Washington police attempting to remove Bonus Army marchers from federal property – July 28, 1932
(photo from the DC Public Library Common’s photostream on Flickr)
In the summer of 1932, approximately 20,000 men, women, and children set up camp and occupied abandoned government buildings in Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress for the passage of the Patman bill, which would give immediate payment on WWI veterans’ adjusted service certificates (popularly known as a “bonus”). Calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Forces (BEF), or the Bonus Army, the veterans and their families, led by Walter W. Waters, came from all over the country and marched on Washington several times before the bill failed and Congress adjourned.
Over the course of three months, the veterans’ largest camps, in an area known as the Anacostia Flats, became the country’s most famous Hooverville, and although Congress appropriated funds to provide transportation out of Washington, D.C., thousands of the veterans—most of whom were unemployed and had no home to which to return—decided to remain in the city. Faced with a growing health hazard and increasingly edgy protesters, and being pressed to reclaim the abandoned buildings that were to be demolished for future construction, Pres. Herbert Hoover ordered their evacuation from Pennsylvania Avenue. When veterans and local police clashed, two veterans were killed, and Pres. Hoover called in the troops. On July 28th, 1932, the veterans were dispersed by the regular Army, led by then Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and the camps at Anacostia were burned. Though no one was killed, many were injured and observers decried the use of force against unarmed veterans. In the aftermath, both Pres. Hoover and MacArthur would claim that the Bonus Army was comprised of Communists and criminals that were intent on destroying the government of the United States.
The events of that summer are often discussed to highlight the different political styles of Herbert Hoover and FDR during the Great Depression, and the marchers are frequently credited with setting a tradition of bringing public grievances directly to the Capitol building. Recent scholars also point to the march of the veterans as motivation for the GI Bill that was passed at the end of World War II, claiming that the Bonus Army had demonstrated the dangers of not providing for veterans. Although it made headlines for many years, the march of the Bonus Army remains a largely forgotten chapter in American history, and is often relegated to a brief entry in encyclopedias and other reference works. Through the course of this essay, I hope to illuminate some of the more useful resources that are available for studying the phenomenon of the Bonus Army, while providing pointers for more detailed research.
Summaries & General Histories | Veteran’s Organizations & Patman’s Bill | Key Figures | Contemporary Press Coverage | Film Footage & Photographs | Communist & Criminal Involvement | Military Involvement in Civil Unrest | Legacy & Popular Memory | References
The first book-length treatment of the Bonus Army was Roger Daniels’ The Bonus March: An Episode of the Great Depression, published in 1971. It contains complete coverage stretching from the origin of the bonus in the 1920’s to the final legislation passed in 1936, and as such was the first study to examine the roots of the movement. Also included as an appendix is MacArthur’s complete report of the incident, “Report from the Chief of Staff, United States Army, to the Secretary of War on the Employment of Federal Troops in Civil Disturbance in the District of Columbia July 28-30, 1932,” dated August 15, 1932. Daniels devotes considerable time to examining the impact of the Bonus Army on the outcome of the 1932 election, and dispelling the lingering myths that surround it.
Donald J. Lisio’s The President and Protest: Hoover, Conspiracy, and the Bonus Riot, followed Daniels’ book in 1974. It is no coincidence that these two books were published within short span of each other; Pres. Hoover’s papers at the newly opened Herbert Hoover Presidential Library were made available to scholars in 1966. Because Daniels’ book was released when Lisio was still researching his, The President and Protest emphasizes areas that Daniels does not; taken together, the two works complement each other nicely. Daniels’ history provides a thorough review of the events, with particular emphasis on the myths and popular misconceptions surrounding the dispersal of the Bonus Army. His research draws heavily on the papers of Washington, D.C., Police Superintendent Pelham Glassford—a figure who was sympathetic towards the marchers and who, after the rout, harshly criticized Hoover’s actions. Lisio, on the other hand, goes further and tries to discredit the various conspiracy theories that were put forth in the immediate aftermath and were perpetuated years later, such as Communist involvement and Hoover’s use of force as a political maneuver. Earlier, in an article entitled, “A Blunder Becomes Catastrophe: Hoover, the Legion, and the Bonus Army,” (1967) Lisio had proven for the first time that General MacArthur exceeded Hoover’s orders in crossing the bridge to Anacostia, and this book is the logical conclusion of that claim. Meticulously researched with abundant citations, The President and Protest reviews the documentary evidence surrounding the Bonus March to challenge Hoover’s reputation as an unsympathetic villain in the episode. In 1994, Lisio revised and updated his work, to reevaluate his study in light of newly available information, and it was re-published with a new subtitle, Hoover, MacArthur and the Bonus Riot. The new edition includes a preface that summarizes his findings, and provides a brief survey of the scholarship on the Bonus Army between the two editions of his work. In addition, both editions contain a bibliographic essay that examines the strengths and weaknesses of the primary source collections on this topic, and as such is invaluable to the researcher.
Drawing heavily from Lisio’s conclusions, Blackside, Inc. produced an hour-long documentary for PBS’s American Experience, After the Crash (1990), of which a third is devoted to the Bonus March. Produced by Eric Neudel and Henry Hampton—known for Eyes on the Prize, their landmark series on the Civil Rights Movement—the film includes extensive film footage of the camps and the clash between the Army and the veterans, along with commentary from eyewitnesses. The narrative closely follows the sequence of events laid out by Lisio’s text, and MacArthur’s insubordination in entering the camps at Anacostia is clearly explained. The film was expanded upon in 1994 and released as a volume in the seven-part PBS documentary, The Great Depression, produced by Terry Kay Rockefeller, and written in consultation with historians such as Alan Brinkley and Susan Ware. For a detailed examination of the collaboration between professional historians and the filmmakers, see James Green’s “Making The Great Depression for Public Television: Notes on Collaboration with Documentary Filmmaker,” (1994). For a historian’s perspective on the film, see John Bauman’s review in Journal of American History (1994).
The most recent book to examine the Bonus Army is Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen’s The Bonus Army: An American Epic (2005). Perhaps in an attempt to draw attention to this oft-forgotten episode, the book’s publicity materials highlight their claim that the Bonus Army spawned the post-WWII GI Bill, a connection that instantly illustrates the importance they see in the events of that summer. The epilogue, “The GI Bill—Legacy of the Bonus Army,” puts forth their argument that the most important outcome of the Bonus Army’s March on Washington was its impact on veteran-government relations. A helpful component of Dickson and Allen’s work are the appendices: “The Long Shadow of the Bonus Army,” which looks at its influence on popular culture and political action, and “What Became of Them,” which reviews the outcome of the major players. Their book also spawned a PBS documentary, The March of the Bonus Army (2006), written by the authors, directed by Robert Uth and produced by Glenn Marcus. Although the book is a welcome addition to the research on the topic, coming some 30 years after the original edition of The President and Protest, it is not as meticulously researched as Lisio’s text. One review of the book that appeared in The American Scholar criticized it for containing “a few small errors, …but these are minor annoyances in what is overall an excellent book” (McElvaine, 2005). The same can be said of the companion documentary (see Paul Bonnefield’s review in Journal of American History, 2006). Both, however, are noted for their discussion of African Americans among the veterans; the observations of Roy Wilkins, a young reporter for the NAACP publication, Crisis, are included, though they are absent from Daniels’ and Lisio’s treatment. Also in contrast to previous books, Dickson and Allen focus on the day-to-day experiences of the marchers in addition to examining the role of the leaders and government personnel.
These summative histories of the Bonus Army and its impact cover a wide range of historical interpretations, but all trace the origins of the movement through its natural conclusion with the passage of the Bonus Bill in 1936. However, there are a variety of sources that examine more narrow aspects of the Bonus Army, and these are detailed below.
Veteran’s Organizations & Patman’s Bill
For a thorough history of the legislation of the bonus, and an analysis of the role that veteran’s organizations played in spawning a movement calling for immediate payment of the adjusted service certificates issued in 1924, Stephen Ortiz’s “Rethinking the Bonus March: Federal Bonus Policy, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Origins of a Protest Movement,” is indispensable. Ortiz outlines the different approaches that the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars took in working with veterans to advocate for benefits, and clearly outlines the role that Wright Patman (D-Tex) played in creating the movement. His article examines the Congressional back-and-forth that occurred throughout the Bonus Army’s occupation of Washington, D.C., and its list of sources is particularly helpful in further researching any aspect of his discussion.
The Congressional Record for the 72nd Congress, 1st Session, includes transcripts of the three days of debate that occurred in the House just prior to the vote on June 15, 1932. The House debates include a notable contribution by Fiorello LaGuardia, future mayor of New York City, and they summarize many of the arguments that had been made earlier in the popular press, both for and against the bill (as cited in Lisio, 1974, p. 109-111). Although in general Democrats supported the bill while Republicans were against it, the final vote split across party lines, as many liberals preferred relief legislation for all citizens, not just veterans. For the full text of the bill, see HR3493, in the same session of Congress. An analysis of the financial implications of Patman’s Bill can be found in the hearings before the House Ways and Means Committee in April, 1932 (“Payment of Adjusted-Compensation Certificates,” 1932); the committee ultimately recommended a vote against the measure.
No examination of the Bonus Army would be complete without a look at the autobiographical sources for the key figures involved in the events of that summer. As mentioned above, Lisio’s bibliographic essay is an excellent review of the manuscript collections relating to the incident. In addition to personal papers, there are monographs that deserve mention, primarily for the glimpse they provide into the exaggeration that occurred in the years following the confrontation. Volume Three of The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: 1929-1941, The Great Depression (1952) illustrates the extent to which Hoover came to view the incident as a conspiracy of Communist agitators, and is discussed at length in Lisio’s work, as well as excerpted in “The Bonus March: Herbert Hoover’s View,” (American History, 2004). A similar view of the Bonus Army is put forth in Douglas MacArthur’s Reminiscences (1964). For a more balanced version of events, consult Dwight D. Eisenhower’s At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends (1967), although it is good to remember that all of these sources require the historical judgment and verification necessary to evaluate eyewitness accounts of a controversial event.
Bearing that in mind, Walter W. Waters’s only available contribution in this area (no personal papers have been located to date) is the highly subjective, B.E.F., the Whole Story of the Bonus Army as told to William C. White (1933). Notable for its impassioned prose, much of the work’s statements are either unverifiable or have been disproved by scholars such as Lisio; however, it remains valuable for its insight into the discourse on the topic, and has been cited by some to capture the spirit of the movement (see Barber, 2002).
Contemporary Press Coverage
One of the difficulties in researching the Bonus Army is the sheer number of resources available. Because the occupation of the capital captured the nation’s attention for over three months, and the veterans came from all areas of the country, the coverage by the press is voluminous. However, the main sources to consult for a representative sample of the journalism of the era are: the Baltimore Sun, B.E.F. News (a weekly paper published by the marchers during their stay in Washington, D.C.), The Nation, The New Republic, New York Times, The Oregonian, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. An article that appeared just one day before the eviction in The Nation, “The Bonus Army Scares Mr. Hoover” (July 27, 1932) gives an interesting account of the mood in the camps, and—perhaps due to its publication before the most controversial events—is surprisingly balanced in its appraisal of the marchers’ aims. Also notable are the writings by John Dos Passos in The New Republic and that of H.L. Mencken in the American Mercury. For an international perspective on the scene of the camps before the eviction, French journalist Jules Sauerwein’s piece for the New York Times is reprinted in the anthology, A Treasury of Great Reporting (Snyder, 1949). Snyder’s work also includes a piece from the Baltimore Evening Sun, by Lee McCardell, that received honorable mention for the Pulitzer Prize in reporting for 1933: “For General Glassford, ‘a big bottle of ginger ale’; for the veterans, gas bombs.” This work is interesting in that it describes scenes of veterans throwing tear gas bombs back at the troops, and is written with a narrative flair that is absent from most reporting.
Film Footage & Photographs
Fortunately for scholars, there is a wealth of film footage of the Bonus Army and their eviction available from the various newsreels of the time. Many of these have been compiled into collections available for educational purposes, or are used in film documentaries of the events. In addition to the previously discussed PBS documentaries, footage of the marchers and their expulsion can be found in the Universal Video Yearbook Reference Library, vol. 32 (1988), and March on Washington: The Bonus Marches (1969). Both the Library of Congress and the National Archives maintain collections of film related to the incident as well. These collections are detailed in the bibliographic notes of both Dickson and Allen (2005) and Lisio (1974). For a look at the Communist Party USA’s appropriation of the events as propaganda, see Leo Seltzer’s work for the Film and Photo League, available in Film and Photo League Program 2 (1934).
Photographs of the event are also abundant, and may be found in a variety of press collections as well as the Library of Congress and National Archives collections mentioned above. NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture houses the International Labor Defense Photograph Collection. ILD was a legal organization affiliated with the Communist Party USA, and the photographs include “Bonus Marchers during 1932 and 1933. Demonstrations, encampments, registration and food lines, and leader Walter Waters are among the views found in this collection” (NYPL catalog entry). Also useful are the United Press International (UPI) photographs available through the Corbis Collection. Of course, all of the monographs and many of the press accounts contain photographs of the events and key figures as well.
Communist & Criminal Involvement
An area of study that was more common in the 1950’s, during the McCarthy era, was the involvement of Communists in orchestrating the marches of the Bonus Army. Though largely discredited today, in the decades immediately following the incident speculation of Communist involvement was rampant. Much of it was caused by the testimony of John T. Pace, a leader for the Communist Party USA, before the House Un-American Activities Committee (“Communist Tactics Among Veterans Groups,” 1951). Pace and other former Communist Party members often used this forum to exaggerate their influence and past success. Although Pace was present in Washington, D.C. and a part of the Bonus Army, recent scholars, most notably Donald T. Lisio, have examined the Communist influence and determined that it was virtually non-existent. In fact, all three of the major texts on the Bonus Army discuss the Communist influence as minimal, and even cite clashes between Waters and “subversives” (see Lisio, 121-122). Nonetheless, there was a Communist presence, and as mentioned earlier, both the Film and Photo League and International Labor Defense documented the events; their collections are demonstrative of the significance that the party tried to derive from the protests.
The idea that the Bonus Army was unduly influenced by Communist infiltration was also perpetuated, as mentioned earlier, by Pres. Hoover and Douglas MacArthur in their autobiographical accounts. Hoover’s interpretations were also influenced by the US Bureau of Investigation’s (now FBI) report on the Bonus March. Using the information supplied by veterans that received transportation funds from Congress, the Bureau ran their fingerprints to obtain their police records, and compiled a survey of their criminal backgrounds. This report, now available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act, influenced Hoover’s interpretation of the episode, and explains his oft-cited view that the marchers were made up of “hoodlums and ex-convicts” (Memoirs, Vol. 3, as excerpted in American History, 2004).
Military Involvement in Civil Unrest
For sources that specifically address the actions of the military, both as they relate to its role in civil unrest and general analyses of the Army’s actions on that day, a review of military journal literature is in order. Two articles in particular stand out and are cited by general scholars. John Killigrew’s “The Army and the Bonus Incident,” (1962) appeared in Military Affairs before the opening of the Herbert Hoover papers, and consequently does not address MacArthur’s insubordination. However, it does provide an explanation of the “White Plan,” which was the military’s outline of procedure in dealing with problems of civil unrest. Bryon Greenwald’s “The Bonus March: A Forgotton Stain,” (2000) is most useful for its analysis of the Army’s actions compared to the guidelines for Operations Other Than War (OOTW) as laid out in Army FM-100. Many early dissertations on the Bonus Army address specific military issues in the event, and they are reviewed in detail in Lisio’s bibliographic essay (Lisio, p. 335-336).
Legacy & Popular Memory
Much has been written regarding the legacy of the Bonus Army, and Dickson and Allen do a thorough job of discussing the influence that the movement had on American history. However, a more detailed discussion of the most popular element of its legacy—the March on Washington—can be found in Lucy Barber’s excellent history, Marching on Washington (2002). Barber devotes a chapter to the Bonus Army, and places them in the context of the tradition of citizens gathering in Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress or the President. The bonus marchers are again present in the news in the weeks leading up to the 1963 March on Washington led by A. Philip Randolph, at which Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech was given. A review of the major national newspapers for this period will retrieve many interesting reminiscences of the Bonus Army, as will the 1968 Poor People’s March, as well as many of the Vietnam veteran’s demonstrations in the 1970’s.
The Bonus Army captivated the public’s attention and is present in a variety of forms of popular culture of the period. The sight of the regular Army advancing on tattered WWI veterans left an indelible mark on the minds of many, and it is reflected in a variety of works, from films and plays, to books and songs. As mentioned earlier, an appendix in Dickson and Allen’s work, “The Long Shadow of the Bonus Army,” covers many of the incarnations that these took. Also notable are the USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos, and the collection of songs of the period, Ballads of the B.E.F. (1932). Traces of the Bonus Army can be found in the film Gabriel Over the White House (1933), in which the President of the United States is faced with a march of the unemployed and answers with a variety of New Deal-like programs. The “Forgotton Man” musical number in Gold Diggers of 1933 (1934) depicts a parade of veterans hailed alternately as heroes and beggars. As a testimony to the place that this episode holds in the American popular memory, talk of the Bonus Army resurfaces any time issues of veterans returning home from war—and what society owes to them—are discussed. However, since the events are not well known among younger generations, it seems that every few years the Bonus Army is rediscovered by some publication or another. The vigilant researcher will do well to keep current on his sources, for new information and interpretations are no doubt on the horizon.
- Ballads of the B.E.F. (1932). New York: Coventry House.
- Barber, L. G. (2002). Marching on Washington. Berkeley, C.A.: University of California Press.
- Bauman, J. F. (1994). Review: The Great Depression. The Journal of American History, 81(3, The Practice of American History: A Special Issue), 1406-1408. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2081627
- Bonnefield, P. (2006). The march of the bonus army. [Review of the motion picture The March of the bonus army]. The Journal of American History, 93(3). 982-983.
- The bonus army scares Mr. Hoover. (1932, July 27). The Nation.
- Bonus Expeditionary Force. (1932). The B. E. F. news; bonus expeditionary forces. The B.E.F.News; Bonus Expeditionary Forces.
- Congressional record 75(11), H12844-5. 72nd Congress, 1st session. June 13, 1932.
- Congressional record 75(11), H12911-39. 72nd Congress, 1st session. June 14, 1932.
- Congressional record 75(11), H13015-54. 72nd Congress, 1st session. June 15, 1932.
- Corbis Corporation. (n.d.) United Press International photographs.
- Daniels, R. (1971). The bonus march: An episode of the Great Depression. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.
- Dickson, P. and Allen, T.B. (2005). The bonus army: An American epic. New York: Walker and Company.
- Eisenhower, D.D. (1967). At ease: Stories I tell to friends. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.
- Film and Photo League of the Workers’ International Relief. (1934). Film and photo league program 2 [motion picture]. New York: Museum of Modern Art.
- Green, J. (1994). Making The Great Depression for public television: notes on collaboration with documentary filmmaker. Perspectives, October 1994.
- Greenwald, B. (2000). The bonus march: A forgotten stain. Military Review, 80(2), 91-94.
- Hoover, H. (1952). The memoirs of Herbert Hoover: The Great Depression, 1929-1941. New York: Macmillan.
- Hoover, H. (2004). The bonus march: Herbert Hoover’s view. American History, 39(2), 36-37.
- International Labor Defense. (1926?-1946?). International Labor Defense photograph collection [graphic].
- Killigrew, J. W. (1962). The Army and the bonus incident. Military Affairs, 26(2), 59-65.
- LaCava, G. (director). (1933). Gabriel over the White House [motion picture]. United States: MGM.
- LeRoy, M. (director). (1933). Gold diggers of 1933 [motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros.
- Lisio, D.L. (1967). A blunder becomes catastrophe: Hoover, the Legion, and the bonus army. Wisconsin Magazine of History, 51(1).
- Lisio, D.L. (1974). The president and protest: Hoover, conspiracy, and the bonus riot. Columbia: University of Missouri.
- Lisio, D.L. (1994). The president and protest: Hoover, MacArthur, and the bonus riot. New York: Fordham University Press.
- MacArthur, D. (1964). Reminiscences. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Marcus, G. (Producer). Uth, R. (Director). (2006). March of the bonus army [motion picture]. United States: New Voyage Communications.
- McElvaine, R. (2005). Battle of Anacostia. American Scholar, 74(2), 139-40.
- Neudel, E. and Hampton, H. (Producers). (1990). After the crash [motion picture]. United States: Blackside, Inc.
- Ortiz, S.R. (2006). Rethinking the bonus march: Federal bonus policy, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the origins of a protest movement. Journal of Policy History, 18(3). 275-303.
- Pace, J. T. (1951). Communist tactics among veterans’ groups (testimony of John T. Pace) Hearing before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eighty-second Congress, first session. July l3, 1951. Washington, D.C.: USGPO.
- Rockefeller, T.K. (Producer). (1994). The Great Depression [motion picture]. United States: Blackside, Inc.
- Snyder, L., ed. (1949). A Treasury of great reporting: ‘Literature under pressure’ from the sixteenth century to our own time. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- United States. (1932). Payment of adjusted-compensation certificates. May 7, 1932—Committed to the committee of the whole House on the State of the Union and ordered to be printed. US Congressional serial set no. 9493 session, vol. no. 3. 72nd Congress, 1st session.
- United States Bureau of Investigation. (2000). Bonus march.
- Universal Archives, Inc. (1988). The Universal video yearbook reference library, volume 32, 1932 [videorecording]. Morris Place, N.J.: Lucerne.
- Waters, W.W. with White, W.C. (1933, reprinted 1970). B.E.F.: The whole story of the bonus army. New York: AMS Press.
last updated 11/2009