- Historic Sites
A child of the Republic looks back on a lifetime spent at—and occasionally in—the movies and discovers how strongly they have shaped the way all of us understand America
September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
Finally, in the spring of 1932, I saw at first hand history before it was screened. A thousand veterans of the First War had arrived in the capital to demand a bonus for their services in the late and, to my grandfather, unnecessary war. These veterans were known as the Bonus Army, or Boners for short. By June there were some seventeen thousand of them encamped around Washington and in deserted buildings near the Capitol. The city panicked. There was talk of a revolution, like the recent one in Russia or the one in France that I knew so well from having seen so many movies.
At first I thought that the Boners were just that—white skeletons like those jointed cardboard ones displayed at Halloween. Bony figures filled my nightmares until it was explained to me that these Boners were not from slaughterhouses but from poorhouses. My grandfather was against granting them a bonus. A onetime fiery populist from the Mississippi upcountry and an author of the only socialist constitution of the forty-eight states, he had come to the conclusion that “if there was any race other than the human race, I’d go join it.” He was a true populist, who did not like people very much. He always said no to anyone who wanted government aid. On the other hand, he believed in justice—due process anyway—for all, equally.
As the summer grew hotter and the Depression deepened, and Congress debated whether or not to give the veterans a bonus, rumors spread: they had attacked the White House; they had set fire to the Capitol; and, most horribly, they were looting the Piggly Wiggly grocery stores. I dreamed of skeletons on the march; of Boris Karloff too, as he appeared in The Mummy —all bones and linen wrapping.
On June 17,1932, the Senate met to vote on the bonus bill. I drove with my grandfather to the Capitol, sitting beside him. Davis, his black driver and general factotum, was at the wheel. I stared out the open window, looking for Boners. Instead I saw only shabby-looking men holding up signs and shouting at occasional cars. At the Senate side of the Capitol there was a line of policemen. Before we could pass through the line, Senator Gore was recognized. There were shouts; then a stone came through the window of the car and landed with a crash on the floor between us. My grandfather’s memorable words were “Shut the window,” which I did.
D uring my first twelve years, Depression and the threat of revolution dominated our screens and our history.
Shortly after, the Boners were dispersed by the Army, headed by General MacArthur and his aide Major Eisenhower. Guns were fired; there were deaths. The following Sunday my father and I flew low over what had been the Boners’ encampment at the Anacostia Flats. There were still smoking fires where the shanties had been. The place looked like a garbage dump, which in a sense it had been, a human one.
From that moment on I was alert to all films about the French and Russian revolutions, and from that day I have always known that not only could it happen here, but it probably would.
During my first twelve years, Depression and the threat of revolution dominated our screens, as they did our ongoing history. The next seven years were dominated, first, by the seduction of the United States by England, a replay of 1914–17, and then by the war itself.
The English kept up a propaganda barrage that was to permeate our entire culture, with all sorts of unexpected resuits. Since the movies were by now the principal means of getting swiftly to the masses, Hollywood was subtly, and not so subtly, infiltrated by British propagandists in a way that our poor homegrown Communists must have found heartbreaking.
In The Loved One Evelyn Waugh has described Hollywood’s British colony as it appeared to him immediately after the war. By then the great work was done, and the English actors and writers and directors, who had helped create a pro-British atmosphere in the country, were now able to relax and enjoy their slow games of cricket beneath the orange trees, not to mention beneath the maleficent gaze of Mr. Waugh. But a dozen years before Waugh’s arrival, the British colony had been hard at work, giving the Americans a glorious view of the “mother country,” as they liked to call it, a phrase calculated to put on edge my grandfather’s Anglo-Irish false teeth or even those of my Romanischer father.
In the thirties—as in the teens—the country was divided over whether or not the United States should join England and France against Germany. The so-called liberals—as they are always so called—included Franklin Roosevelt. They were eager to go to war, once war came, on England’s side. The so-called conservatives, like Senator Gore, were against war in general and any war to help the British Empire in particular.
On the other hand, my father was a West Point graduate. As Roosevelt’s director of Air Commerce, not only had he systematized American civil aviation, but he had been given the secret job of procuring air bases for the coming war, whose locus, for us, would not be Europe but the Pacific.