Bonus Expeditionary Force

Or thank you very much future Generals Douglas Macarthur, George Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower

Okay, let’s set the stage…

The time is 1924 and Congress, in recognition of American veterans who served during World War I, votes to award them $3,500,000,000 in defiance of Calvin Coolidge who tried to veto the bill. The monies are ordered to be paid out over a twenty-year period in order to ease the immediate strain that such a payout might place on the funds available. The system of compensation was tiered based on such factors as length of service, service overseas, hazardous duty, etc. When all was said and done, veterans who were entitled to receive $50 or less got the money up front. Veterans who were entitled to receive more than $50 received certificates due to mature in 20 years with a fixed annual interest rate.

Enter The Great Depression.

To put it mildly, 1932 did not start off as a banner year in America. In late 1931, several marches on Washington D. C. had already taken place in protest of the economic and social conditions that the depression was causing. Among them were communist led hunger marches, and jobless men looking for unemployment legislation. Jobless veterans,calling themselves the "Bonus Expeditionary Force", and sensing that they could use the money promised them now instead of the future began arriving in May of 1932. Many of them were accompanied by their wives, children and other family members. Then Army Chief of Staff, one Douglas MacArthur, became convinced that the marchers had bigger thoughts on their minds such as the undermining of the U. S Government and this was a “communist conspiracy” to do so. This was in direct opposition to his own Chief of Staff’s intelligence reports that indicated that the majority of marchers were in fact anti communist and that only a few of the “leaders” of the march had communist leanings. To quote journalist Joseph C. Harsch and witness to the goings on:

“This was not a revolutionary situation. This was a bunch of people in great distress wanting help. These were simply veterans of World War I who were out of luck, out of money, and wanted to get their bonus – and they need the money at that moment.”

The marchers, led by Walter M. Walters began to set up various camps and announced their intentions to remain in Washington D. C. until their demands were met. Along those lines, they also announced that there would be no panhandling, drinking or radicalism performed by the marchers on the citizenry of Washington D. C. In return, the Washington D. C. police force treated them fairly and with respect.

By mid of June, 1932, the number of marchers had grown to over 20,000. By this time many of them were hungry, tired and frustrated with the lack of government action on their part. At the same time, the House of Representatives passed a bill in favor the veterans. President Herbert Hoover threatened to veto it but he never got the chance. The bill was defeated in the Senate and conflict seemed inevitable.

Towards the end of July, the police were ordered to begin evacuating the veterans, using force if necessary. The Army was prepared to step in at any moment. In response to the show of force by the police, some of the marchers began throwing bricks and rushed the police station. President Hoover then ordered the Secretary of War to “surround the affected area and clear it without delay.”

Enter Douglas MacArthur

Led by Macarthur, Army troops, (including then Major George Patton) began pushing the veterans out and destroying their camps in order to discourage their return. No weapons were fired and by the time it was “over”, one veteran and one baby had been killed and hundreds more had been injured. The Army had used clubs, cavalry with drawn swords, bayonets and tear gas in order to disperse the veterans.

It should have been over then and there. The veterans had retreated across a bridge to their main encampment along the Anacostia River and order had been restored along the streets of Washington D.C. In fact, MacArthur twice received orders from the Secretary of War that indicated the President did not want the response to seem too severe and to not pursue the marchers.

According to then MacArthur’s aide, Dwight D. Eisenhower, he was “too busy and did not want to be bothered by people coming down and pretending to bring orders.” MacArthur then ordered the troops under his command to pursue the marchers across the bridge. A stare down then occurred. On the pretext that he was giving the marchers time to evacuate their camp, MacArthur ordered his troops to stop their advance. What happens next is unclear. Fires soon broke out in the marchers main camp. Neither the Army nor the marchers claimed responsibility and they were eventually driven from Washington D. C. altogether.

A Personal Opinion

I’m sure there are countless other tragedies associated with the exploits of the Bonus Expeditionary Force, both personal and on a national scale that can be told. Either way, it marks a sad tale in American history. On one hand you have frustrated veterans of one war being attacked by (quite possibly) future veterans of another war. You have fires illuminating the nations capital. You have three future heroes of World War II (whether rightly so or not) basically held unaccountable for their actions against members of their own affiliations.