It was a nightmarish image for any American President to consider – U.S. soldiers attacking U.S. veterans in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. But on July 28, 1932, Herbert Hoover believed it had to be done. “For many weeks,” he announced in a press statement, the veterans gathered in Washington had “been given every opportunity of free assembly, free speech and free petition to the Congress.” Now, he said, “in order to put an end to this . . . defiance of civil authority, I have asked the Army to . . . restore order.”
It had all started peacefully, three months earlier, when the first groups of First World War veterans gathered in the nation’s capital to demand early payment of a bonus Congress had promised them. The payment was not scheduled until 1945, but the veterans could not wait that long. As a result of the Great Depression, many had lost their jobs and been stripped of their life savings, leaving them struggling to keep their families from starving. Believing protest was better than idleness, large groups of veterans – who became known as the Bonus Expeditionary Forces (B.E.F.) – set out for Washington, D.C., to peaceably demand that Congress give them their bonus.
Their cause quickly became front-page news across the country. Hitching rides and relying on the kindness of strangers, the veterans ingratiated themselves by heeding the gentlemanly instructions of their unofficial “commander,” Walter W. Waters, a former sergeant who had been unemployed for eighteen months. Waters insisted that the men agree not to panhandle, drink, or cause trouble, and rallied veterans along the way with the cry, “Let’s hit the road to Washington!”
The good feelings for the B.E.F. continued when the first forces, also called the Bonus Marchers, arrived in the nation’s capital. Police superintendent Pelham Glassford, a retired brigadier general, arranged for the marchers to camp in two abandoned federal buildings, and secured portable kitchens for them. Secretary of War Patrick Hurley ordered two thousand beds for the men, and several civic organizations provided two tons of straw for extra padding.
As more and more men arrived, however, Congress worried about how the veterans’ protest could peaceably be resolved. “If they come here and sit down and have three meals furnished free every day,” worried one congressman, “then God knows what will happen to us. There are more than 8,500,000 persons out of work in this country, most of them with families. If the government can feed those who are here, then we can expect an influx that will startle the entire country.”
To make matters worse, the veterans were demanding their bonus – between two and four billion dollars in total – at a time when the federal government was already in dire financial straits. But Waters was unmoved. “We mean to stay until the bonus is paid,” he said, “whether it is next year or 1945.”
To help their uphill cause, the B.E.F. had a key ally in the House, a freshman congressman from Texas named Wright Patman. Patman kept the marchers’ hopes alive by steadily presenting new bonus bills, and urging his fellow congressmen to put money in the hands of “the little fellows in every nook and corner of the nation” instead of “the big boys [in] New York.” None of the bills was passed, but Patman’s public support convinced thousands of discontented veterans that their protest in Washington was worth a protracted fight.
Then, on June 15, the House passed Patman’s latest bill. With the Senate set to vote on it two days later, the veterans migrated to the steps of the U.S. Capitol, eagerly awaiting good news and a return to their families. The Senate, however, voted against the marchers yet again. At that point, hundreds of veterans, convinced their cause was hopeless, headed home. But thousands more stayed. Encamped on the mud flats of the Anacostia River, their new rallying cry became “Stay ‘till 1945.”
Wives and children joined the men, swelling the camp’s ranks to between ten and fifteen thousand. With an increase in the camp’s population came a decrease in the quality of life. Rats and flies abounded; there was no running water, no electricity, and no toilets. By early July, the lack of food had gotten so bad that Superintendent Glassford spent a thousand dollars of his own money to provide temporary relief.
The conditions, made worse by the sweltering midsummer heat, prompted President Hoover to make a last-gasp effort at easing the tension. With the help of Congress, he secured funds to send willing veterans home. Many–approximately five thousand–accepted the offer. The rest remained in the camps.
As the summer droned on, as it got hotter, and as the conditions of the camp grew worse, many veterans grew irritable. Before long, the first minor clashes between marchers and police broke out. The situation worsened when Congress adjourned for the summer, and D.C. officials decided the marchers had worn out their welcome. They ordered Glassford to remove the veterans from the two federal buildings, which were awaiting demolition. Glassford refused to remove the marchers by force, warning that a bloodbath would follow if he did.
On the morning of July 28, when workmen arrived on Pennsylvania Avenue to begin the demolition, the trouble began. According to a New York Times report, “the clash with the police . . . was short and furious. The advancing police, met by a hail of brickbats, first used their nightsticks and then began to shoot.”
Later that day, the commissioners of the District of Columbia wrote President Herbert Hoover: “This morning, officials of the Treasury Department, seeking to clear certain areas . . . in which there were numbers of these bonus marchers, met with resistance and a serious riot occurred . . . In view of the above . . . the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, therefore, request that they be given the assistance of Federal troops in maintaining law and order in the District of Columbia.”
Hoover granted the request. “There is no group,” he explained forcefully in a July 28, 1932 press statement, “no matter what its origins, that can be allowed either to violate the laws of this country or to intimidate the Government.”
A reporter for the Baltimore Evening-Sun wrote one version of what happened next:
The cavalry clattered down Pennsylvania Avenue with drawn sabers. The infantry came marching along with fixed bayonets. All Washington smelled a fight, and all Washington turned out to see it. Streets were jammed with automobiles. Sidewalks, windows, doorsteps were crowded with people trying to see what was happening . . . Veterans in the rear ranks of a mob that faced the infantry pushed forward. Those in front pushed back. The crowd stuck. An order went down the line of infantrymen. The soldiers stepped back, pulled tear-gas bombs from their belts, and hurled them into the midst of a mob. Some of the veterans grabbed the bombs and threw them back at the infantry. The exploding tins whizzed around the smooth asphalt like devil chasers, pfutt-pfutt. And a gentle southerly wind wafted the gas in the faces of the soldiers and the spectators across the street.
Gradually, the army pushed the marchers back across the Anacostia Bridge to their shantytowns along the river’s edge. Then, according to the New York Times, “the infantry and cavalry donned gas masks and moved systematically in a contracting circle, hurling tear gas bombs before them and giving the veterans an unwilling taste of old times, when they used similar methods on German strongholds in the World War.” Everyone was evicted.
Was the use of the U.S. military on the veteran marchers justified? Douglas MacArthur, head of the U.S. forces that day, believed it was. In MacArthur’s Report on the Battle of Anacostia Flats, he wrote: “Had the president not acted today . . . had he let it go on for another week, I believe that the institutions of our government would have been severely threatened.” And Attorney General William D. Mitchell, in his private report to the President, said “the prompt use of the military to outnumber and overawe the disturbers prevented a calamity . . . The right peaceably to petition Congress for redress of alleged grievances,” wrote Mitchell, “does not include assemblage of disorderly thousands at the seat of Government for purposes of coercion.”
The public disagreed. Americans across the country reacted to the images of soldiers attacking veterans. “What a pitiful spectacle is that of the great American Government,” wrote the editors of the Washington Times, “mightiest in the world, chasing unarmed men, women and children with Army tanks. If the Army must be called out to make war on unarmed citizens, this is no longer America.”
One bonus marcher, Henry Meisel, described it differently in his book, Bonus Expeditionary Forces: The True Facts: “America, you belong to your people! Herbie Hoover, we shall not rest until you and your favored few are out of office. You cannot run our country . . . We shall beat you and yours with the mighty American vote.”
Four months later, Herbert Hoover lost the Presidential election to the former governor of New York Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And in 1936, the veterans’ initial decision to exercise their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble and to petition their government paid off. They got their bonus, nine years early.
(NOTE: This story is part of the collection included in First Freedoms: A Documentary History of First Amendment Rights in America.)