- 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
Their ignis fatuus , the bonus bill, had been pried out of the Ways and Means Committee, passed by the anti-administration House, and sent to the Senate, where, facing certain defeat, it was brought to a vote on June 17—“the tensest day in the capital since the War,” a local paper noted. Some 10,000 veterans were massed on the Capitol grounds, with another 10,000 waiting across the Anacostia River. A newspaper woman asked Waters, “What’s going to happen when these men learn of the defeat of the bill? It’s going to be swamped, you know.”
“Nothing will happen,” Waters said.
When darkness had fallen, Waters was asked to step inside the Capitol. He emerged a few minutes later and climbed up on the pedestal at the edge of the Capitol steps. “Prepare yourselves for a disappointment, men,” he announced. “The Bonus has been defeated, 62 to 18 …”
The crowd stood motionless, in stunned silence, and Waters was fearful of what they might do. Elsie Robinson, a friendly Hearst columnist, whispered to him, “Tell them to sing ‘America.’ ”
“Sing ‘America’ and go back to your billets!” Waters shouted, and the men bared their heads and sang.
“These men,” the Star editorialized next day, “wrote a new chapter on patriotism of which their countrymen may well be proud.”
Once the bonus bill had been defeated, the police reported that 1,000 veterans quietly drifted away from Washington (the B.E.F. cut the estimate to 200). Contributions fell off, and the rank and file, split by internal dissension, elected two new leaders in three days, then gave dictatorial powers to Waters. Affecting whipcord breeches, riding boots, and a khaki shirt, he began to salute his men with a gesture reporters found disturbingly reminiscent of Mussolini.
Although he met with little response from the body of the B.E.F., who recoiled with equal horror from Norman Thomas and Earl Browder and denounced both Marx and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon on the same banners, Waters was beginning to talk of “a closely-knit, semi-military organization”—the Khaki Shirts—who would, he announced, “stand ready to leap into the breach between American institutions and threatened anarchy.” The Khaki Shirts, “100 per cent American,” would be a bulwark against Communism, which Waters’ self-styled “military police” had already attacked locally, pouncing on suspected Reds and hauling them before kangaroo courts to be sentenced to belt-lashings and forcible expulsion from Washington.
“He saw ‘red’ a little too strenuously,” Glassford noted privately of Waters. Yet, aware that the B.E.F. cupboard was bare, he contributed meat, sugar, salt, coffee, potatoes, onions, and bread, paying the bill—$773.40—out of his own modest resources. At the same time he jotted down a personal memorandum recording his impression that his immediate superior, District Commissioner Crosby, was “not at all in sympathy” with his handling of the bonus army and that Crosby “advocated, without assuming any responsibility therefor, the use of force.”
The Congress was eager to adjourn and get on with the serious business at hand in a presidential election year (the Democrats had nominated Governor Franklin Roosevelt of New York, whom President Hoover regarded as the easiest candidate to beat). At the administration’s request, therefore, they voted on July 7 an appropriation of $100,000 to transport the veterans home or, lacking a home, to wherever they came from or would agree to go—anything to get them out of Washington before the campaign began. The money—railroad fare and seventy-five cents a day to live on—was to be deducted from the bonuses due them.
Glassford climbed on his blue motorcycle and drove through the various camps, distributing copies of a letter he had written urging the bonus marchers to take advantage of the government’s offer. But by midnight of July 10 only 500 veterans had left the city, and 1,000 more promptly arrived from the West, including several hundred led by Royal W. Robertson, a picturesque and cantankerous character who wore a steel neck brace and helmet with chin straps to support a broken back. He repudiated both the segregated Communist encampment and that of the rank and file commanded by Waters. “We came to Washington to petition Congress, not to a picnic,” he told Waters on his arrival on July 12. It was their first and last meeting.
Robertson camped on the Capitol grounds. The following night the Capitol police turned on the lawn sprinklers. The men, by law, had to keep moving if they wanted to stay near the Capitol. Single file they began a silent “death march”—so called because of the impending adjournment. It was the most dramatic and ominous demonstration of the past six weeks. Several hundred members of the B.E.F. joined the marchers during the day of July 14. That afternoon Vice President Charles Curtis called for the Marines to clear the Capitol grounds, then rescinded the order when he was tactfully reminded that only the President had the power to call out federal troops. The “death march” continued through the dawn of July 16, when 17,000 veterans began to assemble in front of the Capitol for the adjournment of Congress.