In 1932, over 15,000 veterans and their family members who were camped out near Washington D.C. were forcefully evicted by the Army from the capital grounds and saw their camps burned and children attacked by orders from President Herbert Hoover and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
But why were so many veterans sleeping and marching near the Capitol building?
At the end of World War I, service members who were released from service were given tickets home and small sums of cash, usually about $60. This was roughly equivalent to two months’ pay for a young private or one month’s pay for a sergeant major.
Though this was the traditional severance package for a soldier at that time, many in America felt that it wasn’t a fitting reward for veterans of the “Great War” and public pressure, urged on by veterans organizations like the American Legion, caused Congress to debate bills that would make life easier for veterans.
The first major legislative push began in 1920 with a bill named for House Representative Joseph W. Fordney. The Fordney Bill called for a fund to be established that would allow veterans of World War I to choose between education grants, a cash bonus, or money towards the purchase of a home or farm.
The bill was warmly received by the public, but it’s cost was not. Implementation and payment would have cost 5 billion dollars and the Senate voted against it. The Senate voted against it again in 1921 after anti-Bonus speeches by then-President Warren G. Harding. In 1922, a new version of the bill, absent the options for an education grant or money towards a home or farm, was passed by the House and Senate but vetoed by Harding.
Finally, in 1924 Congress, under pressure from leaders like William Randolph Hearst and organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, passed the World War Adjusted Act of 1924 over President Calvin Coolidge’s veto.
It was commonly known as the “Bonus Bill” and called for every U.S. veteran of World War I to receive a bonus based on their duration and type of service in World War I.
Veterans would receive a $1 for every day served in the United States and $1.25 for every day served while deployed overseas. Those entitled under the bill to $50 or less could draw their money at any time while others were issued a certificate for their payment which would come due in 1945, nearly 30 years after their wartime service.
Overall, the bill was popular despite the expected $4 billion cost that would be incurred and the long wait for most payments. The debate about a bonus for vets was seemingly over and remained quiet until 1932, almost three years after the Great Depression began.
Veterans hurting for jobs or money began discussing hopes for receiving their payments early. In Portland, Oregon, World War I veteran Walter Waters rallied a group of veterans, and they all jumped onto train cars to ride to Washington.
Radio and news reports tracked their progress towards the capital and more veterans rushed to join them on the trains or meet up with them in the city. The number of veterans who reached the city was estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000 men.
Many Washington elite were initially shocked and frightened by the arrival of the Bonus Army. The wife of Washington Post editor, Evalyn Walsh McLean, visited the camps with her son.
There, she was surprised to find that while the men were dirty, they were also organized and visibly hungry. Some were sleeping on the sidewalks. As she began asking them when they had last eaten, she was approached by retired-Army Brig. Gen. Pelham Glassford, the new superintendent of D.C. police.
The two made a plan to get the men coffee, cigarettes, and sandwiches and began lobbying in support of the veterans. Glassford eventually became so popular with the vets that Camp Glassford was named in his honor.
Legislators debated the merits of paying the veterans early. Some argued that the veterans would quickly spend the money and so help re-invigorate the stagnant economy while others, supported by President Hoover, argued that the taxes necessary to raise the money would further slow recovery.
The House passed a bill supporting early payment but it was soundly defeated in the Senate.
Despite the fact that the camps were well-organized, self-policed, and required all residents to prove that they fought for America in World War I, Washington residents became worried that the veterans were secretly communist or that they would turn violent. The police, over Glassford’s objections, were ordered to evict squatters from the camps.
This led to a small but violent confrontation. Hoover responded by sending in the Army. MacArthur, believing the veterans really were threatening the government, overstepped his orders and launched tear gas attacks, bayonet marches, and cavalry charges into the camps.