- 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
Around noon a delegation sent by the B.E.F. to the White House returned to the Capitol with word that the President had declined to receive them. He also cancelled his customary visit to the Capitol on the closing day of Congress, and when some fifty veterans started toward the White House, he ordered police to close the gates and clear Pennsylvania Avenue and adjacent streets of all pedestrians and vehicular traffic. The demonstrators were quickly dispersed and three of them hauled off to jail. Inspector O. T. Davis told reporters that the President had intended to call out Regular Army troops if the streets had not been cleared immediately.
As Congress headed for home to prepare for the coming campaign, the District commissioners, aware of the political embarrassment the bonus army was causing the White House, summoned General Glassford and informed him of a new “get-tough” policy. They demanded immediate evacuation of the buildings within the area of Pennsylvania Avenue, Missouri Avenue, Third Street, and Sixth Street, and the evacuation of all park areas, including the Anacostia mud flats, by August 4, at which time all National Guard tentage and rolling kitchens were to be returned.
The order was issued and then, because of legal complications, quickly withdrawn. Waters, during this brief period of grace, was working out a plan to move the shrinking remains of the B.E.F. to the privately owned land of Camp Bartlett. “I was more fully aware than ever of the desire to rid Washington of the bonus army in some way or other, even with force,” Waters wrote of this period. His suspicions seemed to be confirmed by what was said on July 26 during a five-hour conference with the Secretary of War and the Army’s Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur; it was the one time, apparently, that representatives of the B.E.F. were received by administration officials.
“You and your bonus army have no business in Washington,” Waters later quoted Hurley as saying. “We are not in sympathy with your being here. We will not co-operate in any way with your remaining here. We are interested only in getting you out of the District. At the first sign of disorder or bloodshed in the B.E.F., you will all get out. And we have plenty of troops to put you out.”
At the end of the conference the ex-sergeant turned to General MacArthur, who had been pacing the floor most of the time. “If the troops should be called out against us,” Waters asked, “will the B.E.F. be given the opportunity to form in columns, salvage their belongings, and retreat in orderly fashion?” According to Waters, MacArthur replied, “Yes, my friend, of course!”
The next day Waters warned his 182 group commanders that one false step would bring out the federal troops. That afternoon Glassford called Waters to the commissioners’ office. During his seven weeks in Washington Waters had never met the commissioners, nor did he meet them that afternoon. He sat in an anteroom while the police chief lumbered back and forth as go-between. (“It isn’t every ex-sergeant that can have an ex-general for messenger boy!” Waters exulted afterward.)
Glassford first brought Waters word of the commissioners’ decision to evacuate the billets in four partially demolished buildings on lower Pennsylvania Avenue by the following midnight. “Impossible,” Waters said. Glassford ducked back into the commissioners’ office, then returned with an extension of the deadline to Friday, July 29. Waters countered with a proposal to evacuate 200 men by 6 P.M. the following day, and to clear the entire area within two weeks. Glassford disappeared into the next room, conferred with the commissioners, and came back with the announcement, “The commissioners accept in part. They will give you until Monday to try your plan and clear the area.”
At nine-thirty the following morning, Thursday, July 28, Waters assembled the men bivouacked in the area designated for clearing. He had four days, he thought, to carry out the evacuation, starting with the removal of 200 men from a small building owned by the Treasury Department at Third Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. As the men prepared to gather up their belongings, Glassford’s secretary appeared and handed Waters a written order from the Treasury Department, calling for complete evacuation of the building by ten o’clock that morning. This gave Waters ten minutes to evacuate the 200 men. “The forces of government were doing their best to egg on the men of the B.E.P. into some sort of riot,” he later charged, recalling Secretary Hurley’s warning that troops would be called out at the first sien of trouble.
Waters read the Treasury Department order aloud. “You’re double-crossed,” he told the men. Protests were checked by the arrival of a hundred policemen with coils of rope which they strung around the building, taking positions eight feet apart behind the barrier. While hundreds of spectators and some 1,500 bonus marchers looked on, six Treasury agents, with twelve policemen as bodyguards, proceeded to clear the building in what the Star described as “more or less of a good-natured affair.”