Bonus March


Daniel Jordy
AP English Language and Composition
Mrs. D'Amato
May 21, 2000
World War I veterans demonstrate at the Capitol in July 1932 to demand payment for their military service. (UPI file photo) (Wheeler)

       The Great Depression brought about severe economic hardships in America and around the world. People were opportunistic, wanting any type of advantage that could be given to them. One such group of people were the World War I veterans and their families; who wanted a bonus for their services in the Great War now, instead of in 1945. During this turbulent time, the United States government was very concerned with political uprisings that tried to overthrow the government. The government's great concern about riots and political uprisings during the Great Depression led to hasty actions to quell the Bonus March demonstrations, created animosity towards President Hoover, and eventually forced him out of office.

    After World War I, the government wanted to reward the efforts of the veterans and their families who served in the War. After four years of intense lobbying by the newly formed American Legion, a bonus bill was created in 1924. Each veteran was paid $1 for each day served in the United States; and $1.25 for each day served overseas (Watkins 98). Veterans that were to receive less that $50 were paid in cash. The remainder of the bonuses were placed in certificates, maturing in 20 years in a trust fund through appropriation. Annual installments of $112 million would total $2.24 billion. Interest, which would be compounded annually would increase the amount of money in the certificates to the required amount by 1945. By April 1932, there were 3,662,374 certificates in the trust fund; and by maturity, would amount to $3.638 billion. At the end of 1931, the government placed 8 annual payments into the fund, and the interest raised the amount of money in the fund to $991 million. At the time of maturation, a veteran would receive on average $1,000. More information about the appropriation process can be found at (Bell & Howell…).

    Everything was going smoothly, until the government and the economy hit a little snag in their plan. That snag was the Great Depression. People were being laid off and they lost all sources of income. In their desperate plea, veterans wanted there bonus paid as soon as possible, instead of waiting until 1945. In 1929, Texas congressman Wright Patman introduced legislation for the immediate payment of the Bonuses. To do so, the government would have to raise the rest the money that was to be given to the veterans when the bonds matured in 1945; a lofty $2,390,000,000 (Bell & Howell…). This legislation got nowhere, but planted a seed which quickly grew. The idea of Patman's bill was supported by the Hearst newspapers, and by the popular "radio priest", Fr. Charles Coughlin. Patman introduced legislation at the opening session in January 1931. He was supported by other Congressmen, and because of this, Hoover had a problem on his hands. He did not want to raise around $4 bi llion dollars, in the midst of a depression. To raise such a large sum, the government would have to raise taxes, and Hoover did not want to do so. People thought Hoover was selfish; $400-$500 would provide five months of food & shelter for their families (Watkins 98-99).

Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, Detroit's "Radio Priest," pounds his fist as he urges American laborers and farmers to organize and enjoy their share of the nation's benefits, June 20, 1935 in St. Louis, Mo. Coughlin was a proud supporter of Patman's Bonus Bill (AP PHOTO).

    Meanwhile, Walter Waters, a 34 year-old veteran medic who was in the 146th Field Artillery, wanted his bonus paid. After the war, he drifted for job to job, settling down and getting married. He worked in a Portland cannery, until December 1930 when he was laid off. He attended a National Veterans Association meeting in March of 1932, where he suggested a trip to Washington to lobby for the passage of the Bonus Bill; like Big Business lobbying. On May 11, after Patman's Bonus Bill was rejected, the group of veterans decided to do what Waters suggested. The original 300 men and their families blocked Union Pacific RR tracks, and commandeered it. They rode East over the Cascade Mt. Range, over the Snake River Plains of S. Idaho. Along the way, near Pocatello, Waters was named "general" of the troops, trying to make the expedition more military-like. They called themselves the "Bonus Expeditionary Force" or "Bonus Army", after the American Expeditionary Force that was sent overseas during WWI. To make the effort more soldierly, they created an anthem from a WWI song:

We're all the way from Oregon
To get some cash from Washington,
Hinky, dinky, parlez-vous.

We're going to ride the B &O.
The good lord Jesus told us so.
Hinky, dinky, parlez-vous.

When Mr. Hoover says "O.K."
You're going to see a better day
Hinky, dinky, parlez-vous.

    It took 18 days to get from Oregon to DC, picking up supporters from all over the country during the journey. By mid June, 15,000 to 20,000 people were in 27 camps throughout DC, & in a number of buildings currently being "demolished for the construction of what would be the Federal Triangle complex across from Constitution Avenue (then B Street) from the Mall" (Watkins 98-100). Waters said there were 80,000 veterans in Washington. Police said it was closer to 22,000 (Wheeler).

A World War I veteran lived in a makeshift shelter with his wife and six children in an encampment along Pennsylvania Avenue (UPI file photo) (Wheeler).

    Brig. Gen. Pelham D. Glassford (chief of police) gave them makeshift housing in empty govt. Buildings & in a swampy area across the Patomac- got the US army to lend them tents and cots, made army field kitchens give them food (Britten 27). The most pleasant of camps was "Camp Bartlett", located on plot of wooded land donated by former postmaster Gen. John H. Bartlett, 2 miles from the Mall. "Camp Marks", on the Anacostia Flats across the Anacostia River from the city, was the largest of all the camps. There was approximately 1,500 people, including about 1,100 women and children (Watkins 101). Britten recalls that, "He (Brig. Gen. Pelham D. Glassford) himself rode from site to site on a motorcycle, giving smiles & encouragement calling the hopeful veterans 'my boys'." (27) These camps were called Hooverviles. There were many of these camps across the country, where homeless people would live together. It was named after President Hoover, and was "not a term of endearment". They used "scraps of wood & cardboard, old beer signs & fence posts, anything they could find that would keep off the wind & rain of winter & the direct sun of summer" to construct their shacks (Watkins 61). Britten states that Glassford coerced bakers, coffee distributors, meat suppliers and others to donate goods, setting up a commissary in a garage at 473 G St. NW. A 50-bed hospital near the Capitol was set up by the District's medical and dental societies (27). The marchers even organized about 300 of their own, creating a police force, to keep order. These police stopped about 200 determined communists from moving into the camps, who were trying to cause a communist revolution. This demonstrates that the veterans were not antigovernment, just good citizens who wanted the government to give them the money that they deserved (Wheeler).

    On June 15, the House of Representatives passed the Bonus Bill 209- 176. Unfortunately, on June 17, the Senate rejects the Bill, 62-18. After the defeat, Waters faces about 12,000 of his followers outside the Capitol Building, and tells them the story. They took the news calmly, singing "America the Beautiful", and marched back to their camp. Sen. Hiram Johnson (one of the 18 who voted for the Bonus bill, "This marks a new era in the life of our nation… The time may come when this folderol- these trappings of government - will disappear when fat old men like you and me will be lined up against a stone wall." (Watkins 101) In Early July, Congress voted to give $100,000, collectively, to the veterans for them to return home. About 5,000 took this offer and left Washington for home. Many felt that they were being sent home to starve (Britten 27).

This is an undated portrait of Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States from 1929 to 1933. Hoover was accused of not taking any affirmative action to combat the Great Depression (AP Photo/ho).

    By July 28, President Hoover wanted the downtown buildings cleared. "The city commissioners, worried about riots, wanted the marchers out and daily pressed the police chief to get rid of them. The commissioners insisted that Glassford evict them from the federal buildings by July 28 on the pretense that demolition was about to begin." (Wheeler). Pat Hurley, Hoover's Secretary of War, wanted to use soldiers to remove the veterans from the buildings. Hoover wanted to use soldiers only if "absolutely necessary". Glassford asked veterans to leave peacefully on July 28, but nobody picked up and left for home. "(He) drew on his personal relationship with the men to persuade those in one building to leave by late morning, but he refused to push the other veterans in the city any harder that day. The commissioners appealed to Hoover to bring in the military, saying that Glassford had lost control" (Wheeler). D. C. police led people out of govt. buildings peacefully with only minor squabbles, with no real violence. The afternoon was a different story. Two veterans "were shot and killed by panicked policemen in a riot at the bottom of Capitol Hill. This provided the final stimulus" (Train). President Hoover needed to restore order and prevent a larger riot, which would occur once others received news of the veterans' deaths. He called upon Gen. Douglas MacAurther, chief of staff of US Army & Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower to restore order and remove the veterans from Washington (Britten 27). "Four troops of cavalry, four companies of infantry, a mounted machine gun squadron and six whippet tanks lined up on Pennsylvania Avenue near 12th Street. Some of America's greatest military minds were on hand. MacArthur, the commander, was there with Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower and one of his officers, George S. Patton Jr." (Wheeler). The troops joined forces with the Army, and began clearing the city of veterans. 1 battalion of 12th Infantry Regiment & 2 squadrons of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment moved down Pennsylvania Avenue with tear gas and bayonets, and the veterans responded with brick throwing. Hoover told MacAurther only to clear the occupied buildings, but he disobeyed these orders, and continued through the city, clearing it of the veterans. Veterans threw bricks from windows of buildings, and the troops retaliated with guns. Donning gas masks, the troops used tear gas bombs to remove veterans and their families from the buildings. Bayonets were used to push back the crowd (Terkel 17). In the evening, President Hoover explicitly told MacAurther, through two officers, not to cross the Anacostia river and clear the veterans' camp. MacAurther, fully aware of Hoover's orders, disobeys them, and sends his troops across the river to clear the camps there. Men, women, and children were sent fleeing, and as a final insult, the troops burned the makeshift homes of the veterans. A firsthand account of the altercations can be found at (Wheeler). Photos of the camps before and after the fighting can be found at

    At the end of the squabble, two veterans were shot and killed. An 11 week old baby was in grave condition resulting from shock by gas exposure, two babies died from gas asphyxiation, and an 11 year old boy was partially blinded by the gas. Two policemen suffered skull fractures, a bystander was shot in the shoulder, a veteran's ear severed by a Calvary saber, an one veteran was stabbed in the hip with a bayonet. At least twelve police were injured by the bricks and clubs of the veterans. Over 1,000 men, women, and children were exposed to the tear gas, including police, reporters, residents of Washington DC, and ambulance drivers. Property damage was about $10,000, including the food, clothing, and temporary shelters of the veterans (Metzer 107).

    After the Bonus Army incident, Hoover's approval rating started to drop. The public was very disheartened by the actions of him and his advisors. The American public thought that Hoover was a greedy man, who did not want to give money to the veterans, and would send the US Army on its own people. Americans did not see a reason to forcibly evict the peaceful demonstrators out of Washington DC. People sympathized with the veterans and what they went through, but they did not know the other side of the story. First, Hoover did not want to give the bonuses to the veterans, because that would require deficit spending. This went against Hoover's domestic policy, which was not to let the country go into debt. He didn't want to put the country at risk, because he did not think that the deficit spending was necessary. Hoover believed that the depression was a passing phase, stating that "It'll fix itself". The job of the president, in his eyes, was to provide moral support, bolster public confidence. There should be a laissez-faire economics in the government, in which there is no government involvement in the economy and industry (Maoriello).

    The government had been afraid of a communist revolution since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. In fact, there fears were valid. Inside the camps , there was a group of communists that were trying to stir a revolution out of the veterans. They believed that the Great Depression was a signal for the fall of capitalism, and that it would lead to a communist revolution in the United States.

    The only thing that the American public saw was the bad side of the situation. All they saw was that people were injured and kill, that the government used excessive force to expel the demonstrators, and did not give a well-deserved bonus to the veterans, who needed such money to keep their family from starving. In conclusion, the government's concern about riots led to hasty actions to end the peaceful Bonus Army demonstrations, which led to turbulence between President Hoover and the American people. Later that year in November, 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the Presidency in a landslide.

Works Cited

AP Photo Archive.

Bell & Howell Information and Learning: Great Events: WWI Veterans' Bonus March 1932.

Britten, Loretts, and Brash, Sarah, Ed. Hard Times: The 30's. Virginia: Time Life, Inc., 1998

Burg, David F. The Great Depression: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1996

Freemon, David K. The Great Depression In American History. Springfield NJ: Enslow Publishers Inc., 1997.

Katz, William Loren. The New Freedom to the New Deal. Austin TX: Raintree Stock-Vaughn Company, 1993.

McLetchie, Scott Ian. The Great Depression 21 April 1999

Maoriello, Scott. Personal Interview. 11 April 2000

Press, Petra. A Cultural History of the United States - The 1930's. San Diego CA: Lucent Book Inc., 1999.

Train, Brian R. The Bonus Army of 1932.

Watkins, Tom H. The Great Depression: America in the 1930's. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 1993

Wheeler, Linda. "Routing a Ragtag Army." 12 April 1999 A1. Online