Veteran’s Day in Washington, DC is always a big deal, but this year we had a massive concert sponsored by three emblems of American exceptionalism: a premium cable network, a coffee conglomerate, and a bank too big to fail. The preparations were grand and long-tailed to the extent that one might easily have ignored them on one’s drive to work for days on end until the actual day, which one might completely have forgotten about until discovering all routes to the office were inaccessible and one might have had to give up after 45 minutes of cranky-making detours and work from one’s home instead.
One might have done that, but one would never admit it.
I am 100% in favor of Veteran’s Day, make no mistake. The men and women who served our country — whether recently-freed, foreign-born, or LGBT; conscripted or volunteer — deserve at least one day of national recognition. No question. But I find it particularly creepy of Washington to throw such a big party one day, and effectively ignore veterans the other 364 days of the year, year after year after year.
Ever since the Revolutionary War, we have reneged on promises and obligations to our veterans with an appalling consistency. The rates of suicide, homelessness, and joblessness for our most recent veterans are horrifying and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs — the federal government’s agency for helping them — has had a long and depressing history of scandal and difficulty. Thankfully, among the rights our veterans fight to protect (the very First, in fact) are the rights to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, which groups are wont to do in the Nation’s Capital.
And for someone like me, who has an unnatural fondness for old movies and a deep interest in all things World War One, it is impossible to walk around the National Mall or the Capitol without thinking of the tens of thousands who protested there in the spring and summer of 1932 as part of the so-called “Bonus Army.”
It had long been a practice for demobilized soldiers to receive compensation above their military pay for differences in what they would have earned in private life had they not joined up. A bill to give such a “bonus” to First World War veterans was passed by Congress in 1924, vetoed by Calvin Coolidge, then enacted by override. Because there were millions of people eligible for this bonus, it was decided to issue “Certificates of Service” to qualified personnel that would mature in 20 years, financed by a trust fund established for that purpose. A certificate holder was allowed to borrow up to 22.5% of its face value, an amount that increased to 50% as the Great Depression worsened.
In 1932, the House introduced a bill that moved to pay out the bonuses early. This bill was opposed by President Hoover and Republicans in Congress on the grounds that taxes would have to be raised to meet the expense, and that just wouldn’t do. As the vote drew near, groups of veterans and their families from all over the country organized to march on Washington to show support for the bill, calling themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.),” known popularly as the “Bonus Army.”
For eight weeks over the spring and summer of 1932, thousands of the B.E.F. camped out all over Washington to await the results of the vote. Knowing even more protesters were going to descend on the city and afraid of insurrection (seriously), local police and the military were mobilized and armed with tanks, machine guns, and tear gas in case things got rough.
After the House passed the Bonus Bill, the ranks of the Bonus Army swelled to about 43,000 and crowds gathered at the Capitol to await the results of the debate that raged in the Senate.
However, the Senate overwhelmingly defeated the bill by a vote of 62-18 and a stunned crowd, urged by organizer Sgt. Walter W. Waters, began to sing “America,” while dispersing peaceably to their encampments. Waters also urged the Bonus Army to stay in Washington, which was fine by them, since many of the veterans and their families were homeless and had nowhere else to go.
On July 16, 1932, behind the doors of a Capitol surrounded by angry protesters, the 72nd Congress adjourned, forcing frightened congressmen to leave by back doors and tunnels. Finally, President Hoover ordered the evacuation of the nearly 11,000 Bonus Army marchers camped in the city. By July 28, police began removing unresistant protesters from their makeshift structures and all was proceeding peacefully until someone threw a brick at a policeman and everything went to hell. Two veterans were shot and killed and a bunch more were wounded.
The military was called in, led by none other than General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur ordered the cavalry, the infantry, and a squadron of tanks under the command of then Major George S. Patton to descend on the marchers and clear them out. Armed with bayonets, sabers, and tear gas, the troops pushed the B.E.F. to their main camp across the bridge. President Hoover gave the order NOT to pursue the protesters, but MacArthur decided to ignore that “piece of paper,” and sent troops over the bridge to evict the Bonus Army and set fire to the encampment.
It was a pretty horrible spectacle that turned public sentiment against Herbert Hoover in a big way and helped sweep Franklin Delano Roosevelt into the White House. Not that Roosevelt was any great ally of the veterans when it came to the bonus either. Every year, they came to Washington, and every year they left empty handed. Eventually, FDR sent a bunch of them to “rehabilitation camps” in the Florida Keys, where a couple hundred of them were killed during a massive hurricane. Attitudes about paying the goddamned bonus finally turned in the veterans’ favor, and a new Bonus Bill was introduced, passed, vetoed by President Roosevelt, then enacted by override (again) in 1936.
But FDR came around during the Second World War, agreeing that the veterans of that and subsequent conflicts should be compensated for opportunities missed during their service to the country.
And that, kids, is how we got the G.I. Bill.
Remember My Forgotten Man (Gold Diggers of 1933)
How I learned about this in the first place: