Ten thousand veterans of World War I laid siege to the United States Capitol on June 17, 1932. Inside, senators debated whether to make 3.5 million old soldiers wait until 1945 to get their $1,000 war-service bonus. The House had already approved an immediate cash offer of $500, but President Herbert Hoover threatened to veto it: “The urgent question today is the prompt balancing of the budget.”
At the end of World War I, as the American Expeditionary Force was being demobilized, a grateful U.S. government passed legislation that authorized the payment of cash bonuses to war veterans, adjusted for length of service, in 1945. However, the crash of 1929 wiped out many veterans' savings and jobs, forcing them out into the streets. Groups of veterans began to organize and petition the government to pay them their cash bonus immediately. In the spring of 1932, during the worst part of the Depression, a group of 300 veterans in Portland, Oregon organized by an ex-Sergeant named Walter W. Walters named itself the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF) or Bonus Army, and began traveling across the country to Washington to lobby the government personally. By the end of May over 3,000 veterans and their families had made their way to the capital. Most of them lived in a collection of makeshift huts and tents on the mud flats by the Anacostia River outside of the city limits. Similar ghettos could be found sheltering the migrant unemployed and poor outside any large city in the United States and were called Hoovervilles. By July, almost 25,000 people lived in Anacostia, making it the largest Hooverville in the country.
The House bill giving the veterans $500 would have cost the government over $2 billion, so it was eventually defeated in the Senate 62-18. When the vote was announced to the crowd, there was a thunderous burst of booing. Suddenly Walter Walters called out “Let’s sing ‘America,’ men!”
My country, 'tis of thee,
sweet land of liberty,
of thee I sing
Standing at attention with their hats off, they bitterly hurled the words back at the halls of Congress. The men formed ranks by state and marched back to their shantytown for the night. For the next three days, 20,000 men slowly shuffled up and down Pennsylvania Avenue in a protest local newspapers titled the 'Death March.'
The two men that Hoover had appointed to deal with the Bonus Army were Secretary of War Patrick Hurley and General Douglas MacArthur. Both men were convinced that the Army was made up of Communists and criminals, so any talks inevitably failed. The police efforts to evacuate the downtown encampments ended in violence: gunfire from policemen killed two veterans, both of whom had been gassed while serving in France.
MacArthur’s orders from the President were to clear the downtown area while making sure women and children received “every kindness and courtesy,” but that’s not what happened. Everyone was scattered screaming by Major George S. Patton’s troops of cavalry charging with their sabers bared. On the heels of the horsemen came masked infantrymen, firing tear gas grenades into the residential area and burning the BEF’s downtown encampment. MacArthur then defied Hoover’s explicit orders and moved his troops into the main Anacostia camp. The troops came in that night with more tear gas and set fire to everything. Two babies died from the gas and a seven-year old boy was bayoneted through the leg when he tried to save his pet rabbit from a burning tent. The elderly veterans wept and MacArthur’s aide, Major Dwight D. Eisenhower called it “a pitiful scene.”
MacArthur called a press conference and declared that the Bonus Army was really a bunch of “mixed hoodlums, ex-convicts and Communists” and praised Hoover for facing the situation bravely. Hoover was trapped, if he fired MacArthur for his defiance, it would look like the Commander-in-Chief had lost control of the army. As a result, MacArthur was declared a hero and Hoover took the blame for the first time in American history federal troops were ordered by a president to attack American civilians.
Later reports showed that 94% of the Bonus Army had army or navy records, and 67% had served overseas. 20% of these supposed “hoodlums and Communists” had actually been disabled in service to their country.