The Bonus Army and the fate of the GI Bill

The Bonus Army and the fate of the GI Bill

Douglass MacArthur already had a history of disobeying the president long before Truman removed the general from command during the Korean War. Like so many – if not all – developments in American history, it was from an act of civil protest that progress we now accept with pride stemmed. Though indirectly, MacArthur’s first act of insubordination led to the creation of the GI Bill, seventy years ago today!

Veteran organizations and politics

The GAR remained a reliable political force into the 20th century.

The GAR remained a reliable political force into the 20th century.

From the Revolutionary War on, veterans have banded together as a political constituency in order to secure what they believed to be just compensation for their service. It was the American Civil War, however, when veterans truly harnessed the power of their numbers to drive national policy. But it was in the third year of the Great Depression when, in 1932, thousands of unemployed veterans felt compelled to confront a government seemingly unable and unwilling to recognize their dire straits. These veterans had good reason for hope that their political clout could be used, as it had for nearly seventy years, to compel the government to act. Following the American Civil War, the Grand Army of the Republic, (GAR), comprised of former Union soldiers, became in effect the Republican Party’s lobby organization, securing the White House for that party all but one of its post-Civil War occupants through the Taft presidency. Not surprisingly, Union veteran pensions became, at one point, half of the nation’s annual expenditures. Protests against such government largess were famously countered by what became known as bloody shirt politics, the figurative and perhaps literal waving of a soldier’s blood-soaked shirt in order to harness emotional support for some veteran issue.

Even in death, GAR members make their presence known in cemeteries.

Even in death, GAR members make their presence known in cemeteries.

The former confederate states also had their veteran advocates. Though not as successful in securing federal benefits for its veterans, these organizations, which included public so-called rifle clubs and the Red Shirts as well as the secret Ku Klux Klan, succeeded in ending Reconstruction, using their political power to effect a resolution to the controversy stemming from the 1876 presidential election. The brief Spanish-American War also produced a cohort of war veterans who formed what later became the Veterans of Foreign Wars, VFW. All of these groups provided the groundwork for the American Legion’s founding as a strong political voice for the country’s returned doughboys. Given the history of political action on the part of veterans groups, the American Legion as well as the VFW soon pressed Congress for what was to become the World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924, popularly known as the Bonus Bill.

The Bonus Bill

It’s highly likely that something like the GI Bill would have passed, and passed in the national election year of 1944 had their not been the Bonus Army. It’s also likely that had the assembly of unemployed veterans not redressed their government during the presidential election year of 1932, its memory might not have weighed so heavily on congressional members’ minds. Founded in 1919 by former the former president’s son and WWI veteran Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the American Legion quickly became the nation’s newest and most active veteran lobby organization. One of their first political goals was passage of a compensation act for the benefit of the more than four and a half million returning war veterans. After several legislative attempts defeated by fiscal conservatives and President Harding, Congress passed, over President Coolidge’s veto, the World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924. The measure provided mostly deferred payment amounts based upon several criteria such as length of service and time overseas. Eligible vets received a certificate for the amount that could be redeemed after twenty years, in 1945. When the Great Depression idled tens of millions of Americans, including a great many young World War veterans, anxious months turned into years with little relief from the federal government save the promise of prosperity being just around the corner. In 1932, with little to lose, homeless veterans and their families answered a call to march on Washington and petition the government for which they served in wartime to provide immediate relief.

Recalling the Bonus Army

Former Sgt. Walter Waters led the Bonus Expeditionary Force.

Former Sgt. Walter Waters led the Bonus Expeditionary Force.

Walter Waters was an unemployed veteran of the world war when in the spring of 1932 he challenged a group of fellow vets to follow him to Washington, D.C. in order to support a recent proposal to pay the war veterans their bonus then rather than in 1945. No one followed him That would soon change, though. Newspapers soon began reporting on the former Sergeant Waters’ crusade, which began to draw a small following of other veterans who hopped freight trains on their mission to Washington. As word spread, more and more veterans began to ride the rails to the nation’s capital, helped along by sympathetic railroad workers, many of whom were also vets. A Texas congressman, Wright Patman, himself a war vet, had proposed a bill that year to immediately pay the bonus, providing relief to the unemployed soldiers, sailors and marines and provide in influx of cash into a starving economy. Earlier in 1932 Patman called for the impeachment of Andrew Mellon, the Secretary of Treasury for all three Republican presidents during the 1920s and arch foe of government intervention on behalf of the unemployed. Patman’s populist appeal gave unemployed servicemen a glimmer of hope that, finally, someone in government was willing to fight for them.

Veterans hopped freight trains to join the BEF.

Veterans hopped freight trains to join the BEF.

Borrowing from the American Expeditionary Force, AEF, the name of American forces deployed to the war in Europe, the gathering band of veterans heading to Washington called their force the Bonus Expeditionary Force, or BEF. Newspapers gave them their more commonly know name. The Bonus Army, as the press dubbed the veterans, almost didn’t reach Washington when railroad police prevented the soldiers from boarding eastbound trains at St. Louis. A serious confrontation was averted when the marchers were trucked from St. Louis to the Indiana state line, via the Illinois National Guard. According to an account in the Smithsonian Magazine, the governors of Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland provided trucks to transport the veterans to their objective destination. At each stop along the way, the ranks swelled with more and more unemployed servicemen and their families.

While the nation's capital remained racially segregated, the BEF was said to include everyone but Jim Crow.

While the nation’s capital remained racially segregated, the BEF was said to include everyone but Jim Crow.

As a testimony to the solidarity felt among BEF members, African-Americans war veterans would live alongside white soldiers and sailors even in the nation’s capital, which was still segregated. The NAACP took note of this remarkable circumstance in articles published in it’s publication, The Crisis, during the Bonus Army’s encampment.

A sympathetic police chief shines

D.C. Police Chief Pelham Glassford was a hands-on leader whose initiative led to weeks of peaceful cooperation with the BEF.

D.C. Police Chief Pelham Glassford was a hands-on leader whose initiative led to weeks of peaceful cooperation with the BEF.

In the decade and a half since America’s entry in the World War, returning veterans had begun to fill key positions of authority across the country. Pelham Glassford was one such veteran who had risen to Chief of Police for Washington, D.C. Upon learning of the magnitude of the approaching Bonus Army’s numbers, Glassford initiated a pragmatic, humane and diplomatic response to the problems that would be posed by such numbers of poor Americans arriving in Washington. In a flurry of organizational initiatives, Glassford designated a large, relatively unoccupied area away from downtown known as Anacostia Flats in the city’s northeast region, A wooden drawbridge across the Anacostia River provided both access for supplies and a control point from which the incoming men and their families would have to cross in order to reach the Capitol Building. Pelham reached out to the city’s wealthy to provide food, coffee and such items as cigarettes to the arriving veterans. The police chief also contributed over seven hundred dollars of his own money to help feed new arrivals. In doing so, Pelham was able to establish a spirit of cooperation that led to overall order and discipline in the camps that housed the BEF. President Hoover also recognized the need to provide for immediate needs, such as sanitation, housing and food. The President authorized military supplies in the form of tents, water supplies, camp stoves and latrines to be provided for the thousands of homeless who had come to petition their government for relief.

Homeless, unemployed World War veterans were joined by their families at Anacostia Flats.

Homeless, unemployed World War veterans were joined by their families at Anacostia Flats.

Waters took command of the BEF’s housing, calling for military-style discipline, sobriety and an emphatic warning that no radical talk would be tolerated. By radical talk, he meant no communist influence.

Red Scare resurgence

Anxiety and vulnerability were not emotions only of the poor and unemployed in those darkest days of the Great Depression. The wealthy and politically powerful feared the specter of communism like those of the Bonus Army feared starvation. While those unemployed veterans who came to Washington still believing their government capable and perhaps even willing to help their plight, many in Washington displayed much less confidence in the government’s ability to protect their interests. The Bonus Expeditionary Force’s exercise of the constitutional right to peacefully redress their government was seen by many conservatives as a threat to both order and control and a pathway to communism, this despite the overt orders from the BEF leadership that no communist influence would be tolerated.

A win and a loss in Congress

During the summer while the House of Representatives debated the Wright Patman measure, the ranks of the Bonus Army swelled to an estimated high of 42,000, including 27.000 homeless, unemployed veterans, the rest being family members and other unemployed citizens. To accommodate the number, authorities allowed the temporary occupation of condemned government building on Pennsylvania Avenue, within sight of the Capitol. During the day, the men of the BEF would gather on steps of the Capitol or conduct marches in Washington, hoping their voices would be heard in the halls of Congress. Around Washington, the residents were generally sympathetic to the soldiers. Donations of food flowed freely from the homes of many of Washington’s elite as well as from common households. The Hearst press, which had been among the first to pick up on the story of the Bonus Army’s journey across America, thus adding to its size and prestige, was an avowed partisan in support of the Patman bill and the efforts of the BEF. Retired Marine Corps General Smedley D. Butler, a two-time Medal of Honor recipient universally known throughout the country, visited the BEF camps regularly, offering his voice in support of their cause and raising morale among the fellow veterans and their families. On June 15, the House of Representatives, over the objections of President Hoover’s supporters who were adamantly against the deficit spending that passage of a bonus payment bill would create, passed the Patman bill. It was then up to the Senate to consider the measure.

8 thousand BEF members await news of the Senate's vote on the bonus pay bill.

8 thousand BEF members await news of the Senate’s vote on the bonus pay bill.

Two days later, after a day of debates over the bill and with 8,000 Bonus Army member gathered on the Capital steps, the vote was called mid-evening. By a tally of 62-18, the bill was defeated. The BEF men, their hopes seemingly crushed, were led in song as they trudged back across the wooden bridge to their camps.

Countdown to betrayal

Dejection turned to angry resolve for the 20,000 BEF veterans and family members who remained in Washington after the Senate defeat. Congress would remain in session for another full month and the veterans demanded the bill be reconsidered despite the telling defeat in the Senate. The only relief that came from Congress was an allocation of money to transport back home the remaining protesters. The money was then to be deducted from the veteran’s bonus. Adding to the mix of controversy was the patently fictitious claim by American communists that their party had organized the bonus protest, a charge fervently denied by BEF leader Waters. However, J. Edgar Hoover, the young chief of the Bureau of Investigation, began an investigation based on belief that the charges of a communist were true. Tensions mounted as July 14th approached, the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Though that date came and went without serious incident, Washington leaders feared violence once Congress adjourned on July 17. A deadline of July 22 was given for those BEF members billeted in the condemned buildings around Pennsylvania Avenue to vacate the properties and move across the Anacostia River. Chief Glassford negotiated an extension of the ultimatum deadline to July 28 upon assurances by Waters and others that the veterans would relocate away from downtown Washington.across the wooden bridge.

The Army turns on the protesters

Army Chief of Staff General Douglass MacArthur disobeyed direct presidential orders against attacking the main BEF camp.

Army Chief of Staff General Douglass MacArthur disobeyed direct presidential orders against attacking the main BEF camp. Standing next to MacArthur is Major Dwight D. Eisenhower.

On the morning of the 28th, Police Chief Glassford and about two hundred officers arrived to escort any remaining occupants of the government buildings. Some left voluntarily, while others had to b physically removed. When the work was nearly finished, a large group of angry BEF men crossed from the Anacostia Flats camps and confronted the police. Bricks were thrown and one police officer shot and killed two of the protesters. With this, federal authorities called out local Army units to restore order and drive any BEF members back across the river to the Anacostia camps. Against the advice of subordinates, including Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Army Chief of Staff Douglass MacArthur personally led the military units which included tanks, cavalry and infantry. Second in command of the cavalry was another major, George S. Patton, Jr. MacArthur’s orders specifically prohibited his troops to pursue the BEF men across the Anacostia River. When the men of the BEF first saw the approaching line of soldiers and cavalry marching towards them, they presumed the fellow soldiers were honoring them. Those assumptions were quickly proved wrong when the troops fixed bayonets and the cavalrymen drew their sabers. The homeless veterans were forcefully driven  into a route and by evening, the last of the BEF protesters who’d confronted the police were across the river.

Against the backdrop of the Washington Monument, flames consume the BEF camp and its former occupant's belongings.

Against the backdrop of the Washington Monument, flames consume the BEF camp and its former occupant’s belongings.

Despite two additional, direct orders issued by President Hoover to General MacArthur barring him from crossing the wooden drawbridge, the Chief of Staff disregarded the explicit instructions and led his forces over the river into the BEF camps. By late night, the troops under MacArthur’s command had razed the shelters and driven the veterans, their wives and their children from Anacostia Flats to the Maryland state line.

Hoover’s loss

FDR signs into the the GI Bill of Rights, June 22, 1944.

FDR signs into the the GI Bill of Rights, June 22, 1944.

The Bonus Expeditionary Force had come to be seen as yet one more example of President Hoover’s inability to control the circumstances facing the nation he was elected to lead. To have disciplined MacArthur for his overt insubordination would have only underscored the president’s perceived impotence. Hoover accepted full responsibility for the treatment of the BEF and for the razing of their meager shelters. In Albany, the Governor of New York and challenger for president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, correctly predicted that the attack on the Bonus Army would defeat Hoover. Roosevelt had not supported the Patman bill, and would in fact veto a near identical bill in 1936, fearing the cost of paying the bonus would cut funding for other relief measures of the New Deal. That veto was overridden when even supporters of the president like Harry Truman, himself a World War I veteran, broke with FDR to pay the bonus.

The GI Bill of Rights

When Congress passed what was officially known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, memories of the Bonus Army were still very much alive. When President Roosevelt enthusiastically signed into law what was popularly called the GI Bill of Rights  six days after the invasion of Normandy, D-Day, his own lessons learned from the BEF chapter of American history were no doubt in play. As we know, FDR went on to win an unprecedented fourth term five months later. Since that day, millions of veterans helped create what we know as the middle-class, democratizing higher education and driving home-ownership levels to new records. Similar veteran assistance bills have since replaced the original GI Bill and veteran issues continue to define presidential administrations to a large degree. It’s reasonable to say that, as long a veterans remain an active voting constituency, government benefits will continue to be popular. It’s also reasonable to say that as long as veterans, the voting public and politicians remember the legacy of the Bonus Army, opposition to such benefits will continue to charge high political costs. [contact-form-7 id=”1299″ title=”Contact form 1″]

About Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas is a former active duty Marine, now a veteran teacher working in the Indianapolis, Indiana area. A professional writer in both print journalism and digital content writing, Mark combines his love of teaching history with his passion for the written word. His personal blog, History as Prologue,, reflects his deep interest and knowledge of how the past influences the present. Mark can be contacted at

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