wheeled out of the Ellipse. At the head of this contingent rode their executive officer, George S. Patton, followed by five tanks and about 300 helmeted infantrymen, brandishing loaded rifles with fixed bayonets. The cavalry drove most pedestrians—curious onlookers, civil servants and members of the Bonus Army, many with wives and children—off the streets. Infantrymen wearing gas masks hurled hundreds of tear-gas grenades at the dispersing crowd. The detonated grenades set off dozens of fires: the flimsy shelters veterans had erected near the armory went up in flames. Black clouds mingled with tear gas.

 

Naaman Seigle, now 76, was 6 years old that day. He remembers a detachment of cavalry passing in front of his house in southwest D.C. that morning. “We thought it was a parade because of all the horses,” he says. Later in the day, the boy and his father happened to go downtown to a hardware store. As they emerged from the shop, they saw the tanks and were hit with a dose of tear gas. “I was coughing like hell. So was my father,” Seigle recalls.

 

By 7:00 p.m., soldiers had evacuated the entire downtown encampment—perhaps as many as 2,000 men, women and children—along with countless bystanders. By 9:00, these troops were crossing the bridge to Anacostia.

 

There, Bonus Army leaders had been given an hour to evacuate the women and children. The troops swooped down on CampMarks, driving off some 2,000 veterans with tear gas and setting fire to the camp, which quickly burned. Thousands began the trek toward the Maryland state line, four miles away, where National Guard trucks waited to drive them to the Pennsylvania border.

 

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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