- 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
The squatters shoring up their makeshift shelters in the Ideal Amusement Park were the depressed country’s poor relations, no more welcome in Johnstown—despite the Mayor’s invitation—than in Washington. The president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, out of sympathy for the administration’s embarrassment, offered to disperse this symbol of the nation’s distress. A committee of Johnstown’s leading citizens carried the transportation offer to His Honor the Mayor. The redheaded former prize fighter was impressed by the wisdom of accepting the generosity of the B.&O. He marched into the camp and announced, “God sent you to Johnstown. Now I am going to send you home.” He smashed a heckler’s jaw and shouted, “I can lick anybody in this damned outfit,” but when the trains pulled out next day, the Mayor was on hand to kiss the babies good-by and speed his parting guests with a brass band.
Some 500 men, women, and children were dumped in Chicago, spent two days in a condemned building, then were hustled out of the city. When the city manager of Kansas City got word that a trainload was heading his way, he scraped up $1,500 to keep the train moving. Little Joe Maida, a four-foot six-inch dynamo, organized a camp in Denver, where sixty-four families with ninety-eight children had access to a hospital, a diet kitchen for undernourished youngsters, and an entertainment center, but most of the refugees drifted back into the shifting ranks of the unemployed, disappearing into shack cities, railroad jungles, and overcrowded missions.
When a convention of the B.E.F. was called in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, only 600 men remained of the 20,000 to 30,000 who had poured into Washington early that summer. The men, shivering in the autumn rain, filed into a gloomy warehouse, shouted themselves hoarse, then shuffled away. Their leaders, quarrelling among themselves, split into various groups—the Khaki Shirts, the Rank and File, the Blue Shirts, and assorted local organizations, each claiming to be the real B.E.F.
“…I was heartsick at the number of Americans who were using ‘Help the B.E.F.’ as a means of making a living,” Waters later wrote of this confused post-eviction period. He pictured himself as fed up with “selfish attempts within the B.E.F. to seize power in the hope of acquiring a following that could be sold out to some cause or other.” Waters disbanded the B.E.F. and severed his ties with the Khaki Shirts and the Rank and File. He soon sank back into the obscurity from which he had sprung, and the B.E.F. faded away with him.
The B.E.F. leaders, with no political background, no _ real program, and no discernible flair for leadership, had contrived to hold their ragged ranks together with only the adhesive of a common grudge. Anyone to the left of Andrew Mellon was suspect in their eyes, and for inspiration they turned not to Stalin but to Mussolini and Hitler. In trying to rally the unemployed to the ranks of the Khaki Shirts, The B.E.F. News had declared, “Inevitably such an organization brings up comparison with the Fascist! of Italy and the Nazi [ sic ] of Germany. For five years Hitler was lampooned and derided. But today he controls Germany. Mussolini before the war was a tramp printer, driven from Italy because of his political views. But today he is a world figure.”
The American press was too busy defending or attacking the administration’s efforts to pin the Communist label on the B.E.F. to take notice of its flirtation with fascism, but Malcolm Cowley remarked on it in the New Republic and refused to take it seriously; as he pointed out, “a Fascist movement, to succeed in this country, must come from the middle classes and be respectable.”
The bonus marchers, plunged by circumstances into a potentially revolutionary movement, had been the despair of the Communists tugging from the left and the Khaki Shirts from the right. They had marched on Washington not with the clenched fists of revolt, but with the slumped shoulders of helpless acquiescence. They were the kind of men to be found in bread lines, not at barricades.
“The spontaneous outburst of the bonus march created a crisis in the central committee of the Communist party,” one of its reformed members testified in 1951, “because the party, although working for the creation of such a movement, had, as it were, missed the boat in getting it started; so it started by itself and the problem then arose as to what could be done to get hold of this runaway movement and catch up with it.” The party’s lack of success was attested by another ex-Communist, Benjamin Gitlow, who wrote that Earl Browder was “held responsible for the Party’s failure to gain leadership and control of the movement.”
Mr. Hoover, writing nearly twenty years after the event, described the evicted remnants of the B.E.F. as “mixed hoodlums, ex-convicts, Communists and a minority of veterans.” The same charges had been made in September, 1932, by his Attorney General.
A copy of the Attorney General’s report has been preserved in General Glassford’s private papers. In the margin, alongside the Attorney General’s contention that the B.E.F. had probably “brought into the City of Washington the largest aggregation of criminals that had ever been assembled in the city at any one time,” Glassford jotted the question: “Why crime below normal?” Of the 362 arrests of bonus marchers, only twelve had been for criminal offenses. Crime had actually decreased in the capital during the invasion.