Lifestyle & Human Interest

My Great-Grandfather and Nearly 20,000 Other WWI Vets Camped Outside the White House 87 Years Ago


Eighty-seven years ago, my great-grandfather, along with nearly 20,000 World War I veterans and their families, marched to and camped outside the White House to protest and demand early payment of the bonuses promised to them eight years earlier.

The rising unemployment rates and looming economic crash increased the desperation of these men who had served to protect our country to fight for the money promised to them so they could provide for their families.

When Congress did not pass a bill in mid-June of 1932 that would grant them early payment, many protesting veterans, now known as “The Bonus Army,” decided not to leave Washington, D.C. Instead, they continued to reside in Hoovervilles and in abandoned buildings across the district.

D.C. police soon became overwhelmed by the amount of displaced people in the city, so they reached out to President Herbert Hoover for help. Hoover directed Gen. Douglas MacArthur to send the U.S. Army to peacefully move the veterans out of the district.

Troops arrived on the edges of the camps on June 28, 1932, but did not do so peacefully. Calvary, tanks and tears gas were all used to chase the veterans out of the city, leaving their encampments engulfed in flames.

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This often overlooked event in American history not only includes well-known historical figures of our country’s history, but also laid the groundwork for the modern-day GI Bill that ensures soldiers receive compensation for their service.

My great-grandfather, great-grandmother and their children standing in one of the Bonus Army camps in 1932.

The World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 and The Great Depression

Six years after World War I ended, Congress enacted a law that granted veterans “adjusted universal compensation,” more commonly known as the bonus.

Have you ever heard of the Bonus Army?

The World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 stated that veterans would receive $1 for each day they served in the United States and $1.25 for each day they served overseas.

If a veteran’s bonus total equaled under $50, they received that amount in cash, but if a veteran’s bonus total was more than $50, they received a certificate that was able to be cashed in in 1945. The economy was quickly spiraling into what we now know as The Great Depression, so by postponing the amount Congress felt was due to veterans for 20 years, they hoped to limit government spending.

The act passed despite President Calvin Coolidge’s veto, claiming that the government did not owe able-bodied veterans bonuses for their service.

But as the unemployment rates rapidly rose and the stock market crash in 1929 continued to impact the country’s economy, many able-bodied veterans were unable to find work or provide for their families.

Unemployment rates skyrocketed from 3.2 percent in 1929 to 23.6 percent in 1932. To put that into perspective, about one in every four families in America did not have a breadwinner to provide for them.

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Scared and desperate, many veterans believed that if the government could cash out their bonuses earlier than promised, they would be able to survive the depression.

The Call for Early Payment

Four years after the World War Adjusted Compensation Act was passed, many veterans began calling the deferred payments the “Tombstone Bonus,” as they believed they would be dead before the government would pay them.

The first call for early payment was made by Texas Democratic Representative John William Wright Patman. Five months before the market crash in 1929, Patman cosponsored a bill that called for immediate payout of the veterans’ bonuses, but the bill did not make it past the committee.

Patman continued to push for early bonus payment over the next few years, but his attempts were never successful.

In March of 1932, an ex-sergeant in Portland named Walter W. Waters called for every veteran to march to Washington, D.C. to claim the money that had been promised to them.

Only two months later, a different version of Patman’s bill was set to be debated in the House, so up to 250 veterans followed Waters’ charge and began their march from Oregon to Washington, D.C.

What began as 250 veterans from Portland soon grew up to 20,000 veterans — both black and white — and their families marching to Washington to pressure the House to pass Patman’s bill.

The Occupation of Washington and the Local Police

Once the veterans arrived to Washington, D.C. they began building Hoovervilles, which were scantly crafted shacks that people all over the country lived in after losing their homes due to The Great Depression.

They also squatted in unfinished buildings that had been abandoned once the economy began taking a turn for the worse.

More than a month after the new version of Patton’s bill had not passed, 8,000 to 10,000 veterans still remained in the city.

The local police realized that if the marchers became unruly in any way, they would not be able to maintain the peace. And so, the chief of police, Pelham Glassford, went to President Herbert Hoover and asked if they could receive additional federal support.

Hoover Ordered MacArthur to Send U.S. Troops

Hoover agreed to send federal troops to assist Washington, D.C. police and ordered Gen. Douglas MacArthur to help the police peacefully move the veterans and their families out of the city, but the president’s orders were not followed as they were given.

Glassford ordered Waters to evacuate a camp on Pennsylvania Avenue by the morning of July 28. The evacuation began quietly but quickly turned into chaos.

But MacArthur and his aide, future President Dwight D. Eisenhower, already had a plan to help “pacify” the situation if necessary. Around 4:30 p.m., more than 200 soldiers on horseback were ordered to meet the veterans. Major George S. Patton’s cavalry met the infantry near the White House, and together they marched to the Capitol followed by tanks and firing tear gas grenades.

Despite Hoover’s orders to keep the evacuation peaceful, it quickly escalated into a full-on attack on the Bonus marchers and their families.

“MacArthur was famously unable to take direct orders,” Matthew Schaefer, an archivist from the Hoover Presidential Library told The Western Journal. “The legend is that MacArthur would take orders from no man and it was questionable whether he would take orders from God himself.”

In his aftermath report, MacArthur said that the Bonus Army had “a surly and obstinate temper” and did not seem to believe that the federal troops would enforce the evacuation. They needed “some hint” of the commitment of the troops to carry out the order.

On June 28, 1932, American troops were sent to help local police evacuate the Bonus marchers from the Hoovervilles they had set up in Washington, D.C. This photo was included in the report from Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur. (Courtesy of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library)

“This hint was given through the medium of harmless tear gas bombs,” he wrote.

While many attributed the brutal acts on July 28, 1932, to President Hoover, Eisenhower said in a 1967 interview that he did not believe the former president deserved such criticism.

“The whole day’s experience convinced me that Mr. Hoover not only made this move very reluctantly, because after all it was a sort of a cruel thing,” he said. “But he did his very best to limit it, and that the blazing camps which then commanded so much attention in the public press were not any fault of his whatsoever.”

The veterans and their families left the city that day without the payment they had come for, but they weren’t ready to stop fighting.

The camps the Bonus Army built for their occupation of Washington, D.C. were burned as they left. This photo was included in the report from Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur. (Courtesy of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library)

Was the Bonus Army a Communist-led Movement?

The nervousness surrounding the Bonus Army and its occupation of Washington, D.C. can be attributed to the heightened fear of communist mutiny during the era.

Many investigators looked for communist involvement in the Bonus Army and some even claimed to have found it, but the claim has been delegitimatized since.

Schaefer told The Western Journal that some of the veterans had in fact attended meetings, but the Communist Party never had any influence on the Bonus Army or its mission.

“The communists were one of the many groups in America in the Depression saying, ‘The system here is broken. We have an answer. Follow us,'” he said.

Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen echoed the belief that the communist involvement had been overplayed in their book, (Amazon affiliate link) “The Bonus Army: An American Epic” and claim that is one of the reasons the Bonus Army is such an overlooked event in history.

How Has the Bonus Army Impacted Modern-Day America?

“(The Bonus marchers) were mad as hell and they didn’t have a clear target to take their anger out on,” Schaefer told the Western Journal. “So they decided to grasp this one idea: The Bonus. ‘If we get the Bonus, all will be well.’ Well, it wasn’t quite that simple.”

Even though the Bonus Army was forced out of the city on July 28, 1932, they didn’t stop fighting for the money they felt was due to them.

In 1936, Congress did pass a version of Rep. Patman’s bill that called for the immediate payment of bonuses. That allowed veterans to pay for their houses or pay for medical bills, but their economic problems were not automatically solved as they had hoped.

But it did start the conversation about how veterans should be compensated for their service — a conversation that was sparked by the Pennsylvania Line Mutiny in the early 1780s and that ultimately laid the groundwork for the GI Bill of Rights that was signed in 1944 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“The need for a social contract between nation and soldiers, first perceived by the angry veterans of the Revolutionary War and then peacefully sought by the Bonus Army, became a reality with the GI Bill in 1944,” Dickson wrote in his book.

“That great change, that guarantee of a just reward and the resulting creation of a vast productive and creative middle class, is the magnificent legacy of the Bonus Army.”

CORRECTION, July 29, 2019: This article originally stated that President Roosevelt signed the GI Bill of Rights in 1994, rather than in 1944. We edited the article to correct the error and apologize for any confusion we may have caused.

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Kayla has been a staff writer for The Western Journal since 2018.
Kayla Kunkel began writing for The Western Journal in 2018.
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