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The Bonus Army

The Bonus Army

Ellen Feldman, in her posting of September 19, wrote about the Bonus March in the early 1930s and Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to demonstrators in early 1933. Leaving aside her highly dubious suggestion that a President of the United States should walk through the streets of a blacked-out city where law and order are still, at best, problematical, I must take issue with some of her presentation of the history of the matter. She wrote, “In June 1932, when the Bonus Expeditionary Force, more than 90 percent of whom were Army and Navy veterans, marched on Washington, D.C., wanting no more than the military ‘bonus’ they had been promised …”

Yes, promised for the year 1945. The clear implication of what she wrote is that the Hoover government was reneging on a promise. It was doing no such thing. The House of Representatives, in fact, passed a bill authorizing the printing of $2.4 billion in order to pay the bonus anyway, thirteen years ahead of schedule. (The Treasury had no other means to pay it; the deficit in 1932 was $2.7 billion while gross revenues totaled only $1.9 billion—in other words the government spent $2.42 for every $1.00 in revenue that year.) But the bill was defeated in the Senate, with the majority of the votes against it cast by pay-as-you-go Democrats.

Only when District of Columbia police tried to evict some of the bonus marchers from government buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue, and a nasty riot ensued, with two marchers and two policemen killed, did President Hoover call on the army to restore order and to evict the marchers from the buildings and other government property. He specifically ordered that the marchers be confined to their encampment on the Anacostia Flats but left undisturbed there. Instead, Chief of Staff General MacArthur, in flat defiance of the express orders of the commander in chief, attacked the encampment and burned it to the ground. Hoover should have fired him on the spot (as President Truman would do nineteen years later) for gross insubordination. Why Hoover decided to take responsibility for MacArthur’s deliberate failure to follow orders, I don’t know. He paid a frightful political price for doing so, although I doubt he could have won in November regardless. He was the deadest of political dead meat by then.

She writes that “Major Patton led his 3rd Cavalry against the crowd of hungry, unarmed men, women, and children.” George Patton was, at least, obeying lawful orders—however inappropriate to the situation, indeed stupid, heartless, and ego-driven they were—given by his commanding officer. Military officers don’t have the luxury of deciding what orders to obey. It would be interesting to know what Patton thought of them at the time.