- 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
Toward the end of the eighteen-day trek of the Oregon bonus marchers, other jobless veterans, inspired by their example, started drifting into the capital. The difficult task of handling them fell upon the new police chief, a retired brigadier general named Peiham D. Glassford who had been the youngest member of his class at West Point and the youngest general of the line in the First World War. His rangy, six-foot three-inch frame draped over his big blue motorcycle and a long-stemmed pipe in his mouth, General Glasslord had become a popular and familiar figure on the streets of Washington. During his first six months on the job he had already dealt with two marches of the unemployed, the first led by Communists, the second by a Roman Catholic priest, Father James R. Cox of Pittsburgh. In both instances Glassford had received the marchers with courtesy and scrupulous attention to their constitutional rights of petition and peaceable assembly. There had been no trouble.
By May 28, when the Oregon marchers were betiding down for the night on the floor of a skating rink in Cumberland, Maryland, only a day away from the capital, the shabby vanguard of the B.E.F. had overflowed Washington missions, and Glassford was housing the men in unused government buildings, noting in his diary that night: “Bought $110 worth of food on my own financial responsibility at the Ft. Myer commissary.” At the same time he was telegraphing the governors of every state, urging them to dissuade more veterans from converging on Washington, where—with 19,000 unemployed—relief resources were already overtaxed. He also buttonholed congressional leaders, pleading with them to settle the issue by bringing the bonus bill to a vote, and appealed to Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley for army cots, bedding, and rolling kitchens.
“Mr. Hurley,” Glassford noted in his private papers, which he gave to the University of California at Los Angeles before his death, “refused to be of any assistance, stating that the Federal Government could not recognize the invasion.” In desperation Glassford turned to Major General Herbert B. Crosby, the District commissioner in charge of police affairs, who had originally persuaded him to take over the capital’s scandal-ridden police department. Glassford suggested the organization of a welfare committee to deal with the bonus marchers. Crosby refused. His main concern, it seemed to Glassford, was to get the veterans out of Washington as soon as possible, by force if necessary.
“Is that an order?” Glassford asked.
“Oh no, it’s merely a suggestion,” Crosby is quoted as saying in Glassford’s private memorandum of the meeting.
“Well, if you will put that in writing and publish it I will take it as an order.”
“No, it’s not an order and I’ll not put it in writing. It’s a suggestion. I don’t need to remind you that in the Army a suggestion is as good as an order, do I?”
“No, but we’re not in the Army now.”
With no federal or District official willing to assume responsibility for either sheltering the veterans or evicting them, Glassford found himself without orders, funds, or food. “We had two alternatives,” he later wrote, “feed them or fight them.” He fed them. He wangled cash contributions from wealthy friends, staged a midnight show at a local burlesque house, passed the hat at boxing and wrestling matches. He also managed to cadge militia tents and rolling kitchens from the National Guard, enlist the aid of doctors and nurses, and screen freeloading impostors by the use of meal tickets which were issued only after a careful investigation of the applicant’s service credentials. For a time Glassford even served as treasurer of the B.E.F., handling the donations which came in from sympathetic merchants, government clerks, and school children.
“Dangerous?” he said, echoing a reporter’s question about the invading army. “No, except the danger of gradual rust and rot which attacks those with no occupation and no incentive. These are just middle-aged men out of a job.”
Ex-Sergeant Waters, who had left Portland as an “assistant field marshal” of the B.E.F., had emerged from a new election en route as “regimental commander.” He was in complete control of the Oregon contingent when, on the morning of May 29, he met Glassford for the first time. He was “agreeably surprised” by the ex-general. “Here,” Waters wrote, “was certainly no hard-boiled disciple of the old police school. In him the human element was above the law.” Glassford, for his part, took note of Waters’ “blue eyes in which there sometimes burned an almost fanatic gleam.”
“How many veterans will come here, do you think?” Glassford asked.
Waters, with the recklessness that marked so many of his public utterances later, predicted, “There will be twenty thousand here within the next two weeks.”