Saturday, October 08, 2011

Historical comparisons to Occupy Wall Street and the Bonus Army March of 1932

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's comments -- as well as House Minority Leader Eric Cantor's -- prompt this post*, with the history-repeats-itself aspects left to you to interpret.

Hard economic times always incur a certain amount of social dislocation and consequently create opportunities for politically extreme movements.

There were many instances of labor unrest and strikes that turned violent, incidents that prompted temporary mobilizations of state National Guards.

There were also instances where regular Army troops were called out in aid of the civil power. The worst incident of this type was the Bonus Army March in Washington in the summer of 1932.

At the end of World War One, 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; a bond that matured 20 years later, 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 Great Depression, a group of 300 veterans in Portland, Oregon organized by an ex-sergeant named Walter W. Walters named itself the 'Bonus Expeditionary Force' 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 Washington, D.C. Most of them lived in a collection of makeshift huts and tents on the mud flats by the Anacostia River outside the city limits. Similar encampments 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 one in the country.

There are over 1000 Occupy protests in cities across the world, with the largest one in the United States outside of New York in Portland, Oregon. Ten thousand people -- ten thousand! -- turned out in the Rose City this past Thursday. By contrast, Houston had at most 500.

In June, the Patman Bonus Bill, which proposed immediate payment of the veterans' cash bonuses, was debated in the House of Representatives. There was stiff resistance from Republicans loyal to President Hoover, as the estimated cost of the bill was over $2 billion and the Hoover Administration was adamant about maintaining a balanced budget. The bill passed in the Congress on June 15, but was defeated in the Senate only two days later. In response, almost 20,000 veterans slowly shuffled up and down Pennsylvania Avenue for three days in a protest local newspapers titled the 'Death March.'

As the weather and the rhetoric grew hotter, concern grew that the Bonus Army Marchers could cause widespread civil disorder and violence. There were scuffles with the police and some Senators' cars were stoned by unruly crowds of veterans.

Retired Marine General Smedley Butler, an immensely popular figure among veterans and who had become a vocal opponent of the Hoover Administration, participated in Bonus Army demonstrations and made inflammatory speeches.

He would be approached in 1933 by Fascist sympathizers in the American Legion, who would try to involve him in an actual plot to seize power in a coup d'etat. It was alleged at the time that the March was directed by the Communist Party of the USA in pursuit of a genuine revolution, but it has since been established that the Party's only actual involvement was sending a small number of agitators and speakers.

Nevertheless, President Hoover considered the Bonus Army Marchers a threat to public order and his personal safety. After the closing ceremonies for that session of Congress on July 16, many members left the Capitol building through underground tunnels to avoid facing the demonstrators outside.

Many of the Marchers left Washington then, but there were still over 10,000 angry, restless veterans in the streets. On July 28, 1932, two veterans were shot and killed by panicked policemen in a riot at the bottom of Capitol Hill.

Care to guess what happened next? Emphasis in the next excerpt is mine.

Hoover told Ralph Furley, the Secretary of War, to tell General Douglas MacArthur, then the Army Chief of Staff, that he wished the Bonus Army Marchers evicted from Washington. Troops from nearby Forts Myer and Washington were ordered in to remove the Bonus Army Marchers from the streets by force.

One battalion from the 12th Infantry Regiment and two squadrons of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, under the command of Major George S. Patton, who had taken over as second in command of the Regiment less than three weeks earlier, concentrated at the Ellipse just west of the White House. At 4:00 p.m. the infantrymen donned gas masks and fixed bayonets, the cavalry drew sabers, and the whole force, followed by several light tanks, moved down Pennsylvania Avenue to clear it of people.

Against the advice of his assistant, Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, MacArthur had taken personal command of the operation. President Hoover had ordered MacArthur to clear Pennsylvania Avenue only, but MacArthur immediately began to clear all of downtown Washington, herding the Marchers out and torching their huts and tents. Tear gas was used liberally and many bricks were thrown, but no shots were fired during the entire operation. By 8:00 p.m. the downtown area had been cleared and the bridge across the Anacostia River -- leading to the Hooverville where most of the Marchers lived -- was blocked by several tanks.

That evening Hoover sent duplicate orders via two officers to MacArthur forbidding him to cross the Anacostia to clear the Marchers' camp, but MacArthur flatly ignored the President's orders, saying that he was 'too busy' and could not be 'bothered by people coming down and pretending to bring orders'.

MacArthur crossed the Anacostia at 11:00 p.m., routed the marchers along with 600 of their wives and children out of the camp, and burned it to the ground. Then, incredibly, he called a press conference at midnight where he praised Hoover for taking the responsibility for giving the order to clear the camp.

He said: "Had the President not acted within 24 hours, he would have been faced with a very grave situation, which would have caused a real battle. Had he waited another week, I believe the institutions of our government would have been threatened."

Secretary of War Furley was present at this conference and praised MacArthur for his action in clearing the camp, even though he too was aware that Hoover had given directly contrary orders.

You're not really sitting there with your mouth agape, are you? What's that you say? "Posse Comitatus"?

The Posse Comitatus Act, prohibiting the U.S. military from being used for general law enforcement purposes in most instances, did not apply to Washington DC because it is one of several pieces of federal property under the direct governance of the U.S. Congress (United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8).

Hmmm. It's starting to make sense now why so many critics of Occupy Together are squalling, "Why don't these people march on Washington?" Wikipedia:

Fifty-five veterans were injured and 135 arrested. A veteran's wife miscarried. When 12-week-old Bernard Myers died in the hospital after being caught in the tear gas attack, a government investigation reported he died of enteritis, while a hospital spokesman said the tear gas "didn't do it any good."

Back to the original for the end.

The last of the Bonus Army Marchers left Washington by the end of the following day.

Be reminded about who (nearly) always wins when a revolution turns violent. And it's not the rebels. Or democracy. And the question -- if that happens -- then becomes: what do we do now?

A Google cache of Bonus Army images.

"Conflicting Versions of the Battle of Anacostia" (.pdf)

Socioeconomic and Political Context of the Plot

*With sincerest thanks to my mother for the history lesson.


rjnagle said...

This is fascinating! And surprising! And shocking! One other thing to think about. I certain geography contributes to the likelihood of whether a certain protest can succeed. If a city is dense or more pedestrian-friendly, it can accommodate protests. (that is one reason the Chinese government is terrified over a Tienanmen Square protest. The place virtually invites protests.

I've been reading Studs Terkel's Working on and off (about the unemployed during the Great Depression),and it's great to get into the mind of people during that time. We have it a lot better in many ways, but there was a lot more solidarity among workers and families, a lot more helping out of your fellow man.

Brian Train said...

Thanks for your post. There are indeed some historical parallels.

I am the original author of the article on the Bonus Army, which can be found in its original version at

At the bottom of that page, I inserted a "Note to Plagiarists" that says: "If you are going to just copy this text, add your name and submit it as a term paper, be aware that I have placed a small but significant error in this paper. If your teacher is any less lazy than you are, it will be found and you will be caught. However, if your motives are honest and you have read more than one document on the Bonus Army or the Hoover Government, then you will be able to catch the error and correct it."

In the page that you referenced for your blog post (, this deliberate error is neither caught nor corrected.

The Secretary of War at the time was Patrick Hurley, not Ralph Furley (the landlord in the first season of "Three's Company", played by Don Knotts). You may want to correct this in your pots.

Thank you.