The Bonus March


The commanding general believed the situation was well in hand; he would continue his advance towards the river and save his nation from disaster. But the President of the United States perceived the situation as highly volatile, so he ordered the general to halt. The general ignored the president’s order. Is this article about General Douglas MacArthur, President Truman, and Korea in the autumn of 1950? No! The general in this article is MacArthur, but the president is Herbert Hoover and the setting is Washington D.C. in the summer of 1932.

In 1924, Congress passed the Adjusted Service Compensation Act, known as the Soldiers’ Bonus. The act promised a cash bonus, payable in 1945, to America’s World War I veterans. But the Great Depression intervened causing many vets to ask for early payment. Congress, overriding President Hoover’s veto, allowed the ex-doughboys half of the bonus in 1931. When the depression worsened, Representative Wright Patman introduced a bill to pay the remainder of the bonus in 1932.

By late spring 1932, thousands of unemployed vets converged on the nation’s capital to demonstrate for the bonus. All the men were poor and many brought their wives and children. With nowhere to stay some vets built makeshift shacks on an empty strip of government land called Anacostia Flats; other vets took up residence across the Anacostia River in some abandoned Treasury Department buildings scheduled for demolition.

Being former soldiers the bonus marchers organized themselves into groups and elected leaders. Walter Waters an ex-sergeant emerged as the national commander of what he dubbed the BEF — the Bonus Expeditionary Force. On May 29, Waters met with Pelham D. Glassford, Washington D.C.’s chief of police. Glassford, the youngest brigadier general in the World War I American Expeditionary Force, “agreeably surprised the BEF’s commander. Waters described the the blue-eyed, six-foot three-inch West Pointer as “no hard-boiled disciple of the old police school. In him the human element was above the law. He was friendly, courteous and above all humanly considerate.” Glassford asked Waters how many men he thought would show up in Washington; Waters accurately guessed 20,000.

Because none of the capital’s political leaders would give Glassford direct orders to evict the marchers — Secretary of War Patrick Hurley said that the United States government refused to “recognize the invasion.”– Glassford decided to aid his fellow vets rather than confront them, hoping they would leave town after the bonus vote. From the National Guard Glassford secured tentage and rolling kitchens, from wealthy friends he squeezed out out cash donations, from his own pocket the police chief donated hundreds of dollars. Glassford even served for a short time as the BEF’s treasurer.

On June 15, the House of Representatives passed the Bonus bill, 209-176. The Senate voted on June 17 — a day described in one Washington paper as “the tensest day in the capital since the war.” Just after sundown, Senate officials called Waters into the Capitol building. When he emerged the crowd fell silent; the humid night air dripped with apprehension. Waters climbed upon a Capitol pedestal and said, “Prepare yourselves for a disappointment, men. The Bonus has been defeated, sixty-two to eighteen.” Fearing the men’s reactions, Waters shouted, “Sing America and go back to your billets.” Taking off their caps they sang America and, like good soldiers, returned to their pitiful shacks.

With the vote over, Glassford hoped the marchers would gradually melt away; some did, but others stayed hoping to force Congress to reconsider. The remaining vets held marches around town shouting — “The Bonus or a job.” Soon, charges of “Communist mob” began to spread. While there was a group of about 200 Communists in the BEF, the main body had ostracized them. Nevertheless, many government leaders believed the communist charge and sought the BEF’s removal as a threat to the government.

One such person was the United States Army’s Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur. As early as June, MacArthur attempted to prove the march was communist inspired by seeking the names of Communist party members within the BEF; he found none. MacArthur’s aide, Major Dwight Eisenhower, acting as liaison between the chief of staff’s office and Glassford, knew the true essence of the BEF and tried to tell his superior, but MacArthur refused to listen.

On July 27, the Treasury Department decided to clear the abandoned treasury buildings. The next day, Treasury officals accompanied by Glassford and squads of D.C. police confronted the vets with the eviction notice. Rocks and bricks rained down from the building’s windows. Fortunately, Glassford and some calmer BEF men prevented a riot and cleared one building. After lunch, however, a group of vets tried to reoccupy the building. During the ensuing melee, a police officer fired shots that wounded Eric Carlson and killed William Huska. Glassford arrived on the scene moments later and quelled another riot. But with one dead, one wounded, and three policemen injured, the situation had intensified.

Without speaking to Glassford, District of Columbia commissioners convinced President Hoover to call out the army. General MacArthur decided to personally command the troops. Dressed in full military uniform including jodhpurs, Sam Browne belt, and shiny cavalry boots with spurs, the United States Army’s Chief of Staff arrived in the middle of the street, to the disgust of Major Eisenhower, who felt MacArthur should have stayed in his office.

Soldiers from the 12th Infantry and 3rd Cavalry regiments pushed the BEF towards Anacostia Flats. As the soldiers neared the Anacostia River, Secretary of War Hurley sent a message from President Hoover ordering the troops to halt at the foot of the Anacostia River Bridge. MacArthur ignored the order. In Eisenhower’s words, “(MacArthur) said he was too busy and did not want either himself or his staff bothered by people coming down and pretending to bring orders.” Hurling tear gas grenades, the troops stormed across the bridge and put the BEF’s shanty town to the torch. MacArthur told the press, “That mob down there was a bad-looking mob. It was animated by the essence of revolution.” Clearly, the chief of staff had over reacted. Even one of MacArthur’s biographers, D. Clayton James, wrote that MacArthur “acted with overzealous determination and reckless impulsiveness.”

And so, with black smoke wafting over the Capitol building, a depression weary nation watched American war veterans driven from the capital by soldiers, who were once their comrades in arms. President Hoover, already blamed for the depression, now became the most hated man in America. Before year’s end Hoover lost the the presidency and Glassford lost his job. Yet, MacArthur’s insubordination went unpunished and two decades later he repeated it in Korea — with a different result for the general.