Talk of a controversial new government safety net. Dire warnings of creeping socialism. Republican fiscal chickenhawks turning their backs on needful veterans and their families. The nation’s capitol tense and divided. The rest of the country disgusted.
No, I’m not referring to our present predicament.
This was the United States during the summer of 1932, when twenty thousand desperate veterans–most jobless and many homeless–descended on Washington to demand payment of the Bonus annuity promised them for their service during World War I.
Conservative GOP groups, hoping to spin the current budget impasse, are currently touting a “Million Vet March” scheduled to take place on the Washington Mall tomorrow. By all indications, the level of participation will fall as short of its name as the Tea Party rhetoric does of the truth.
Preparing for the November release of my new historical novel, The Yanks Are Starving, which tells the story of the Bonus Army, I’m struck by how many of the same conflicts and arguments over the budget during that era have been revived in recent months.
Stiffed by the shut-down strategy of the Tea-Party conservatives in Congress, today’s veterans can take small solace at least in knowing that their case for timely benefits payment is even stronger than that demanded by the Bonus Expeditionary Force, the name adopted by the 1932 veterans. The Depression-era Bonus was not due to be paid until several years into the future. Yet the BEF men argued that the compensation would do them little good if they were all dead from malnutrition and despair when it finally arrived.
The current Congress could benefit from some of the shock treatment dispensed by the Bonus veterans. Camped in Hoovervilles across Washington, the BEF men converged on the Capitol steps each day to harangue and shame the representatives and senators, sending them scurrying for their offices. When that tactic fell on deaf ears, the veterans organized a round-the-clock march in front of the Capitol building in what became known as the “Death March.” On the morning of the House vote for the Bonus bill, they filled the galleries and aimed sullen glares down at the Republican opponents. The floor debate became so heated that Democratic Rep. Edward Eslick fell dead from a heart attack at the climax of his plea to aid the veterans.
For most of that summer, Washington did not explode in violence thanks mostly to the unflagging efforts of District Police Chief Pelham “Happy” Glassford. Returned from the war as the youngest brigadier general, Glassford had bounced around several jobs until he landed, unfortunately, into the proverbial hot skillet. He was a rare breed of officer, an accomplished artist who advocated progressive law enforcement methods at a time when beating heads with clubs was standard procedure.
But Glassford finally fell victim to the political machinations of the hardliners in the Hoover Administration and District Commission, who accused him of going soft on communism while they made their own secret plans for taking back control of the city. When a scuffle broke out during the eviction of veterans from condemned federal property on Pennsylvania Avenue, Hoover bowed to pressure from some of his advisers and reluctantly called out the Army to help maintain order.
General Douglas MacArthur, the army chief of staff, donned his uniform and, over the protest of his aide, Dwight Eisenhower, took to the street to lead a rout of the stunned veterans with cavalry and tanks. Disobeying Hoover’s order to stop at the Anacostia River, MacArthur sent his regulars across the Eleventh Street Bridge and burned the largest of the veterans’ encampment in Anacostia Flats. By the next day, the dazed veterans had been chased into Maryland and Pennsylvania.
It turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the Republican budget hawks. That November, an outraged nation took out its wrath on the GOP, tossing the good-hearted but ill-served Herbert Hoover from office and replacing him with FDR. The Republicans lost 12 seats in the Senate and 101 seats in the House.
And the Bonus? Four years later, veterans who survived the ordeal finally received their service compensation from a Congress that had learned the hard way what happens when it fails to take care of its fighting men and women.
So, the question remains: Must the current Congress learn this lesson all over again?