In 1925, despite President Calvin Coolidge's parsimony, Congress had passed a bill to provide World War I veterans with “adjusted compensation certificates,” or bonuses. The 1920s had been an era of prosperity because of business-oriented politics and tight federal budgets, but the war loomed large in American minds, so congressmen were able to pass the bill over Coolidge's veto. Soldiers in previous wars had gained compensation, such as the Revolutionary War soldiers who received land scrip after the peace. As passed, each World War I veteran would receive a Treasury-paid endowment based on years of service during the war. Set to be paid in 1945, Bonus Marchers went to Washington and camped on Anacostia Flats in the southeastern part of Washington and in tents on the Mall to encourage the federal government to give them their bonuses early, which to the protesters seemed more like common sense than charity. They developed a “sophisticated social organization” with committees to manage the mass of protesters, estimated between 15,000 and 29,000 (Parrish 259 ). The infamous “Hoovervilles” had popped up around the nation to expose the severity of the economic downturn and blame Hoover for people's loss of jobs and homes. Now veterans also mocked Hoover's handling of the depression. One Bonus Army newspaper article reminded readers these men were “Heroes in 1917; They Call Us ‘Criminals’ Now” (Library of Congress).
Congress had attempted to pass some limited legislation only to be vetoed by President Herbert Hoover. Hoover ignored the demands of the veterans who stood behind Republican economic policies and old American ideals about the poor. For Hoover, the veterans could “care for themselves” (quoted in Parrish 259
By the summer of 1932, Hoover made matters worse by forcing the removal of the Bonus Marchers. Approximately one-quarter of the veterans left after Secretary of War Patrick Hurley and Secretary of Treasury Ogden Mills announced that they would be clearing out the protesters at Anacostia Flats to repurpose the abandoned federal buildings on that site. With thousands still in Washington, Hoover encouraged Congress to appropriate $100,000 to remove the remaining men who would not leave, money to be subtracted from their eventual bonus payments. In the attempt to clear marchers out, a scuffle ensued, and Hoover ordered General MacArthur to restore order. MacArthur had been convinced that this protest movement was a communist conspiracy to take over the government and took his cavalry, along with machine guns, bayonets, and tear-gas, to clear out the last of the veterans and their families camping on the Anacostia River. Instead of chastising MacArthur for disobeying orders, Hoover blamed the protesters. There is no evidence of a conspiracy or that the Bonus Army was more than a populist uprising during hard times.
Americans were appalled that poor, homeless men, women, and children were manhandled by the military. Hoover's treatment of the Bonus Army only added to perception that Hoover did not care about the people suffering during the Great Depression. Americans blamed President Hoover for the depression and for the government's lack of response to the people's suffering. In addition to Hoovervilles, turned-out empty pockets were called “Hoover flags,” while “Hoover blankets” were in reality old newspapers.
Hoover rode into office on the prosperity of the 1920s, which Republicans claimed came from years of laissez-faire policies that had seemingly made the 1920 roar. By 1932, the Depression had raged for several years, and Americans became increasingly angry about his hands-off approach to the economy. As people struggled to feed their families and make homes, others drummed up support to rattle Washington into action. Farmers protested with the Farmers’ Holiday movement, Hoover mishandled the Bonus Army, and 1932 was an election year. While Hoover ignored the voices of the people, New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt was listening. In November 1932, the warm and amiable Roosevelt, who promised to help the “forgotten man,” beat Hoover in a landslide election. Because Roosevelt had never explained what his “new deal” would look like, it is arguable from the events of 1932, such as the government's indifference to the Bonus Army, that many Americans voted for the man who was not Herbert Hoover.
See also: Coxey's Army ; New Deal ; Roosevelt, Franklin Delano (1882–1945) ; Shays's Rebellion (1786–1787)
American Experience. “The Bonus March (May–July, 1932).” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/macarthur/peopleevents/pandeAMEX89.html . Accessed January 2, 2013.
Hofstadter, Richard. The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Library of Congress. “The Bonus Army March.” http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trm203.html . Accessed January 2, 2013.
Parrish, Michael E. Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920–1941. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1992.