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Bonus Army

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Bonus Army

World War I was one of the most traumatic experiences that any generation had ever gone through. Soldiers encountered new technological weapons that slaughtered on a previously unimaginable scale, meanwhile many others succumbed to the filth and disease rampant in the trenches. The scarred generation was now experiencing a new trauma with the desperation of the Great Depression. The men were not ideologically motivated but simply looking for any way out of the poverty they found themselves in. How could the nation turn its back on those who had put their lives on the line for it?

A black and white photograph of the Bonus Army on the steps of the Capitol Building Washington DC StudySmarter The Bonus Army/Wikimedia Commons

Patriotism can neither be bought or sold. It is not hire and salary. It is not material, but spiritual. It is one of the highest human virtues. To attempt to pay money for it is to offer it an unworthy indignity which cheapens, debases and destroys it - Calvin Coolidge1

WWI Bonus

In 1924, Congress passed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act to provide a bonus for those who had served in WWI. Despite its public popularity, a WWI bonus had been vetoed by both President Harding and President Coolidge before Congress eventually overrode Coolidge's veto. Approving the bonus and paying for the bonus proved to be two entirely different matters. When it came time to make the budget in 1924, a deal was struck to push the payment of the bonus off to 1945. Congress, working in the midst of the peace and prosperity of the Roaring 20s, couldn't have foreseen that the Great Depression and then WWII were going to only make the payments harder down the line.

Bonus Availability

The bonus provided for $1 per day of stateside service, capped at $500, and $1.25 per day of overseas service, capped at $625. While the veterans, or their heirs if they passed before payment, would not see the money until 1945, they were able to borrow against it. The issue with this was that by 1932 when the veterans really needed the money, the Great Depression had significantly reduced several banks' ability to provide credit and give the veterans the loans.

A black and white photograph of the Bonus Army camp in Acostia StudySmarterBonus Army Camp/Wikimedia Commons

Bonus Expeditionary Forces

As the Great Depression dragged on, many veterans became unemployed and destitute. Looking for relief, the men turned to the hope of their promised bonus. They banded together to form the Bonus Expeditionary Forces, later referred to as the Bonus Army, which marched to Washington and demanded immediate payment. Shantytowns known as Hoovervilles had sprung up across the country and the Bonus Army set up their own across the city of Washington DC.

The name Bonus Expeditionary Forces came from the American Expeditionary Forces, the name of the forces the WWI veterans had served in.

Encampments of the Bonus Army

Whatever scraps of wood, tin, and nails that could be found were used to erect hasty dwellings in the nation's capital. Whole families dwelled in the shantytowns which visualized the plight of common people during the Great Depression. Estimates range from 20,000 to 40,000 people inhabiting the camps.

When the Bonus Army arrived, other groups were already on the scene, demanding relief from the hardships of the Great Depression. Communists marched to the capitol in December of 1931 and another 12,000 unemployed asking for Congressional help soon followed. In a mirror of their WWI experience, the veterans had marched into a situation that was already hostile. Despite losing the issue, the veterans refused to leave Washington, DC.

Walter W Waters

Walter W Waters experienced something many war veterans have gone through: difficulty adjusting to civilian after returning from war. He had been stationed in France during WWI and after his discharge in 1919, he couldn't seem to set down roots. In his travels he encountered other veterans of the war experiencing the same troubles with finding work and organized them into the Bonus Expeditionary Force. After the events were over, he wrote a book to explain the events in 1933. Despite how the Bonus Army was treated by the US Army, he would once again volunteer for military service and join the Navy to fight in WWII.

Official Reaction to the Bonus Army

Herbert Hoover and other Republicans had been voted in to continue the conservative policies of President Coolidge. Despite the popularity of aiding the veterans, they maintained Coolidge's anti-bonus stance. Texas Democrat and WWI veteran, Wright Patman, managed to introduce and pass an immediate bonus payment bill in the House of Representatives. The Senate, however, voted down the bill which Hoover would not have signed anyway.

The Great Depression had hit the US government's ability to collect money as much as the rest of the country, which reinforced Republicans feeling that the bonus payment was not a financially responsible decision at the time.

An Early Red Scare

At the time, Communism was controversial, but the extreme schism of the Cold War had not yet developed. Communism was growing in the United States, with party membership doubling between the start of the Great Depression and when the Bonus Army marched. General Douglas MacArthur and President Hoover believed that Communists were behind the Bonus Army, attempting to undermine the government. MacArthur's intelligence operatives told him that less than 10% of the leadership were Communists, and even a smaller percentage of the marchers as a whole. Despite the evidence, MacArthur continued to suggest the march was part of a Communist conspiracy.

A Black and white photograph of a conflict between the Bonus Army and Police StudySmarterThe Bonus Army Fighting Police/Wikimedia Commons

Forcing out the Bonus Army

Between their refusal to leave Washington, DC and the government's refusal to give them what they wanted; the Bonus Army situation had to eventually come to a head. The end was tragic. Those who had sacrificed for their country found themselves and their families brutalized. By the end, several were dead, and many were hospitalized.

July 28 Riot

On July 28, 1932, Attorney General William Mitchell gave the order for DC police to remove protestors. Their focus was on about 50 people who had occupied Pennsylvania Avenue buildings. The removal did not go peacefully. In the ensuing riot, police killed two of the protestors.

Army vs Army

President Hoover instructed General Douglas MacArthur to restore order and push protestors back across the Anacostia River. Soldiers, tanks, and tear gas forced the Bonus Army across the bridge. MacArthur did not stop there though. Against the orders of President Hoover and the advice of his aide, Dwight Eisenhower, MacArthur pursued the Bonus Army across the bridge and burned the camp on the far side of the river.

A pitiful spectacle2

A black and white photograph of Bonus Army camp burning StudySmarterBonus Army Camp Burns/Wikimedia Commons

Significance and Reaction to the Bonus Army

Although MacArthur had achieved a military victory against the unarmed and destitute men, women, and children who had made up the protests, the action was still seen as a leadership failure. Even some of the most Republican-leaning newspapers editorialized their horror at the events. The soldiers who cleared the camps later expressed shame and grief over their involvement.

Election Year Tragedy

Politically, the very public tragedy of US soldiers attacking veterans with tanks and bayonets could not have come at a worse possible time for Hoover. The election was only months away and Hoover's policies were already viewed as callous and unhelpful by exploding population of unemployed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised a radically different response to the Great Depression. The conservative view of Hoover had been successful in the plenty of the roaring 20s but the attack on the Bonus Army provided a visual to go with how many Americans were feeling treated by Hoover's policies. Roosevelt defeated Hoover to usher in a dramatically different response to the nation's economic problems.

Bonus Army - Key takeaways

  • Veterans were a group who were particularly vulnerable to unemployment
  • Congress passed a bonus for WWI soldiers in 1924, but delayed payment until 1945
  • Veterans seeking relief from the economic conditions of the Great Depression formed the Bonus Expeditionary Force to demand immediate payment of their bonus
  • A bill to provide immediate payment did pass the House but failed in the Senate and was opposed by the President
  • The Bonus Army were forced out of Washington, DC and had their shacks burned by a US Army force under the command of General Douglas MacArthur
  • The scenes of tanks, bayonets, and tear gas being used against US citizens were extremely unpopular and further helped Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeat Herbert Hoover in the 1932 election
1Calvin Coolidge. Message To The House Of Representatives Returning Without Approval Of A Bill Providing For Adjusted Compensation For War Veterans.

2United Press. Indianapolis Times, Volume 44, Number 68,Indianapolis, 29 July 1932.


Frequently Asked Questions about Bonus Army

The Bonus Army was a group of WWI veterans that marched to Washington, DC, seeking immediate paymant of a bonus due for their service.

The Bonus Army wanted immediate payment on a bonus they were owed for their WWI service.

The goal of the Bonus Army was to recieve  immediate payment on a bonus they were owed for their WWI service.

The Bonus Army marched to Washington, DC

The Adjusted Compensation Payment Act finally paid a bonus to the WWI soldiers in 1936.

Final Bonus Army Quiz

Question

Who led the Bonus Army?

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Answer

Walter W Walters

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Question

Most of the Bonus Army consisted of Communists 

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Answer

False

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Question

The Bonus Army was supported by Herbert Hoover 


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Answer

False

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Question

Who ordered the Bonus Army camp to be burned?

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Answer

Douglas MacArthur

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Question

How did the public react to the burning of the Bonus Army camp?


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Answer

They were outraged

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Question

What did the Bonus Army want?

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Answer

The Bonus Army wanted the immediate payment of a bonus owed for their service in WWI.

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Question

What happened when police tried to remove Bonius Army protestors?

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Answer

A riot broke out and two protestors were killed 

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Question

How did his handling of the Bonus Army situation impact Herbert Hoover's political career?


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Answer

He was not reelected 

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Question

What happened when Senate would not approve immediate payment for the Bonus Army?

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Answer

They stayed in Washington, DC peacefully

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Question

Why did the Bonus Army need the bonus to be paid early?

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Answer

They were suffering unemployment and other effects of the Great Depression.

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