- Historic Sites
By frieght train, on foot, and in commandeered trucks, thousands of unemployed veterans descended on a nervous capital at the depth of the Depression—and were run out of town by Army bayonets
June 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 4
In the late spring of 1932 some 20,000 jobless World War veterans, many with their wives and children, descended on Washington, dumping the Depression on the doorstep of the Capitol and the White House. Two months later, when they had overstayed their grudging welcome, they were driven out of the city. The crimson glow of their burning camps had hardly faded from the midnight sky before a dispute arose as to who these people were, why they had come to the capital, and under what circumstances they had been expelled. After a generation of impassioned and often inaccurate oratory, the Bonus March remains one of the most controversial and grotesquely distorted episodes of recent American history.
The mood of the nation as it emerged from its third Depression winter into that sullen spring of 1932 was grim. A million or more migrants, including some 200,000 boys and girls, were roaming the country without purpose, while middle-class families—their savings, their credit, and their pride exhausted—were turning in shame to their local relief agencies, only to find that few cities and fewer towns could even begin to meet their needs.
Toledo could provide each person with a daily meal costing less than three cents. New York City averaged $2.39 a week for each family on relief. Pennsylvania miners, three or four families of them huddled together in one-room shacks, were eating wild roots, and in Chicago men were seen fighting over a barrel of garbage set outside the back door of a restaurant. It was estimated that only about one-fourth of the nation’s unemployed were actually receiving relief.
Twice President Hoover had struck boldly at the world-wide catastrophe: first with the universally applauded moratorium on war debts and war reparations, and again, a few months later, with the creation of a huge federal credit agency—the Reconstruction Finance Corporation—which was given two billion dollars to lend to ailing banks, railroads, and insurance companies. Convinced that “the sole function of government is to bring about a condition of affairs favorable to the beneficial development of private enterprise,” the President shrank from a federal “dole” for the unemployed, which, he believed, “would have injured the spiritual responses of the American people.”
While Mr. Hoover, “so tired that every bone in my body aches,” grappled with a depressed economy and a hostile Congress, an unemployed cannery superintendent named Walter W. Waters was discussing plans lor a march on Washington with other jobless veterans of Portland, Oregon. An aggressive, ambitious ex-sergeant who had served overseas in the 146th Field Artillery and, once home, had drifted from job to job, always haunted by a sense of failure, Waters had read of similar marches on Washington, including one from Portland the year before.
A “bonus march” of several hundred men (“I foresaw no greater number”) might, he felt, effect passage of a bill which Representative Wright Patman of Texas had introduced, calling for the immediate payment of the World War veterans’ adjusted compensation certificates. These constituted the so-called Soldiers’ Bonus, which Congress had approved in 1924. The money was to be paid in 1945; each veteran would receive $1 for every day he had served at home, and $1.25 for every day overseas. Although Walter Lippmann patiently explained that “to demand payment of the principal of a debt … before it is due is to demand money that is not owed at all now and to demand more money than is owed ultimately,” the veterans felt entitled to advance payment of the few hundred dollars that might be more useful to them alive in 1932 than dead in 1945.
In May, when the Patman bill seemed to be buried in the Ways and Means Committee, Waters began for the first time to meet with real enthusiasm among the Portland veterans. More and more men signed up for the projected march on Washington, each recruit being required to show evidence of war service, take an oath of allegiance, and agree to submit himself to the military discipline of his elected officers. At the final meeting, May 10, a “commander in chief” and a “field marshal” were elected, establishing the pattern of grandiose titles which, along with rigid discipline, flagwaving, and militant anti-radicalism, was to distinguish what the men now derisively called the “Bonus Expeditionary Force.”
Three hundred veterans, with less than thirty dollars among them, set off for Washington to the beat of a borrowed drum. “Not one man in twenty really expected to get the Bonus,” Waters wrote in his history of the B.E.F., but after months of idleness, suffering the spiritual erosion of long unemployment, the men had finally roused themselves from the lethargy which seemed to have gripped the country. Hopping freight trains out of Portland, they eventually reached East St. Louis, Illinois, where, to get rid of them, the authorities provided the veterans with trucks to the Indiana line. So it went, until the group finally reached their destination. As a practical fact, the men did far more riding than marching.