“Treasury Raiders” and empty promises: Bonus Marches erupt across postwar U.S. in 1930's
By Michael Stahler and Paul Burgholzer
The Bonus Marches that sprung up across the country in the early 1930s pitted the American veterans of World War I against their own government. These servicemen fought abroad against the German Empire in France only to return to empty promises by those that sent them to the front line in the first place. The soldiers were guaranteed financial security for their service but the Federal government reneged on their promise.
At the time, soldiers were paid substantially less than the average factory worker. Therefore, they lobbied Congress for adjusted wages, or “bonuses” as opponents would call them. In 1924, Congress began to issue certificates promising $1.25 for each day a veteran spent abroad and $1.00 for each day a veteran spent at home. Promised to be fulfilled by 1945, veterans began to demand earlier compensation when the Great Depression hit. A quarter of the country unemployed, and many of these veterans homeless, they took to the streets. 20,000 occupied the nation’s capital in May 1932. This march sparked a national debate. The country was supposed to return to normalcy after the war yet in these attempts it further alienated the veterans that helped to win the war.
Their encampments on the banks of the Anacostia River were reminiscent of the settlements used by the former soldiers during their days in the American Expeditionary Force. This effort was led by Walter Walters, a former cannery worker from Portland, Oregon, who stressed proper conduct among these protestors, including no begging, “drinking, or radicalism”.
Under Walters, the men dug latrines, cleared roads within the camps, and assumed military formations before their marches In these camps as well as abandoned buildings and lots, they would gather scraps of derelict cars, pieces of wood, and chicken cages to craft makeshift houses.
Aside from homes, their shantytown featured a library, a post office, and a barber shop. They even produced their own newspaper, which they called the BEF News. This settlement was the largest of many across the country called “Hoovertowns” in derision of then-president Herbert Hoover.
Though the protesters professed their efforts as “pure Americanism”, Army Chief of Staff and later five-star general and national hero Douglas MacArthur suspected these protests were a Communist effort to undermine the American military. By December, 1933, former Major General Smedley Butler was outraged by the treatment of the bonus marchers. He delivered a widely published address that tapped into this discontent and told the marchers,
“You’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to hate. You’ve got to turn on these fellows who call you names such as ‘treasury raiders.’”
Two generations of American soldiers were pitted against one another in the nation’s capital. The soldiers that demolished these veterans’ camps obeyed orders, but they were driving out the people advocating not simply for themselves, but the better treatment of all servicemen. The WWI veterans were not given what they were owed.
Nonetheless, at nightfall MacArthur gave the protesters 20 minutes to vacate. Thousands of veterans and their families stampeded as tear gas choked the air and flames consumed the community that had been forming for months. Two veterans and two infants were killed in the havoc, with countless injured filling the local hospitals. Within a night, nearly everything was burned to the ground. John diJoseph, an eyewitness, described “The sky was red...You could see the blaze all over Washington”.
The chaos that resulted from this mistreatment was not pointless, however. Four years later, the surviving veterans would ultimately gain their bonuses, and in 1944, the G.I. Bill was passed. The bill to this very day rewards thousands of veterans with benefits to provide a livelihood and education. Unemployed veterans like the very ones that protested would receive $20 a week for a year after service, fulfilling the “bonus” that many of these impoverished veterans desired. The veterans suffered and served at home to ensure that promises were kept and that future servicemen are treated with the respect that they deserve.
Michael Stahler and Paul Burgholzer are Summer 2017 Interns at the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission.