The “Bonus March” (1932): The Unmet Demands and Needs of WWI Heroes
By Michael J. Barga
Introduction: Following WWI, a pension was promised all returning service men to be administered in 1945. As the Great Depression took shape, many WWI veterans found themselves out of work, and an estimated 17,000 traveled to Washington, D.C. in May 1932 to put pressure on Congress to pay their cash bonus immediately. The former soldiers created camps in the Nation’s capital when they did not receive their bonuses which led to their forcible removal by the Army and the bulldozing of their settlements.
The Veteran’s Affairs Department, the Roaring 20’s, and the Great Depression
The Veteran’s Affairs department of the United States was created in 1917 based on previous service-provider groups for former soldiers dating back to the revolutionary war. While medical services and compensation for injured and disabled veterans were first priority, it was decided by Congress to provide cash bonuses for WWI veterans beginning in 1945. President Coolidge unsuccessfully vetoed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act, and debate was extended, yet veterans during the 1920’s were in an age of endless prosperity.
When the Great Depression hit, veterans were desperate for relief, and some had only the promise of their 1945 pension left after the loss of their life’s savings. By May of 1932, the “Bonus Expeditionary Force,” a group estimated to be at least 15,000 veterans organized by Walter Waters, had caught the attention of law-makers. On June 17, the Senate failed to pass the bill sent from the House.
The gathering of WWI veterans and their families became known as the “Bonus March,” and throughout the city were shabbily made shelters, as an estimated 30,000 others had also traveled D.C. to make their presence known. Those that had marched victoriously down Pennsylvania Ave. at the end of WWI now lived a bleak existence in our nation’s capital, some clothed in scraps of their old uniforms.
One individual who was an eyewitness was the wife of the Washington Post’s owner, Evalyn Walsh McLean. She describes a pick-up truck convoy packed with veterans and crowds with plain evidence of hunger in their faces.1 Some had come with their families, and many in the D.C. community offered aid including McLean. To the shock of a local deli, McLean ordered a thousand sandwiches and bought a thousand packs of cigarettes while the superintendent of the Washington police provided coffee for the crowds.
Eleven days after Congress failed to compensate the “Bonus Army,” General Douglas MacArthur and the Army were ordered by President Hoover to drive the camp inhabitants away and bulldoze their settlements after riots erupted. No shots were fired but the group was increasingly becoming a danger to the safety of the District, and the Howell bill was passed to provide transportation money to the marchers and their families for the trip home. The “Bonus Army” did receive their full compensation earlier than planned when Congress overrode the veto of President Roosevelt in 1936.
The Legacy of the Bonus March on Social Policy
When the U.S. became involved in WWII, the Veteran’s Affairs administration once again hoped to set up benefits for those who served. There was greater movement among the public and legislators to ensure the well-being of veterans, especially those that recalled the “Bonus March” crisis. This tragic incident was a contributing factor to the expansion of VA services including the influential GI Bill of Rights of 1944.
1. Father Struck it Rich by Evalyn Walsh McClean. New York: Arno Press, 1975: 302.
VA History in Brief by Department of Veteran Affairs. Accessed at http://www.va.gov/opa/publications/archives/docs/history_in_brief.pdf , www.va.gov
The Bonus March: An Episode of the Great Depression by Roger Daniels. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1971.