More on the Bonus Marchers
It’s also worth noting that the bonus marchers were not exactly Gandhi and his followers. According to a June 1963 article in American Heritage by John D. Weaver, their leader, Walter W. Waters, tried to organize the bonus marchers into what Waters called “a closely knit, semi-military organization” that would be “100 per cent American” and anti-communist. Weaver writes that Waters’s goons “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.” The morning before the U.S. Army moved in, a group of bonus marchers hurled bricks at police, and that afternoon came the more serious brawl to which Gordon refers, in which the two policemen and two marchers were killed (these were the only deaths in the whole episode; no one was killed during the Army attack).
It seems to be a subject of lively controversy who was to blame for the Army’s overreaction. Our 1963 author wrote that “[Pelham] Glassford [the D.C. police chief] 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 to comply.” The assertion that a few local politicos could give orders to the President seems odd, but that’s what our author says. I don’t know enough about the situation to evaluate his opinion.
After saying how unfortunate it was for Hoover, our author goes on: “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 [Patrick J. Hurley] 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 may well be the historian’s final judgment on the Bonus March: ‘There is no glory in this terrible episode—no hero.’”
And finally, a minor correction. The Bonus Marchers were not “still there” when FDR became President. They dispersed after MacArthur’s attack, and a group of them, one of several factions into which the loosely organized “army” had split, returned the next summer. And while Eleanor may have brought them doughnuts, they didn’t get their money. That didn’t happen until January 1936, when Congress passed a bill for immediate payment of the veterans’ bonus—over FDR’s veto.