- 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.
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.”
When the prediction began to prove accurate, no one was more astonished than Waters—except possibly the Communist party leaders in New York City, who had been caught oft guard by the spontaneous movement. They watched with increasing incredulity as reinforcements for the B.E.F. continued to pour into the capital. Fifty men from Minneapolis arrived in boxcars on the morning of June 2, followed soon after by 340 more from Pennsylvania. Nine hundred men in search of transportation had taken over a railroad yard in Cleveland, while 208 were being dumped in a Virginia pasture by a crew that cut its locomotive loose from the freight train carrying the bonus marchers. One ambitious leader of a Colorado contingent had tried to commandeer a United States tugboat on the Missouri River.
Eager to capture the runaway movement, the Communist party leaders announced a parade for June 8. Glassford suggested that the B.E.F. steal a march on them by holding a parade of its own the night before. Eight thousand veterans marched down Pennsylvania Avenue; the next day the “Red Parade” was cancelled when it was unable to muster even two hundred.
The parading veterans were coatless, freshly scrubbed and shaved, some wearing remnants of the uniforms they had been issued fourteen years before; they marched with a setting sun at their backs that seemed somehow symbolic. “There was no heart in them, no hope in them,” one reporter noted, struck by the oppressive silence of the men and of the 100,000 spectators who lined the streets from, ironically enough, the Treasury Building to the Peace Monument. There were lumberjacks from Oregon, ranch hands from North Dakota and Utah, coal miners from Pennsylvania, skilled mechanics from Ohio, stockyard workers from Chicago, cotton pickers from the South, clerks from the Middle West. There were no cheers. It was not that kind of a parade.
“Washington watched,” the Star reported, “sympathized and shrugged its shoulders. The watchers felt infinite pity for these men—wished they could do something for them. But the city wondered why it should be made the dumping ground of the nation’s burden of misery.”
The next day another thousand veterans showed up.
The bonus marchers were spread over more than twenty different camps, ranging from the primitive brick shells of a group of half-demolished buildings on lower Pennsylvania Avenue to the country club elegance of Camp Bartlett, where a tent village with a clinic had been set up on a tract of privately owned land turned over to the B.E.F. by a former governor of New Hampshire, J. H. Bartlett. The largest establishment was Camp Marks—named after a sympathetic Washington police captain—a shack city which had sprung up overnight on the mud flats of Anacostia and sheltered some 10,000 men, women, and children. The site had been selected by Glassford with a view to the strategic advantage of the Eleventh Street bridge across the Anacostia River; in case of trouble it could be raised to separate the bulk of the B.E.F. from the other camps.
“Every scrap of material which can possibly be fitted into a shelter of any kind is being dragged out of the big junk pile on the hill above the camp,” Thomas R. Henry wrote in the Star after a tour of the Anacostia hovels: There are shelters built of egg crates, of paper boxes, of rusty bed springs, of O. D. blankets, of newspapers, of scraps of junked automobiles, of old wall-paper, of pieces of corrugated iron rooting, of tin and bed ticking, of the rusty frames of beds, of tin cans, of rusty fence wire, of straw, of parts of baby carriages, of fence stakes, of auto seats. The man who can salvage an auto top from the dump has a mansion in this strange city.
At Anacostia, one man lived in a barrel filled with grass, another in a casket set on trestles, still another in a piano box which he labelled “Academy of Music.” Some of the men dug caves in the clay embankment, and all trudged through a deep ooze of mud after the summer rains, fighting flies by day, mosquitoes by night. By the end of June there were 220 wives and children attached to the B.E.F. A month later the bonus-army records would list 700 women and 400 children, the roster sheets reporting one morning: “…and the O’Brien family with six children, all redheaded and mean as hell!”
One reporter found in the bonus marchers “no revolt, no fire, not even smouldering resentment.” They were “an inchoate aggregation of frustrated men nursing a common grievance.” Waters noted that Anacostia, “in furnishing some sense of security, even temporary, was answering the very need that had brought these thousands to Washington.” No one, least of all the men themselves, seemed to know why they had come. The bonus, as most of them realized at the start, would not be paid, and even if it were, it would last only a few weeks or months.
“Their real demand was for security,” a Pennsylvania welfare official reported, “and in their bewilderment and confusion they seem to have reverted to the old army ways and to the earlier institutional situation where shelter and food are provided and where leadership is given.” New members lapsed so quickly into the army spirit of the B.E.F. that some asked for passes before leaving camp, and a few even inquired about payday. They griped about the chow and the foul-ups by their leaders, but when they drilled for visitors, they sucked in their paunches and tried to march with something of their old snap, recalling in their shabby middle age the proud days of their youth.
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.
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.”
The evacuation was completed without incident by noon. Ten minutes later a small group of men from the radical camp rushed police lines. A brick battle erupted. Paul Y. Anderson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch , standing forty feet away, reported, “Glassford dashed into the heart of the melee, smiled when a brickbat hit him in the chest, and stopped the fighting in a few seconds.” Glassford climbed to a vantage point above the veterans and called down, “Come on, boys, let’s call an armistice for lunch.” The men laughed and cheered. The fighting, which had involved no more than fifty bonus marchers, had lasted less than five minutes.
At 1:45 P.M. , after Glassford returned from a conference with the District commissioners in which, he wrote later, nothing had been said “to indicate that they intended to call upon Federal forces,” a brawl broke out some fifty yards from the scene of the earlier disorder. Four policemen were involved, and two of them fired on the veterans, killing one instantly and wounding another fatally. Three of the policemen ended up in the hospital. Glassford stopped this second disturbance “almost before it commenced,” and then, he continues, “I heard from a newspaperman that the troops were on the way.”
And, in fact, the troops had been called out by the President at the written request of the District commissioners before the two bonus marchers had been killed. They were under the direct command of Brigadier General Perry Miles, but General MacArthur, accompanied by Major General George Van Horn Moseley, his deputy Chief of Staff, personally took the field. (Contemporary accounts virtually ignore the Army’s liaison man with the police department, an amiable West Pointer named Dwight Eisenhower.) A cavalry squadron, an infantry battalion, and a platoon of tanks were to participate in the operation—General MacArthur explained in his official report that in dealing with “riotous elements” a display of “obvious strength gains a moral ascendancy.”
The bonus marchers read in the early editions of the afternoon papers that the troops had been summoned. For nearly three hours they waited in the summer sun, some taking front-row seats in windows of the partly wrecked buildings to be evacuated, others napping in the shade of Pennsylvania Avenue’s sycamores or hawking the B.E.F. newspaper to the gathering crowd of women shoppers, civil servants, and curious passers-by. Street vendors bobbed up with cold lemonade and frozen puddings. As the Star reported next day, “It might have been a crowd at a country fair.”
At 4:45 P.M. four troops of cavalry appeared, sabers raised, with six tanks lumbering behind them, their machine guns hooded. Infantrymen in steel helmets, with blue tear-gas bombs dangling from their belts and bayonets drawn, trotted on the double behind the tanks. The crowd, still in a carnival mood, set up a loud cheer that was echoed from the windows of the old red-brick hulks packed with veterans. “No one in the crowd, any more than the veterans from their high perches, seemed disposed to take the cavalry seriously,” the Star reported. The cavalry might well have been riding to the rescue of an embattled wagon train. Laughter and applause greeted an anonymous wag in one of the tanks who thrust a wire through an opening in the armor and waved a white handkerchief.
In the shadow of the Capitol the cavalry deployed along the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, the infantry column along the south side. “As the soldiers approached more closely, a few brickbats, stones and clubs were thrown,” according to the official report, but Thomas L. Stokes of the United Press saw no evidence of resistance, nor did his colleague Paul Y. Anderson, who heard a command and saw the cavalry charge the crowd with drawn sabers: “Men, women and children fled shrieking across the broken ground, falling into excavations as they strove to avoid the rearing hoofs and saber points. Meantime, infantry on the south side had adjusted gas masks and were hurling tear gas bombs into the block into which they had just driven the veterans.”
Anderson saw a mother pleading with a noncommissioned officer for permission to rescue a suitcase which contained all of the spare clothing she owned, both for herself and her child. “Get out of here, lady, before you get hurt,” Anderson heard the noncom say, and watched him calmly set fire to her shanty. At Third and C streets he witnessed a company of infantry tossing tear-gas bombs right and left. “Some fell in front yards jammed with Negro women and children. One appeared to land on the front porch of a residence. Two small girls fell to the sidewalk, choking and screaming. But the veterans were beyond the street intersection more than fifty yards away. This gas was intended for the spectators…”
By nine o’clock the Pennsylvania Avenue area had been cleared, the veterans routed, and their billets burned, some by the troops, others by the marchers themselves. An exhausted reporter, phoning from the War Department, checked in with his city desk. He said he had been assured that troops would not be sent to Anacostia that night, so he was going home to get some sleep. “You damn fool,” his editor snapped, “the troops are already there!”
Another reporter, Thomas R. Henry, was more alert. He was on hand to see the police clear the road to Anacostia and the troops move in, while spectators collected at the bridge which separated the city from the camp. “A better ordered crowd never gathered to witness a battle,” Henry reported. Their sympathies, he noted, were with the bonus marchers. The crowd dispersed quickly at the first whiff of tear gas. Nobody was hurt.
“The infantrymen go down into the open field,” Henry wrote. “A truck of the District Fire Department goes just behind them, throwing its floodlights as far as the first row of tents and hovels. There is no sign of life in them … The infantry advances cautiously. They move in single file along the river bank. There is a line of hovels which have been erected for veterans with families. They are deserted now. The soldiers apply the torch to them. They are like tinder.”
The cavalry rode up behind the foot soldiers with “little relish for the job ahead of them.” When a drunken veteran staggered out of the darkness and chided the men on horseback for turning against their “buddies,” his taunts were taken good-naturedly. A delegation from the Anacostia camp was met with sympathy and cigarettes and, after a pleasant chat, escorted to General MacArthur, who granted the veterans time to collect their belongings.
It was nearly midnight when the women and children, evacuated to an embankment above the camp, saw flames suddenly burst from the center of the ebony bowl below. The platform where they had gathered with their men for vaudeville shows and the windy oratory of visiting spellbinders had been put to the torch. The flames, fed by fires the marchers began to set themselves, spread slowly, engulfing the big gospel tent, the packing boxes, egg crates, automobile bodies, and pup tents.
Silhouetted in the flickering shadows of the burning camp, the routed army began to regroup, stunned families reunited, fathers taking the smaller children into their arms as they drifted off. Some stumbled toward the Virginia border, only to find it blocked by soldiers. The Maryland line was guarded by state troopers. Some of the veterans wandered aimlessly; others dropped to the roadside, dabbing their eyes with damp handkerchiefs to ease the sting, while the children coughed and whimpered from the tear gas they had drawn into their lungs.
It was nearly four o’clock in the morning when, as rain began to fall, they were permitted to enter Maryland on the condition they keep moving toward Pennsylvania, where Johnstown’s Mayor Eddie McCloskey, in a speech delivered at Anacostia only a few days earlier, had offered them sanctuary if they were ever driven out of Washington. Transportation to Johnstown was cheerfully provided by Maryland authorities eager to rid the state of this human refuse.
Driven out of Washington, herded across Maryland, the dazed men, women, and children of the B.E.F. huddled in trucks, clutching the sideboards, staring blankly at the Pennsylvania countryside. State troopers were waiting for them at a Jennerstown traffic signal nineteen miles from Johnstown. The trucks were directed west over Laurel Hill and Chestnut Ridge instead of north toward the abandoned amusement park on the outskirts of Johnstown, where stragglers were already being sheltered by Mayor McCloskey. Once the men in the trucks realized they had been duped, they stopped the trucks, clambered down, and headed back toward Johnstown. Malcolm Cowley of the New Republic gave two of them a lift in his car: One was a man gassed in the Argonne and tear-gassed at Anacostia; he breathed with an effort, as if each breath would be his last. The other was a man with family troubles; he had lost his wife and six children during the retreat from Camp Marks and hoped to find them in Johnstown. He talked about his service in France, his three medals, which he refused to wear, his wounds, his five years in a government hospital. “If they gave me a job,” he said, “I wouldn’t care about the bonus.”
While the remnants of his routed army were converging on Johnstown’s Ideal Amusement Park, a filthy, fly-ridden weed patch suddenly burgeoning with lean-tos, bough huts, and pup tents, Commander Waters was frantically trying to establish “some sort of semi-permanent shelter for those in the B.E.F. who were completely homeless.” A woman in Catonsville, Maryland, offered him twenty-five to fifty acres as a camp site, but the state’s attorney general warned Waters that no such encampment could be established without the approval of the Board of Health. And no such approval would be given.
The Governor of Pennsylvania dispatched a committee of trained social workers to the Johnstown camp. They found the men well-disciplined (“no begging or panhandling”), and their leaders “courteous and considerate.” In the teeth of intemperate new charges that most of the B.E.F. had never served in the United States Army or Navy, the Pennsylvania report stated, “There can be no question whatever that almost all of them were war veterans.” This jibed with the statement just issued by the Veterans’ Administrator that ninety-four per cent of the members of the B.E.F. had seen military service, two-thirds of them overseas.
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.
“You’ll be made the goat,” an acquaintance had warned Glassford when he stepped into the local leadership vacuum and assumed responsibility for feeding and housing the bonus marchers. “I suppose I will,” he replied. “But if I’m to be the goat, I prefer it to be with my conscience clear.”
A few months after the eviction of the B.E.F., he was hounded out of his job over an administrative dispute, but there could be little doubt of the real cause. Glassford conducted a survey of conditions among young transients of the Depression, turning in a report which contributed to the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps. He retired to a ranch in Arizona, ran unsuccessfully for Congress, returned to Washington in World War II to serve as internal security director for the Army Provost Marshal General, and, after the war, settled down in Laguna Beach, California, where he devoted his last years to his lifelong hobby, painting. He died in August, 1959, at the age of seventy-six.
Glassford went to his grave denying that he had asked for military assistance or had needed it after having put down the first two disturbances in less than ten minutes, but once the District commissioners had submitted their written request to the White House, President Hoover had no choice but to comply. It was a tragic circumstance that the name of a President who had first captured the imagination of the American electorate as a humanitarian should be forever linked with the specter of federal troops driving unarmed men, women, and children from the nation’s capital.
It was no less unfortunate for General MacArthur, who was called upon to carry out what he has always regarded as the most distasteful order ever given him. Admonished to “use all humanity consistent with the execution of the order,” he brought it off without gunfire and with remarkably few casualties. When it was all over, the Secretary of War was quoted as saying, “It was a great victory. MacArthur is the Man of the Hour.” Later Mr. Hurley denied the statement and ruefully delivered what well may be the historian’s final judgment on the Bonus March: “There is no glory in this terrible episode—no hero.”