Remembering the Bonus Army
By David Rosen, AlterNet
Seventy-nine years ago today, the U.S. Army attacked American World War I veterans, their families and thousands of other citizens gathered in peaceful assembly in
Calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, but long remembered as the Bonus Army, the assembled multitude decided to occupy
Informed of the shooting,
Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and George Patton are three generals who led major military campaigns during World War II and came to symbolize the nation’s global prowess. Eisenhower commanded the
Forgotten by many today, these generals got their stripes commanding a military campaign against once-fellow soldiers and their families (including women and children) who made up the Bonus Army.
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In 1924, Congress approved a bonus payment for World War I veterans, but it was not to be paid until 1945. As the Depression deepened and unemployment mounted following the 1929 stock market crash, a growing movement of veterans, demanded – and desperately needed – their payment.
In the spring of ’32, the first wave of veterans, their families and many unemployed supporters descended on
The leader of the Bonus Army was Walter Waters, a charismatic former Army sergeant and unemployed cannery worker from
Many popular figures visited the camp in support of the veterans, including the legendary retired Marine Corp. Major General Smedley Butler; he had twice been awarded the Medal of Honor and, in 1935, penned the popular book, War is a Racket.
Joseph C. Harsch, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor and an eyewitness to the day’s events, reported
Faced with the unprecedented mobilization of veterans and other Americans, the House quickly enacted a bonus payment plan only to have the Senate reject it; President Hoover vowed to veto the payment. This set the stage for the showdown of July 28th.
During the morning,
"You will have
The Bonus vets initially gathered in front of the Capitol. Seeing the approaching army, they mistakenly believed the soldiers were coming in support of their demands. However, when Patton ordered the cavalry to charge, their cheers turned to shouts of "Shame! Shame!" After this initial confrontation,
MacArthur oversaw a force of 600 armed soldiers, a machine gun unit, horse-mounted cavalry (with Patton leading the charge) and even a half-dozen Renault tanks. Anticipating his conduct during the Korea War two decades later, he refused the President’s orders. He claimed Communists were behind the vets' campaign (John Pace, a Communist Party member, was an organizer) and ordered the attack on the the encampment at Anacostia.
(The presence of so-called Communists within the Bonus Army was much debated.
Some 10,000 protesters were routed; two babies died and casualties overwhelmed local hospitals. While no weapons were fired, the military used bayonetted rifles and gas grenades to disperse the vets and their supporters, leaving two dead, 135 arrested and hundreds injured.
MacArthur, riding in full military regalia in a staff car, was accousted by a flag waving bystander. With tear gas filling the air and the man’s face streaked with tears, he shouted at the general
Eisenhower later wrote, "the whole scene was pitiful. The veterans were ragged, ill-fed, and felt themselves badly abused. To suddenly see the whole encampment going up in flames just added to the pity.”
According to the New York Times, “Flames rose high over the desolate Anacostia flats at midnight tonight, and a pitiful stream of refugee veterans of the World War walked out of their home of the past two months, going they knew not where."
(Eisenhower, who served as MacArthur's junior aide, claimed he advised his boss
At a press conference following the confrontation, MacArthur declared
In the wake of the assault on the Bonus Army, vets and their supporters scattered, defeated. However, public reaction to
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Looking back today, nearly eight decades later, we need to acknowledge that American WWI veterans and their supports who made up the Bonus Army created a new form of mass, nonviolent, sustained political mobilization.
The Bonus Army occupation of the nation’s capital in 1932 represents something more than the sit-down strikes pioneered by the CIO, the great mass assemblies like Martin Luther King’s celebrated 1963 march or the anti-Vietnam War mobilizations. The Bonus Army mobilizaiton anticipated the Arab Spring. It suggests a model of nonviolent self-organization that can be adopted throughout the world.
Americans have a long tradition of popular assembly to protest perceived grivences. However uninformed Sarah Palin might be, Tea Party activists never fail to remind their fellow Americans that the country was founded on campaigns of popular protest. Sadly, these “activists” don’t acknowledge the Bonus Army or the many other nonviolent rallies, demonstations and protetsts that have long been part of the nation’s legacy of popular efforts to redress grivences.
Major nonviolent gatherings give little reason for violent responses from the authorities. The August 1963 March on
Forgotten today but not unlike the sparks of self-immolation that set off the Arab Spring, Norman Morrison, a Quaker activist, set himself afire in 1965 protesting the Vietnam war.
However, the urban riots in late ‘60s in
With the exception of the popular rallies held in
We can only hope Americans will remember the lessons of the Bonus Army and bring the Arab Spring back to the U.S. of A. Equally critical, the events of July 1932 suggests the way the
David Rosen is the author of “Sex Scandal
© 2011 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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