President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917. The United States joined World War One. 117,465 soldiers and civilians died from the United States alone. Thousands upon thousands came home disabled. Samuel Gompers was the founder and a president of the American Federation of Labor. He was a supporter of WWI and of President Wilson. Gompers influenced the Wilson administration to keep union members out of the draft pool and, at the same time, increase the pay of civilian union members. The rate of pay for those who stayed home as union members compared to those who served in the military (sometimes involuntarily) was profound. Those who stayed home had opportunities in business and education that those who served were denied.
On 29 May 1924 Congress passed the Adjusted Service Certificate Law. This law compensated WWI veterans for opportunities missed while serving in the military at the rate of $1.00 per day served and $1.25 per day served overseas. The pay would be held to gather interest for twenty years. Vets could borrow against half their pay at interest, and many desperate vets did so at a great loss. If a veteran died before twenty years passed, the full amount would be paid to their survivors and so it became known as the Tombstone Bonus. The Wilson administration also wanted to replace disabled veterans benefits with an optional insurance policy to be paid by the soldier himself. While Congress passed the Adjusted Service Certificate Law it was voted down by the Senate. In 1929, Herbert Hoover became President and the Great Depression began. Many disabled veterans were unable to perform the jobs they returned to. Many veterans had already been out of work for eight years and were not content with waiting twenty more to be paid for work done long ago.
On 22 January 1932, President Hoover established the Reconstruction Finance Corporation as a means to address the Great Depression. Between $1.5 and 2 billion dollars were given to banks and businesses. Will Rogers described the scene: “You can’t get a room in Washington. Every hotel is jammed to the doors with bankers from all over America to get their ‘hand out’ from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. [The bankers] have the honor of being the first group to go on the ‘dole’ in America.”
Among the discontent not getting a hand out was Sargeant Walter W. Waters. Walters was born in Burns, Oregon in 1898. He served in the Idaho National Guard in 1910 against Francisco “Pancho” Villa. In 1917 he served in the Oregon National Guard, shipping to France on Christmas Eve to fight in World War I. He received an honorable discharge in 1919. In 1925 he moved to Washington and then Portland, Oregon looking for work. He picked fruit and worked in a cannery. Wherever he went he listened to veterans unable to find work who were also not being paid for services rendered in war. He met many other veterans who had lost their jobs and savings after the war. Walters noted that special interest lobbyists got results in Washington, and conceived of a lobby of veterans to encourage the United States Government to deliver the payment the veterans were due.
On 11 March 1932 Waters called for a march on Washington and 250-300 men from Portland joined him. They marched behind a banner reading “Portland Bonus March – On to Washington.” The veterans and their families had popular support and the support of some authorities. A Portland railroad offered the use of dung-stained cattle cars to transport the Bonus Army. The Indiana National Guard and the Pennsylvania National Guard used military vehicles to transport the Bonus Army. Toll bridge operators let the Bonus Army march silently across bridges without pay, and police officers refused to arrest Bonus Army veterans for trespassing. Thousands joined the Bonus Army as it marched towards Washington with Sargent Waters as their elected leader. Waters forbade drinking, panhandling, and ‘anti-government’ or ‘radical’ talk.
Tombstone Bonus protest, Portland Oregon USA August 1932. SW 4th and Main Street.
When Waters and his Bonus Army arrived in late May 1932 they were twenty thousand strong. The veterans and their families camped in buildings abandoned during the Great Depression and in giant shantytowns. Communists showed up at the shantytowns and agitated for their cause among the veterans. In reply, Bonus Army veterans seized the communists, held trials and sentenced them to fifteen lashes. More than two hundred communists were expelled from the Bonus Army camps. But supporters who were not communists showed up at the shantytown with material support. Among them were eight German soldiers, each having fought against US soldiers, each wounded twice or more in World War I, all naturalized citizens and bearing a total of eight tons of food and supplies for the Bonus Army.
On 29 June 1932 the US Government announced it would not meet the demands of the Bonus Army and that the Bonus Army had to leave by 15 July. By 5 July there was no food remaining. On 7 July congress offered $10,000 to the Bonus Army if it would simply leave Washington DC. Some did take the money and leave, but many more took the money and stayed while other veterans joined for the first time. One thousand more veterans and their families had joined the Bonus Army in Washington and more were on their way. On 17 July Congress voted down the bonus and then adjourned. President Hoover went on a vacation.
Theodore Roosevelt had described Major General Smedley Butler as the ‘ideal soldier.’ At the time of his death, Butler was the most decorated Marine in US history. But he had also spoken disparagingly of Benito Mussolini in Italy, for which he was reprimanded and threatened with court marshal. He retired in protest in 1931. Butler addressed the Bonus Army on 19 July 1932. “Men, I ran for the Senate in Pennsylvania on a bonus ticket. I got the hell beaten out of me. But I haven’t changed my mind a damned bit. I’m here because I’ve been a soldier for thirty-five years and I can’t resist the temptation to be among soldiers. Hang together and stick it out till the gates of Hell freeze over; if you don’t, you’re no damn good. Remember, by God, you didn’t win the war for a select class of a few financiers and high binders. Don’t break any laws and allow people to say bad things about you. If you slip over into lawlessness of any kind you will lose the sympathy of 120 million people in this nation.”
Walter W. Waters in Washington DC 1932
Waters, meanwhile, announced the formation of ‘shock troops’ within the Bonus Army to be called the Khaki Shirts. “Inevitably such an organization brings up comparisons with the Facisti of Italy and the NAZI 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 Khaki Shirts, however, would be essentially American.” Waters demanded “complete dictatorial powers” of the Bonus Army. Like many of Waters’ demands, this did not come to pass.
Communists tried once more to force a confrontation with the US Government on 20 and 25 July by rushing the White House. The Government responded by ordering Waters to evacuate several of the Bonus Army camps. Waters agreed to leave with the promise the Bonus Army could leave in stages and would not be forced by fellow soldiers or police to do so. Waters told his followers: “When you start defying the federal government, which don’t take any consideration of the human element, you’re going to get licked. We can’t lick the United States Government, but when the United States troops are called to escort me out, I’m going out.” After making this speech, Waters was informed that all of the Bonus Army needed to leave Washington immediately. “There you are! You’re double crossed! I’m double crossed!” The Bonus Army ceased all evacuation.
On 28 July 1932 United States soldiers attack United States veterans. The charge against the Bonus Army was led by future General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, future President Dwight Eisenhower and future General of the Army George Patton. Thousands of civil servants lines the streets to honor the Bonus Army, but they were also attacked. MacArthur, Eisenhower and Patton were supported by Washington police.
Police attack the Bonus Army 1932.
Four hundred infantry from the the 12th Infantry Regiment and two hundred cavalry from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment mobilized against the Bonus Army. The infantry attacked with sabers, bayonets and tear gas. Several Army trucks with machine guns and five or six tanks also moved against the veterans.
US Tanks mobilize against US veterans in Washington DC 1932.
In the streets of Washington DC, US soldier fought US soldier. Two veterans were shot. The shantytowns were burned to the ground, including the American flags of the veterans and all the worldly possessions of their families.
Bonus Army shantytown burning in front of Capital Building 1932.
Bonus Army shantytown burning in front of Washington Monument 1932.
When the fighting started, the Communists fled. Bonus Army soldiers remained, retaliating with brickbats and fists but never firing a shot nor returning the bayonet or saber attacks.
President Hoover later described the attack on the Bonus Army in this way: “A challenge to the authority of the United States Government has been met, swiftly and firmly. After months of patient indulgence, the Government met overt lawlessness as it always must be met if the cherished processes of self-government are to be preserved. We cannot tolerate the abuse of Constitutional rights by those who would destroy all government, no matter who they may be. Government cannot be coerced by mob rule.” Hoover’s Attorney general William D. Mitchell described the Bonus Army as “the largest aggregation of criminals that had ever assembled in the city at one time. A very much larger proportion of the Bonus Army than was realized at the time consisted of ex-convicts, persons with criminal records, radicals and non-servicemen.” MacArthur later described the attack on the Bonus Army in this way: “If there was one man in that group today who is a veteran, it would surprise me. The mob down Pennsylvania Avenue looked bad. They were animated by the spirit of revolution. The gentleness and consideration with which they had been treated had been mistaken by them as weakness and they had come to the conclusion that they were about to take over the government in an arbitrary way or by indirect methods.” The day after the eviction, a veteran approached Patton. When Patton saw the veteran he said “Sargent, I do not know this man. Take him away, and under no circumstances permit him to return!” When the man left, Patton said this: “That man was my orderly during the war. When I was wounded, he dragged me from a shell hole under fire. I got him a decoration for it. Since the war, my mother and I have more than supported him. We have given him money. We have set him up in business several times. Can you imagine the headlines if the papers got wind of our meeting here this morning? Of course, we’ll take care of him anyway.”
The Bonus Army veterans and their families scattered. Some returned to their home states, whether or not they had a home there. Some stayed in or near Washington. The Bonus Army marched again, some of the men in the Bonus Army marched or petitioned under other names, but their back had been broken.
Hoover was not re-elected. Franklin D. Roosevelt became the next President of the United States. Roosevelt established the Civil Conservation Corps, the G. I. Bill, the Works Progress Administration and in 1936 he paid the bonus. On average, $583 per soldier.
In 1930 the most prosperous nations in history were seized by widespread poverty. War was blossoming around the globe. At the same time, post-revolutionary Russia was rapidly evolving into a superpower. There was a sense that a new beginning was both necessary and possible. The economy could no longer be left to chance, and the downtrodden could no longer be left to their own devices. Three nations – Germany, Italy and the United States – initiated ‘third way’ proposals that were not quite capitalism and not quite socialism. The Khaki Shirts founded (then abandoned) by Waters had branches in Washington and Philadelphia. Sir Oswald Mosley of England made a proposal but did not have the opportunity to implement it. Roosevelt’s solution in the United States was called the New Deal. Roosevelt and Mosley were friends, enjoying cruises and a playful vacation in Florida.
Mansuel Crosby, Franklin Roosevelt and Oswald Mosley.
Bonus Army veterans had a different experience in Florida. Roosevelt sent them to Florida to do construction work during hurricane season. On 29 August 1935 the Labor Day Hurricane destroyed the area and killed hundreds of veterans. Hurricane warnings had gone out all over the state but had been specifically withheld from the veterans camps. The blowing sand had caused such abrasion to their bodies that many could not be identified. Their bodies were anonymously burned en mass.
The New Deal did bring relief to many desperate Americans. At the same time, the New Deal increased the burdens of the wealthy in America. Some of the wealthy decided to follow the Bonus Army example and have a private army march on Washington. This time, however, the private army would seize the city and install a new leader. In the Summer of 1933 General Smedley Butler was approached by Gerald MacGuire. MacGuire said veterans should be paid in a gold-backed currency. He also said he represented Robert Sterling Clark (heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune) and Grayson Murphy (a wealthy stockbroker). MacGuire’s group, the American Liberty League, enjoyed the patronage of the Du Pont companies and other wealthy supporters. They saw soldiers trusted Butler, and so they wanted Butler to lead a private army of 500,000 men to take over Washington DC. Butler rejected the offer, saying “If you get those 500,000 soldiers advocating anything smelling of fascism, I am going to get 500,000 more and lick the hell out of you, and we will have a real war right at home.” Butler then warned the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars about the coup. National Commander James E. Van Zandt replied that he had also been approached by MacGuire. Butler went to Congress and reported the Business Plot and the Congress investigated his claims. MacGuire denied Bulter’s claims. Congress found Butler’s claims largely credible, and no further action was taken. Butler went on to write the book War is a Racket.
In 1783, the Continental Army at Newburgh, New York realized that they not only had not been paid in years but also that they would not ever be paid by the new United States Government. The rate of pay for those who did not fight compared to those who served in the military was profound. Those who stayed home had opportunities in business and education that those who served were denied. Some veterans of the Continental Army sent representatives to Congress demanding pay and compensation for missed opportunities. Other Continental Army veterans surrounded the State House. General George Washington advised them not to slip over into lawlessness. The politicians left by back doors and under guard. The new United States Army then forcibly expelled the Continental Army from the area. The expulsion of the “Newburgh Conspiracy” from Washington helped form the Posse Comitatus Act. The Posse Comitatus Act forbids the use of the military for police work except in the city of Washington DC. This exception was created to expel the Continental Army and it was used again to expel the Bonus Army.
In 2010 the most prosperous nations in history are seized by widespread poverty. War is blossoming around the globe. There is a sense that a new beginning is both necessary and possible. The economy can no longer be left to chance, and the downtrodden can no longer be left to their own devices. To that end, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 has handed out nearly $800 billion dollars to banks and businesses. There are an estimated 107,000 homeless veterans in the United States. The Veterans Administration served 92,000 veterans in 2009, leaving over 100,000 veterans without care. Payments allowing veterans to attend college are often late and college students are unable to complete their degrees. Unemployment among veterans is two percent higher than civilians. Two hundred thousand or more US soldiers will return from Iraq and Afghanistan looking for work while the US experiences a recession and scarcity of jobs. So let’s all sing…
They used to tell me I was building a dream and so I followed the mob.
When there was earth to plow or guns to bear I was always there, right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream with peace and glory ahead.
Why should I be standing in line just waiting for bread?
Once I built a railroad, made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done, brother can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower to the sun, brick and mortar and lime.
Once I built a tower, now it’s done, brother can you spare a dime?
Once in khaki suits, gee, we looked swell, full of that yankee doodle de dum.
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell and I was the kid with the drum.
Say don’t you remember, they called me Al, it was Al all the time.
Say don’t you remember, I’m your pal, brother can you spare a dime?
PBS: March of the Bonus Army via youtube  or purchase.
PBS: History Detectives Season 6, Episode 5. [video][transcript]
Bonus Army documentaries via youtube , sources unknown.
BBC 4: The Whitehouse Coup via youtube  or listen.
Graham Frye reads an excerpt from War is a Racket.
Library of Congress: Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen on 22 June 2005.
The Bonus Army. Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen. New York: Walker and Company 2004. [Paul Dickson] [Thomas B. Allen][New York Times][worldcat]
The Portland Red Guide. Michael Munk. Portland: Ooligan Press 2007. [Michael Munk][Ooligan Press]