Veterans and protesters are inextricably linked in our collective memories of the Vietnam War. We remember the infamous and possibly apocryphal clashes between returning soldiers and anti-war protesters, and the more definitive and just as controversial protests staged by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (and their most famous single member, John Kerry). In the years since, VVAW and other veterans groups have continued to serve such protest and activist roles, such as in opposition to subsequent divisive wars. But if our narratives of veteran protesters tend to focus on the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, soldiers’ protests actually have a much more longstanding history. Some of their most powerful examples were the World War I veterans who constituted the Bonus Army.
The Bonus Army, which was the popular shorthand by which the self-titled Bonus Expeditionary Force came to be known, was a gathering of more than forty thousand World War I veterans, family members, and friends that descended on Washington in the spring of 1932. The vets, who had not in many cases been adequately compensated during the war, had been awarded Service Certificates by the 1924 World War Adjusted Compensation Act; but those certificates would not be paid until 1945, and with the Depression in full swing and veterans hit particularly hard by unemployment and its attendant ills, the Bonus Army decided to push for immediate payments. Led by Walter Waters, an Oregonian around whom the first organized protesters clustered and who led the cross-country march to Washington, the Bonus Army set up a “Hooverville” camp in the city’s Anacostia Flats area in mid-June 1932.
Just days after the Bonus Army’s arrival, the Senate defeated a bill that would have awarded immediate payment of the certificates. But the Army remained encamped, and its leaders worked to create an impressively organized community. They arranged streets and sanitation, daily parades and visiting dignitaries, and requirements for inhabitants. For more than six weeks, the Bonus Army remained a prominent presence in the nation’s capital. It attracted continual national attention ranging from the fully supportive (retired Major General Smedley Butler’s enthusiastic endorsement) to the cautiously sympathetic (E.B. White’s New Yorker profile) to the thoroughly critical (the F.B.I. files on many of the protesters).
To say that this occupation of Washington ended badly is an understatement. In late July, the Hoover administration ordered the army (led in prominent roles by General Douglas MacArthur and his subordinates Major Dwight Eisenhower and Major George Patton) to remove the marchers. In the course of that removal the marchers (who included women and children in significant numbers) were driven out with bayonets and poison gas, and their makeshift camp was burned to the ground. It remains a subject of significant dispute whether these extreme responses were part of Hoover’s orders, ordered instead by MacArthur, or undertaken by soldiers more haphazardly; but in any case they demolished the president’s already crumbling national image. Hoover wasn’t likely to have won the 1932 presidential election in the best-case scenario, but these events, coming about three months before that election, likely cemented Franklin Roosevelt’s victory.
It was precisely this effect, the way in which such a literal and tragic defeat became a multi-part public relations and then very real victory, that made it a potent model for future protesters. Among Roosevelt’s earliest actions was an effort to reach out to the marchers, with Eleanor Roosevelt in particular working to get many of them enrolled in the Works Progress Administration. One of the marchers reflected: “Hoover sent the army; Roosevelt sent his wife.” When Roosevelt balked at actually changing the law to pay out the Service Certificates early, Congress stepped in. Congressmen overrode a presidential veto and paid the Certificates in full in 1936, nearly a decade before they would legally come due. And many contemporary observers and subsequent historians have credited the publicity surrounding the Bonus Army with contributing heavily to the creation of the GI Bill of Rights in 1944, an act that made immeasurably better the reentry into civilian life for veterans of World War II.
Veteran’s Day festivities often are divided into two distinct parades: the traditional parade and a separate follow-up known as the Veterans for Peace Parade. As the Bonus Army reminds us, veterans have long served America in both of these important and interconnected ways: in their military service, and in their efforts on behalf of a stronger and more perfect community at home.