Attack on the Bonus Army Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the summer of 1932, nearly 20,000 military veterans, along with their families and various support groups, came to Washington, DC, from across the country to lobby for passage of legislation that would pay them an immediate cash bonus for their service during World War I. Legislation passed in 1924 had authorized bonuses payable in 1945, but financial hardships caused by the Great Depression prompted many veterans to ask for immediate disbursement. During its summer session, Congress failed to pass the legislation. In late July, the administration of President Herbert Hoover and officials of the District of Columbia decided to use military force to evict the veterans from the nation's capital. A 600-man contingent, led by US Army chief of staff General Douglas MacArthur used tear gas and a show of force to drive protesters from their temporary living quarters and out of the district.

Summary Overview

In the summer of 1932, nearly 20,000 military veterans, along with their families and various support groups, came to Washington, DC, from across the country to lobby for passage of legislation that would pay them an immediate cash bonus for their service during World War I. Legislation passed in 1924 had authorized bonuses payable in 1945, but financial hardships caused by the Great Depression prompted many veterans to ask for immediate disbursement. During its summer session, Congress failed to pass the legislation. In late July, the administration of President Herbert Hoover and officials of the District of Columbia decided to use military force to evict the veterans from the nation's capital. A 600-man contingent, led by US Army chief of staff General Douglas MacArthur used tear gas and a show of force to drive protesters from their temporary living quarters and out of the district.

Defining Moment

In late May 1932, a contingent of World War I veterans, led by Walter W. Waters of Portland, Oregon, arrived in Washington, DC, to lobby Congress for passage of a bill that would provide them immediate cash payments of a bonus dating from 1924. That year, the World War Adjusted Compensation Act had awarded veterans deferred bonuses in the form of certificates that could be redeemed for payment in 1945. The value of each bonus depended on the veteran's length of service, with an average payout of approximately $1,000, and veterans were allowed to borrow against this sum in certain circumstances. In 1929, shortly before the onset of the Great Depression, Representative Wright Patman of Texas introduced a bill that would allow veterans to receive immediate cash payments of their bonuses. The Hoover administration felt that such a large outlay–up to three billion dollars–would further stress the government's finances, and administration officials fought to keep the bill from passing. Patman's first bill was defeated in committee, but he continued to push for the legislation, and in 1932, a similar bill reached Congress for a vote. The House of Representatives passed the bill on June 15, 1932, but two days later, as the protesters gathered at the Capitol building, it was defeated in the Senate.

Throughout June and July, the number of veterans and their families and supporters assembling in the nation's capital swelled to over 40,000. The veterans conducted peaceful protests and demonstrations to highlight their cause. The group took as its name the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF), a reference to the American Expeditionary Force, the US military contingent that went to Europe during World War I. Washington's police superintendent, Pelham Glassford, managed to maintain order. A major camp was set up in the city's Anacostia neighborhood, but some veterans took up residence in unoccupied buildings close to the Capitol. Under Glassford's supervision, the protesters received some assistance from private citizens and government agencies. However, Hoover and others feared that the veterans were being controlled by Communist elements and were wary that violence would eventually erupt. After Congress adjourned on July 17, the president's administration and District of Columbia commissioners became more aggressive in their efforts to evict the BEF from Washington. Notices of eviction were issued to clear buildings downtown.

On July 28, while attempting to carry out evictions, Washington police clashed with veterans. Bricks and stones were thrown by protesters, and two veterans were shot and killed by police officers. In response, Hoover authorized the Army to move into downtown Washington to quell the protesters. Army chief of staff MacArthur personally led a contingent of six hundred infantry, mounted cavalry, and tanks into the city, where they evicted around ten thousand bonus marchers from Capitol Hill and its immediate environs. Ignoring the president's directive to return the protesters to their camps and hold them there for identification, MacArthur instead ordered troops to drive the veterans and their families from the camps, over the Anacostia River, and out of the capital. Although no shots were fired and no direct casualties occurred, the soldiers used tear gas on the protesters, and their show of force, with loaded rifles, bayonets, swords, cavalry, and tanks rolling down streets, provoked fear among BEF members. Tents and equipment at the Anacostia camp were burned. When Hoover ordered the eviction stopped, MacArthur again ignored him. By the next morning, the bonus marchers had begun traveling away from the city. Some stopped for a time in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, mistakenly thinking they would be welcome there. Eventually, the veterans and their families returned home.

Author Biography

Lee McCardell was born in Frederick, Maryland, on June 8, 1901. After graduating from the local public high school, he enrolled at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now part of Carnegie Mellon University) to pursue studies in engineering, but he soon transferred to the University of Virginia, where he earned a degree in liberal arts. In 1925, McCardell went to work for The Baltimore Evening Sun as a reporter and feature writer. On July 28, 1932, he was in Washington, DC, when federal troops evicted the Bonus Army veterans and their families from their temporary camps. His story of the event received an honorable mention by the Pulitzer Prize committee the following year. McCardell served in Europe as a war correspondent throughout World War II; afterward, he spent eighteen months as chief of the Sun's London bureau before becoming city editor of the Evening Sun. In 1954, he was promoted to assistant managing editor. After spending three years as chief of the Sun's new Rome bureau, he returned to his position as assistant managing editor, where he remained until his death on February 7, 1963.

Document Analysis

McCardell's first-person account of the US Army's eviction of the Bonus Army protesters is an excellent example of the kind of journalism that was popular and respected in the United States during the early twentieth century. There is virtually no editorializing and no strong statements that affix blame or champion one side or another. Instead, McCardell's spare style focuses on the events as they unfolded before his eyes, recording the sights and sounds of this clash between a group of “bedraggled” veterans and a contingent of well-armed soldiers commanded personally by the Army's chief of staff.

On the surface, McCardell's narrative reads like an on-the-scene report of combat between two opposing military forces. His opening sentence, “The bonus army was retreating today,” immediately sets up that scenario. Opposing this group is the “Regular Army,” a force of “between seven hundred and eight hundred men,” equipped with horses and tanks. The cavalry carries “drawn sabers,” while the infantry is equipped with “fixed bayonets.” At one point, the soldiers don their gas masks and launch an “unexpected gas attack.”

Notably absent is any mention of weaponry carried by the bonus marchers–because they were unarmed. In fact, McCardell repeatedly refers to them as a “mob.” Their only aggressive actions are to stand firm in the face of the advancing infantry and to grab the “tear-gas bombs” and throw them back, all the while jeering at their attackers.

Although the clash between veterans and regulars took place at several locations throughout the District of Columbia, McCardell focuses on the action along Pennsylvania Avenue just north of the Capitol building, where veterans had set up “ramshackle shelters.” Keeping the focus on actions in the center of the city allows McCardell to interweave throughout his account descriptions of spectators who turn out to watch what is to them a curious spectacle, at least at first. To the residents of Washington, this potentially life-and-death encounter is little more than an afternoon's entertainment–or perhaps a terrible nuisance, since “traffic was tied up in 115 knots.”

McCardell does not say directly where readers' sympathies should lie, but his careful choice of language highlights the essential disparity between the opposing forces. The Army comes off as an imperious conquering force, the veterans as heroic resistance fighters who retreat only because they are outgunned.

Essential Themes

Before the Bonus Army was forcibly evicted from Washington, national opinions over their actions were mixed. While most Americans appreciated the service these veterans had provided to the nation, many politicians and opinion leaders expressed concern that one group might receive special assistance during a time when everyone in the country was suffering. Newspapers and magazines carried editorials urging the president and Congress to resist efforts by lobby groups, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, to wrest concessions from the government and further jeopardize the nation's precarious financial status.

The contrast between the treatment of the veterans by Chief of Police Glassford and Army Chief-of-Staff MacArthur provides a lesson in public officials' management of potentially hostile crowds. Glassford won the confidence of protesters by providing them with a limited number of food and shelter items that made their stay in otherwise squalid conditions palatable; he also allowed BEF officials to police their camps. MacArthur treated the veterans as enemy combatants, and although the soldiers under his command showed some restraint, their actions were akin to those used during wartime to deal with hostile belligerents.

Initially the attack on the Bonus Army was met with approval by the press, as Hoover's insistence that the marchers were being manipulated by Communist agitators was widely believed. As facts came to light, however, public opinion turned, and the military action came to be perceived as governmental overreach, an unwarranted use of force on a group engaged in peaceful civil protest. Resentment against Hoover's actions was a contributing factor in his resounding loss to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Daniels, Roger. The Bonus March: An Episode of the Great Depression. Westport: Greenwood, 1971. Print.
  • Dickson, Paul, & Thomas B. Allen. The Bonus Army: An American Epic. New York: Walker, 2004. Print.
  • Liebovich, Louis. Bylines in Despair: Herbert Hoover, the Great Depression, and the US News Media. Westport: Greenwood, 1994. Print.
  • Lisio, Donald J. The President and Protest: Hoover, Conspiracy, and the Bonus Riot. 2nd ed. New York: Fordham UP, 1994. Print.
  • Sterne, Joseph. Combat Correspondents: The Baltimore Sun in World War II. Annapolis: Maryland Hist. Soc., 2009. Print.
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