In late June, 1932, a few hundred unemployed World War I veterans boarded freight trains in Portland, Oregon. Out of work and overwhelmed by the Depression, they had decided to go to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress for early payment of a soldier’s bonus that was scheduled to be paid in 1945. Along the way the “Bonus March” picked up recruits and arrived in Washington numbering between 8,000 and 25,000 men. Accounts of the number of participants varied, but because some of the men were accompanied by their wives and children, the entire “Bonus Army” may have numbered as many as 60,000.
It was rumored that some the marchers were not veterans, but were actually Communists or criminals bent on causing a confrontation. President Hoover believed that most of the marchers were honest veterans, and should be allowed to assemble, as long as they did so peacefully. Upon arrival, some of the bonus marchers constructed campsites on Anacostia Flats, at the edge of Washington D.C. Others occupied abandoned buildings in the city. The President quietly ordered the police and National Guard to distribute Army rations, tents, cots and medical supplies to the Bonus Army.
Congress had previously rejected proposals for early payment of the bonus, and the President recommended that they again decline any early payments. Veterans’ benefits already comprised 25% of the 1932 federal budget, and to pay the bonus would have cost billions of dollars that the government didn’t have. In July, the Senate rejected the bonus bill 62 to 18. Many of the bonus seekers went home, aided by interest-free loans charged against their bonus certificates to pay the train fare. A few thousand remained behind, though again the reported numbers varied.
On the morning of July 28, Treasury department officials attempted to evict about forty of the veterans who had been living in an abandoned building that was scheduled for demolition. When the veterans refused to leave, the police were called in. The Bonus Army began to gather in force, soon outnumbering the police. Some of the policemen panicked and opened fire. Two of the veterans were killed, and a riot broke out.
The District of Columbia Board of Commissioners quickly concluded that the police were overwhelmed, and asked President Hoover to send troops to help restore order. Hoover ordered the Secretary of War, Patrick Hurley, to cooperate with the police. Hurley ordered Douglas MacArthur, Army Chief of Staff, to “cooperate fully with the District of Columbia police force which is now in charge. Surround the affected area and clear it without delay. Turn over all prisoners to the civil authorities. In your orders insist that any women and children who may be in the affected area be accorded every consideration and kindness. Use all humanity consistent with the due execution of this order.”
MacArthur thought the riot might be the beginning of a Communist revolution, and he may have immediately made plans not only to quell the riot, but also to force the evacuation of the campsites on Anacostia Flats and expel the Bonus Army from the District. He later claimed that the Police Superintendent had verbally requested such action. MacArthur assembled a battalion of infantry, a squadron of cavalry and a platoon of tanks to deploy against the rioters. At 4:30 p.m., MacArthur’s forces began to advance slowly, ordering groups of rioters to disperse as they encountered them. Tear gas was used when groups refused to cooperate.
The soldiers arrived at Anacostia Flats a little after 9 p.m. Most of the protesters had fled the area. Soon the empty shacks and abandoned campsites were in flames. MacArthur claimed that he had specifically prohibited burning the camps, and that they had been set ablaze by the retreating rioters. He ordered his forces to demolish the remaining campsites in order to prevent the fire from spreading out of control, and to gather any remaining Army tents, cots, and supplies that had been given to the Bonus Army by the government. The next day, the troops rounded up stragglers and completed the destruction of the camps.
Initially, the press was fairly sympathetic with President Hoover and to some extent applauded MacArthur’s actions, based on the assumption that the rioting was the work of criminal elements, not honest veterans. Public reaction, however, was largely negative; most of the nation thought it was shameful to deploy tanks, tear gas and bayonets against unarmed veterans. In far off Albany, New York, Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt grasped the political implications instantly. He told a friend on hearing the news, “Well, this elects me.”