History | World War I

Bonus Army – WWI VETERANS turned Protesters and Lobbyists

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American Expeditionary Force

By 1919, over four million American soldiers began making their way home Europe. The American Expeditionary Force which had been called up after the declaration of war on April 5, 1917 and had ceased fighting after the November 11, 1918 Armistice, was finally shipping men back home. The soldiers believed that the worst of things were behind them, left behind in the trenches of France and that a world of opportunity and promise lay ahead. 

But for many, returning home was a struggle. Readjusting to everyday life surrounded by friends and family who had only read about the war in the papers was difficult. Trying to find work could be hard, and made more difficult for those that returned home with war injuries. Even worse, soldiers quickly began to realize that while they had been making roughly a dollar a day during their time at war, men back home were making two to five times as much in the factories. 

World War Adjusted Compensation Act

AEF veterans began to grow restless, and they began to call for Congress to right the wrongs with a retroactive readjustment to their pay. It was hotly debated, with some calling the veterans’ readjusment pay a bonus. But eventually in 1924, the World War Adjusted Compensation Act (sometimes known as the Bonus Act) was passed. Amendments to the bill were made in 1926

The bill proposed the following adjustment $1/day for veterans who remained in the U.S., $1.25/day for veterans that served overseas. There was a cap of $500 for veterans who had remained in the United States and $625 for those who had fought overseas. 

There was one catch for veterans, the bonus would not be paid out until 1945. The only exception was if the veteran died before that date, and then the money was paid out to the next of kin. This gave the the WWI Bonus the reputation of a “Tombstone Bonus”. Veterans were happy to have had their need for readjustment pay addressed, and frustrated that it would not change their current circumstances.

The Great Depression

On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed. Known as Black Tuesday, it marked the beginning of significant U.S. economic decline. Many people lost their savings, their jobs, and their homes in what would become known as the Great Depression. 

In many cases, veterans were hit hard by the Great Depression. Veterans had already started at a disadvantage with the conditions they returned home to, and for many the Great Depression was the final straw.  As veterans lost their homes and jobs, interest in getting their promised veterans’ bonus early rose. 

Walter Waters and the Formation of the Bonus Army

In 1932, Walter Waters, a WWI veteran from Burns, Oregon, learned of a Bill that was going before Congress that advocated for the immediate cash payment of the veterans’ bonus.  He became passionate about what it would mean for him and so many other veterans. 

Seeing the success of other lobbying groups in Washington sparked an idea. Veterans just needed their own lobby. 

Waters gathered a group together to board a rail car and head to Washington, D.C. The group called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force or the B.E.F. in reference to their service in the A.E.F. The plan was for the Bonus Army to march on Washington, D.C., bring attention to the veterans’ plight, and rally Congress to pass a bill approving an early release of the money. 

As word of the movement grew, more veterans became interested. Many had no jobs or homes to tie them down, and saw the Bonus Expeditionary Force as the best means to achieve their goals. 

Through hitching rides and gathering donations in local veterans marches, veterans and their families slowly made their way to the capitol. Newspapers across the country began spreading word of the Bonus Army headed to Washington to take on the politicians. 

Bonus Army Veterans March on Washington, D.C. 

Hoover, MacArthur and others in the government and military in Washington, D.C. were nervous about the coming Bonus Army. Hoover, already under siege on many fronts for his handling of the Great Depression, didn’t want the Bonus Army veterans to come.  MacArthur saw the Bonus Army as a communist force, and he warned against the possibility of civil insurrection and the possibility of revolution

Pellum Glassford, the DC Police Chief, however, was a WWI vet and felt sympathy for the cause, urging patience to those in leadership. Nevertheless, the military began preparing with gas, tanks and troops  – many of the same hazards the Bonus Marchers had met with more than a decade before in France. 

By May 1932, over 10,000 bonus marchers had arrived in Washington and more were on their way. Ready for the Bonus Army protests, the veterans began setting up shop in Washington, D.C. wherever they could find space.  Veterans created temporary housing and shacks, moved into abandoned buildings, and erected tents in front of Congress, veterans banded together. 

In addition to concerns about communism and revolution, some in Washington also feared the color lines that were being crossed in the BEF camps. African American veterans and White veterans lived side by side. They lobbied together, washed together, ate together and worked together to make the Bonus Army camps function.  Those who hoped to keep America segregated grew nervous about the camaraderie. The camps were an example on Washington, D.C.’s front lawn that desegregation could work. 

A VETERANS BILL GIVES HOPE

Late that spring, Wright Patman of Texas sponsored a bill that would immediately pay the veterans in full. The bill inspired heated debates, with Congressman Edward Eslick dying of a heart attack on the floor of Congress during an impassioned speech promoting the bill. 

The House of Representatives passed the Bonus Bill, 211 to 176, and by June 17th, 1932 the bill was being debated in the senate. 

Veterans held a vigil outside Congress, chanting that the “Yanks are Starving”, and lobbying any member of Congress that would listen. The song “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” became a rallying cry for the veterans, and for the country. 

But the bill would never pass the senate, and Waters had to inform veterans they’d lost their battle with Washington.

BONUS ARMY CONFLICT LOOMS

On July 16th, as Congress ended its session, senators and representatives were slinking out through secret exits to avoid having to see the veterans still camped out on their front lawn demanding answers. The police department and the White House pleaded with veterans to leave, and eventually over 11,000 marchers did. But several thousand remained, refusing to give up.

TENSION BOILS OVER AND VETERANS DIE

On July 28th, the police began to forcibly evict the veterans from their shanty homes. Chaos ensued as veterans threw objects, and police reacted with force. Two veterans were shot and killed by police. Many more veterans and their family members were injured. The tension between the veterans and the government grew higher, as veterans refused to back down and Hoover’s administration demanded the veterans be evicted. 

Deciding that the police department was not handling the conflict well, Hoover authorized MacArthur and the military to evict the veterans back across the bridge to Anacostia.  MacArthur along with Patton and other WWI veterans, brought in the cavalry, infantry and tanks. They began pushing veterans out of the city, using smoke bombs and tear gas.  Veterans scattered, .

When he reached the bridge, MacArthur decided not to follow Hoover’s orders to stop. He instead ordered the troops to continue to pursue, and veterans in the BEF panicked, believing the troops would kill them. The troops moved through the camps with fury, setting fire to shacks and roughly handling veterans and their families. 

Later that year Hoover lost his bid for reelection. On November 8, 1932, Roosevelt was elected president.

BONUS ARMY LOSES BATTLE BUT NOT WAR

The Bonus Army had been sent home, but veterans continued to show up in Washington every year to call for the release of their money.  Roosevelt, like the presidents before him, did not believe it was possible for the government to pay the bonus out early. The government like many others in country was short of cash and had no plan to pay out the large payment to veterans. 

BONUS ARMY AND THE CCC 

Instead, Roosevelt offered members of the Bonus Army jobs in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Part of the New Deal, CCC workers created parks, fixed roads, and improved infrastructure around the United States.  It gave veterans a chance to earn a wage so they could support their families and gave them work experience. 

It was just such a group of veterans working at a CCC camp in the Florida Keys when tragedy struck. A hurricane barreling down on the Keys meant that the veterans lives were in danger from the high winds and flooding. A train was readied to evacuate them, but never made it to the veterans in time. 

Ernest Hemmingway, then known for his reporting, received word of the event and rushed to gather the story. A number of veterans had died at the camp, and Hemmingway lamented to readers that the men had only been there as a result of their ongoing dispute with their government over the veterans’ bonus. 

Hemmingway’s reporting swayed public opinion in favor of the Bonus Army and the veterans’ plight. Congress would begin debating the issue of paying out the bonus early once again. 

BONUS BILL BECOMES LAW

Finally in 1936, Congress passed the Adjusted Compensation Act. FDR would veto the bill, and they would override it.  Nearly 18 years after WWI,  more than 4 million veterans were paid in full. 

BONUS ARMY AND THE G.I. BILL 

As United States involvement in World War II became inevitable, FDR and others began to think about the problems in payment and reintegration for veterans – seeking out a way to resolve many of the inherent problems WWI veterans had faced. 

In June 1944, the GI Bill was made law. It forged a new relationship between veterans, the military and the government, and it allowed millions of veterans to go to college, reintegrate after they returned home, create small businesses and buy homes. 

References: 

WWI Veterans Bonus http://history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1901-1950/World-War-I-veterans-bonus-bill/

Bonus Expeditionary Forces March on Washington

https://www.nps.gov/articles/bonus-expeditionary-forces-march-on-washington.htm

The Bonus Army: An American Epic. Paul Dickson & Thomas B. Allen

The March of the Bonus Army. PBS

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