Veterans March to Washington Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In December 1932 the Communist Party of the United States organized a march on Washington, DC, to protest the treatment of veterans of World War I. The march was modeled on one that had taken place the preceding summer, when as many as twenty thousand veterans and their families camped out in Washington until President Herbert Hoover ordered the army to evict them. The December 5 march, timed to coincide with the start of a new session of Congress, gave Communist leaders an opportunity to use veterans' demands for payment of a cash bonus for their service to highlight inequities between working-class Americans and the privileged few who had not been affected as seriously by the Great Depression.

Summary Overview

In December 1932 the Communist Party of the United States organized a march on Washington, DC, to protest the treatment of veterans of World War I. The march was modeled on one that had taken place the preceding summer, when as many as twenty thousand veterans and their families camped out in Washington until President Herbert Hoover ordered the army to evict them. The December 5 march, timed to coincide with the start of a new session of Congress, gave Communist leaders an opportunity to use veterans' demands for payment of a cash bonus for their service to highlight inequities between working-class Americans and the privileged few who had not been affected as seriously by the Great Depression.

Defining Moment

In 1924, Congress approved cash bonuses for veterans of World War I; however, payment was not to be made until 1945. After the US economy began spiraling downward in late 1929, many veterans urged Congress to pay those bonuses immediately. While provisions were made to allow veterans to borrow against the bonuses, veterans' groups grew more adamant that veterans should receive cash immediately.

The Communist Party, seeing the growing tension as a way to promote its political cause, formed the Workers Ex-Servicemen's League (WESL) to organize veterans who were unhappy with their treatment by the government. WESL leaders formed the Veterans Rank and File Committee to spearhead protest activities; John T. Pace, an organizer from Detroit, Michigan, was named the committee's leader. Pace went to Washington, DC, in May 1932, when veterans from across the country, calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force (commonly known as the Bonus Army), descended on the capital in a mass protest aimed at securing cash payments. For weeks, Pace worked to discredit the Bonus Army's leaders and take control of the movement himself. More than 20,000 veterans and their families camped at locations in the District of Columbia until July 28, when Hoover ordered the Army to evict them.

Wishing to take advantage of the turmoil created by the government's actions, Communist leaders announced that a second march on Washington would take place in December 1932, when Congress would reconvene. The Veterans Rank and File Committee published materials outlining a list of grievances that went far beyond the failure of the government to pay the cash bonus and proposed a series of sweeping remedies that would favor veterans and other working-class Americans.

Groups of veterans began appearing in Washington in the late fall of 1932. Among the organizers present were two who had appeared before Congress in April 1932 to testify in favor of paying the bonus: James W. Ford, the Communist candidate for vice president in the 1932 election, and Samuel Stember, an organizer from New York. On December 14, representatives of the new bonus marchers went to Capitol Hill to present petitions demanding immediate payment of the bonus and censure of President Hoover for his actions that July. Stember presented the petition to Vice President Charles Curtis, who accepted it but struck out the passage calling for censure, while Ford met with Speaker of the House John Nance Garner.

Author Biography

The broadside inviting veterans to march to Washington in December 1932 was issued by the Veterans Rank and File Committee, an agency of the Workers Ex-Servicemen's League. That group was formed by the Communist Party of the United States several years earlier to coordinate activities of veterans disaffected by the actions of the federal government. John T. Pace, a Communist organizer from Detroit, was named leader of the Rank and File Committee. Pace had previously been involved in a protest at the Ford Motor Company plant in March 1932, during which police and private security forces killed several workers. He was an important figure in the American Communist Party until 1936, when he left the party.

Document Analysis

Although sometimes mistaken for an advertisement for the more famous summer gathering of the Bonus Army that camped out in Washington from May to July 1932, the broadside printed by the Veterans Rank and File Committee and encouraging veterans to assemble in Washington on December 5, 1932, alludes to the violent ending of that summer's encampment as part of the rallying cry to encourage veterans of World War I to keep up their battle for payment of the bonuses to which they were entitled. In testimony before Congress in 1949, Pace claimed to have received orders from the Communist Party to use veterans' protests as a means of encouraging dissent and discrediting the Hoover administration. The inflammatory language of the broadside is designed in part to achieve that end. Its authors constantly cite the wrongs done to veterans by the federal government and business interests. The “boss government” favors “the banks, the railroads and the large industries,” the same group of “billionaires” who “made huge profits” from World War I. Meanwhile, the “unemployed workers, the poor and mortgaged farmers, the small shopkeeper[s] get nothing.” The masses face “starvation.”

The broadside repeatedly refers to the failed efforts of the preceding summer. Its assertion that “this time we will have fighting leadership that won't sell us out” is a rebuff of the leaders of the Bonus Army, particularly Walter Waters, who was anti-Communist and had encouraged peaceful protest during the previous summer. The document warns of the danger that the new protesters are likely to face, including “the bullets and the gas” of the police and military. The mention of the “murder of Hushka and Carlson” reminds veterans that two of their number had been killed in the summer protests. Veterans are also warned that “intimidation and threats” will once again be used against them. The only way to succeed is for all veterans–those marching and others who cannot come to Washington–to stand united in what the organizers suggest is a kind of workers' revolution.

The list of demands included in the broadsheet goes far beyond payment of the bonus. It reads instead like a Communist manifesto, calling for elimination of interest charges on loans veterans had taken out with their bonus money as security. There is a call for the rich to be taxed heavily to pay for programs to support workers and even a demand for fair and equal treatment for African Americans. Typical of Communist propaganda, the broadside alludes to threats posed to veterans, who are equated with workers being exploited by business owners and the government in a capitalist system.

Essential Themes

The broadside inviting veterans to march on Washington to demand what was due to them provides an excellent example of the way American Communists attempted to subvert the government by using the tools of democracy. Under the banner of free speech and the right to assemble, organizers sought to incite dissent among those whose grievances were being ignored by federal officials. However, the Hoover administration had learned from the summer's catastrophic experience with the Bonus Army that forcibly quelling such protests was counterproductive. This second march was allowed to proceed peacefully, and petitioners were allowed to deliver a list of their grievances and demands to high-ranking government officials. The willingness of thousands of World War I veterans to join in activities sponsored by the Communist Party reveals the level of frustration and despair many felt as a result of the economic hardships they were suffering at the time. Unquestionably, the Communists' efforts to highlight the plight of veterans and others hit hard by the Great Depression had an impact on future actions by Congress and the executive branch.

Undaunted by the failure of the December march to generate any serious action in Congress, Communist organizers planned another gathering for May 1933. That initiative was publicly denounced by many veterans' groups, including the Bonus Army, the Disabled American Veterans, and the American Legion. Most veterans sought to distance themselves from what they considered the taint of Communism. Marchers arrived in Washington in smaller numbers than anticipated, and newly inaugurated president Franklin Roosevelt blunted the initiative by offering veterans jobs in the newly created Civilian Conservation Corps. While active protests died down, interest in the issue persisted, and, in 1936, Congress voted for the immediate payment of bonuses authorized twelve years earlier.

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.
  • Lisio, Donald J. The President and Protest: Hoover, Conspiracy, and the Bonus Riot. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1974. Print.
  • Ortiz, Stephen R. “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 (2006): 275–303. Print.
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