Bonus March

At the beginning of the Great Depression, frustrated World War I veterans demanded a promised bonus. Although Congress attempted to meet the soldiers’ demands, President Herbert Hoover and General Douglas MacArthur took a harder line, and the rebellion was silenced.

Summary of Event

In the years following World War I (1914-1918), many of the more than three million U.S. veterans of that war joined the American Legion and other lobbying organizations. One of the benefits to be awarded as a result of these groups’ lobbying efforts was a bonus that the American Legion called “adjusted compensation,” which was the difference between the pay that was received during military service and what soldiers could have earned outside the military. The first bonus bill passed Congress in 1922 and was vetoed by President Warren G. Harding. The Congress finally passed a bonus bill over the veto of President Calvin Coolidge in 1924. The bill provided for each veteran one dollar per day of military service inside the United States and a dollar and a quarter per day outside the United States, but payment was deferred to the year 1945. [kw]Bonus March (July 28, 1932)
[kw]March, Bonus (July 28, 1932)
Bonus March
Bonus Army
Great Depression;military veterans
[g]United States;July 28, 1932: Bonus March[08100]
[c]Social issues and reform;July 28, 1932: Bonus March[08100]
[c]Government and politics;July 28, 1932: Bonus March[08100]
Hoover, Herbert
[p]Hoover, Herbert;Bonus March
Hurley, Patrick J.
MacArthur, Douglas
Waters, Walter W.

Bonus Marchers and police battle in Washington, D.C.


Described as endowment insurance, 3.5 million interest-bearing compensation certificates were issued, to expire twenty years later. Each was worth about a thousand dollars, for a total value of $3.5 billion. Veterans were not satisfied, however, and they continued to pressure the government as the Great Depression intensified. In 1931, over President Herbert Hoover’s veto, Congress passed a provision that stipulated that 50 percent of the individual cash value of a certificate could be borrowed at an interest rate of 4.5 percent.

The Great Depression created massive unemployment, and many of the unemployed were veterans. There had been agitation and some violent demonstrations in the early 1930’s, and the role of the Communist Party in the United States and abroad was seen by some as significant. At another level, the role of the American Legion and other advocacy groups was also important.

Because of the deteriorating economic conditions, groups of veterans from all over the nation began to demand action. Some traveled great distances to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., where they lobbied for immediate payment of their bonus. A bill proposing full and prompt payment to veterans was introduced in the 1931 session of Congress, and as a result, approximately fifteen thousand veterans descended on Washington in the spring of 1932.

The elected leader of the veterans was Walter W. Waters. He organized the veterans into military-type units, each of which found or built makeshift housing all over the city. Some were housed in a group of abandoned government buildings, and others created an encampment consisting of more than two thousand tents and lean-tos across the Anacostia River in Maryland at Anacostia Flats. Many of the tents were provided by the U.S. Army.

During the spring and summer of 1932, the assembled veterans, called the Bonus Army or Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF), exerted increasing pressure on Congress to pass a bonus bill that would providing cash payments to each eligible veteran. Such a bill was introduced by Congressman Wright Patman Patman, Wright of Texas, and although it passed the House of Representatives on June 15, it was defeated in the Senate. Congress adjourned, and most of the veterans left Washington. Some money was allocated to help veterans get home. About two thousand veterans remained.

Matters reached crisis level on July 28. A series of demonstrations began on Pennsylvania Avenue and Third and Fourth Streets Northwest. The Board of Commissioners of the District of Columbia asked President Hoover for assistance. By early afternoon, Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley had ordered General Douglas MacArthur, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, to bring in previously prepared army units. MacArthur chose to lead the army units on horseback and dressed in full uniform with medals.

There was a great deal of confusion, and the marchers were driven out of the abandoned government buildings. There is some question about whether Hurley ordered MacArthur to pursue other marchers outside the District of Columbia. In any event, the army forces pursued the marchers across the river, using copious tear gas but not firing their guns. By midnight, the shantytown at Anacostia Flats had been burned. (Later tests confirmed that the tear gas used could initiate fires.) Two deaths and dozens of injuries resulted from the rioting.


Studies of the Bonus March have emphasized two factors: MacArthur’s ostentatious display and the role of the Communist Party of the United States. Although Communist Party Communist Party;U.S. organizers were present, Waters and others claimed that they had distanced themselves from the activists. In his memoirs and in partisan biographies, MacArthur insisted that the Communists had instigated the entire affair, and there was even talk that Communists had a list of officials who would be jailed after the revolution and that MacArthur’s name allegedly led the list. Some hagiographic MacArthur biographers went gone so far as to link the Bonus March imbroglio with MacArthur’s 1951 recall by President Harry S. Truman, claiming that the Communists were responsible for both. For his part, MacArthur claimed that only one in ten of the Bonus Marchers was a legitimate veteran. A survey by the Veterans Bureau, however, concluded that 94 percent were legitimate. At the time, President Hoover, Secretary Hurley, and especially General MacArthur were roundly criticized in the press for overreacting. Bonus March
Bonus Army
Great Depression;military veterans

Further Reading

  • Daniels, Roger. The Bonus March: An Episode of the Great Depression. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971. Criticizes Hoover and MacArthur. Enumerates several myths: that the Army fired on and killed veterans, that the marchers had machine guns, and that the BEF was infiltrated by large numbers of Communists. Includes the controversial report MacArthur wrote summarizing his actions.
  • Hunt, Frazier. The Untold Story of Douglas MacArthur. New York: Devin-Adair, 1954. One of several hagiographic biographies of MacArthur. Describes the Bonus March as a plot of the U.S. Communist Party, which supposedly had been instructed by Moscow to bring about a bloody riot.
  • James, D. Clayton. The Years of MacArthur. 3 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970-1985. The standard and authoritative biography of MacArthur. The Bonus March is covered in volume 1.
  • MacArthur, Douglas. Reminiscences. Annapolis, Md.: Bluejacket Books, 2001. A self-serving memoir that should be read with caution. Declares that the Communist Party planned the riot and denies that he wore medals during the march.
  • Perrett, Geoffrey. Old Soldiers Never Die: The Life of Douglas MacArthur. Holbrook, Mass.: Adams Media, 2001. Very readable but sometimes inaccurate biography. Its clear bias toward its subject makes it less valuable than many other biographies of MacArthur.
  • Waters, Walter W. B.E.F.: The Whole Story of the Bonus Army. New York: John Day, 1933. A personal memoir by the most identifiable leader of the Bonus Marchers.

Formation of the American Legion

Treaty of Versailles

U.S. Stock Market Crashes

Great Depression

Bank of United States Fails

Franklin D. Roosevelt Is Elected U.S. President

The Hundred Days