Occupy 1932: The Bonus Army

The U.S. entered the war late, in April 1917, after the beginning of the Russian Revolution. Nonetheless, by the time the war had ended, nearly 5 million conscripts had served in the American Expeditionary Force. Of the 320,000 casualties, 116,000 were killed. The other 204,000 returned home wounded or maimed. Many were disabled without any prospect of ever finding work again. The “war to end all wars” had completely transformed the lives of an entire generation of American workers and prepared many of them for future battles—at home.

The soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force initially only received compensation of $60 from the federal government for pay they would have received had they not enlisted. This was viewed as a pittance by those who actually did the fighting in the trenches. A movement developed calling for an additional “adjusted compensation” to be paid—with President Hoover denouncing the veterans, declaring, “patriotism bought and paid for is not patriotism.”

However, in 1924, despite Hoover’s veto, Congress passed an act that was to pay each veteran $1.25 for every day served overseas, and $1.00 for every day served in military labor at home. All those owed less than $50 received their compensation immediately. Everyone else was expected to wait until 1945—a full 27 years after the war had ended—assuming they lived to see the day!

Although there was much dissatisfaction with this “Tombstone Bonus,” the relative economic stability of the “Roaring Twenties” blunted the veterans’ movement for a period. However, beginning with the stock market crash of October 1929, unemployment rose to unprecedented levels, throwing millions into poverty and homelessness. Many workers were forced to leave home in search of work by hopping freight trains.


In the first years of the Great Depression, workers found themselves on the defensive, doing all they could just to hold onto their jobs or find new ones. However, by 1932, the first rumblings of struggle had surfaced, beginning with the unemployed. A Catholic priest, Father James Renshaw Cox, led a march of 25,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians to Washington D.C., demanding the creation of a public works campaign to put the unemployed to work. The march was quite an embarrassment for Hoover, who was already becoming extremely unpopular, as “Hooverville” homeless and unemployed encampments sprung up around the country.

Interestingly, then-Secretary of the Treasury, and millionaire tycoon, Andrew Mellon, facilitated the march by ordering his gas stations to fill up the tanks of the marchers for free. Needless to say, he was fired from his position in the president’s administration. It is clear that he represented a more farsighted and clever layer of the capitalist class, which recognized the effects the depression would have on workers’ consciousness and the movements it would unleash if not checked. Does the name Warren Buffett ring a bell?

Interesting comparisons can be made between “Cox’s Army” and the march of Russian workers led by police agent Father Gapon to petition the “little father,” Tsar Nicholas II. When this march was met by vicious repression (known as Bloody Sunday), it sparked the 1905 Russian Revolution. Both movements started out merely wishing to petition their grievances. But such movements can take on a logic of their own, and the demands and outlook of the protesters can quickly change from reform to revolution. At the time, the march of Cox’s Army was the biggest in Washington, D.C.’s history, and it served to inspire others throughout the country.

In the spring of 1932, a bill mandating the immediate payment of the veterans’ bonuses was under consideration. Given the economic conditions, this was a catalyst for an upsurge in the veterans’ movement. Walter W. Waters, a retired army sergeant, organized 300 unemployed veterans to hop freight trains from Portland, Oregon to Washington, D.C.—calling themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Force.” Quickly, the news spread, and before Waters arrived in D.C., there were already other veterans there to greet him. At its height, the Bonus Army involved more than 43,000 veterans and their families.

In similar fashion to the recent massive protests in Madison, Wisconsin, veterans occupied the offices of representatives, and staged rallies outside of the capitol, demanding support for the Bonus Bill. On June 15, this bill passed the House of Representatives, the first victory for the Bonus Expeditionary Force.

The Bonus Army’s numbers had swelled well above 20,000 at this point, and the Bonus Bill had yet to be approved by the Senate. In modern day Anacostia Park the veterans built a “Hooverville”—laying out streets, building makeshift shacks, kitchens, music halls, and even a library. Walter Waters declared, “We’re here for the duration and we’re not going to starve.” The camp was visited by retired Major General Smedley Butler—an enigmatic character in U.S. history—who spoke in favor of the struggle of the Bonus Army.

At the time of World War I, as the military was segregated and black soldiers were barred from combat under the American flag, many ended up fighting in battalions under French command. However, the Bonus Army organized “units” composed of veterans from their respective states, regardless of race. There was absolutely no segregation of any kind to be found in the Bonus Army. This development was very alarming to the military high command and the big business politicians that kept the working class divided through the criminal Jim Crow laws.

On June 17, the Bonus Army picketed the capitol when the Senate was scheduled to vote on the Bonus Bill. Despite the shouts from outside of “the Yanks are starving!” the bill was overwhelmingly defeated. Walter Waters advised the picketers to leave the Capitol Building peacefully, but also added that he intended to maintain the Bonus Army in Washington.

11,700, with no homes to return to, stayed in Washington. Many of them moved into a number of half-demolished buildings that lined Pennsylvania Avenue—much closer than the Anacostia flats for their frequent rallies at Congress. On July 28, the police were ordered to evict the veterans. In the midst of a standoff, the police shot and killed two of the Bonus Marchers. Using this as a pretext, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur, with his chief military aide, Dwight D. Eisenhower, ordered in the army. Over 200 cavalrymen led by Major George S. Patton—who ordered sabers to be drawn—400 infantrymen with gas masks, tanks, and other armored trucks were sent to drive out the Bonus Army. Without warning, gas grenades were thrown at the veterans on Pennsylvania Avenue and the infantry advanced with bayonets. They drove the Bonus Marchers across the river to their main camp, which was torched to the ground throughout the night by MacArthur’s troops.

Hoover went so far as to declare the Bonus Army a communistic revolution. The vicious repression and Hoover’s comments were met with outrage throughout the country, driving down President Hoover’s popular support, which led to the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in 1932.

The very first thing “the friend of labor” Roosevelt did as president was pass the Economy Act, which cut the salaries of federal workers and the benefits of veterans. The Act also formed the Civilian Conservation Corps, which created a series of public works projects in some of the most inhospitable areas of the country. While the CCC did build some of the national infrastructure we enjoy to this day, it was a way of atomizing and dispersing the unemployed, drawing them out of the cities and into the remote countryside where they would cause less trouble.

With nowhere else to go, many veterans went to CCC work camps in the Florida Keys, where hundreds were killed by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, one of the strongest in U.S. history. The government attempted a media cover-up, but Ernest Hemingway, one of those on the rescue boats, publicly described the veterans’ deaths as murder—yet another shift in popular support in favor of the veterans’ bonus. In 1936, the bonus bill was once again on the table and finally passed, despite President Roosevelt’s veto.

The movement of the Bonus Army preceded the huge strike movements which began in 1933. By the end of 1934, there had been city-wide general strikes in Toledo, San Francisco, and Minneapolis. The struggle of the veterans for compensation came to represent something more than just a struggle for a bonus for past military service—it reflected the sense of injustice felt by workers throughout the U.S.
It was the capitalist system itself that taught American workers that something needed to change. However, without revolutionary leadership, the developing consciousness of the working class was cut across by the entrance of the U.S. into World War II, in which millions more workers were needlessly slaughtered.

History often has a tendency to repeat itself on a higher level. The Occupy movement, starting with just a few dozen protesters, caught the attention of millions across the U.S. The repression Occupy has faced has made many rethink the role of the police in society. Experience itself is teaching a whole new layer of workers and youth valuable lessons. With marches and protests—many led by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—the political dialogue has completely changed. It is necessary now to speak of a “before Occupy” and an “after Occupy.”

The continuing attacks of big business and their program of austerity is preparing a social explosion—right here in the belly of the beast. The Communist Manifesto explains that what capitalism produces above all are its own grave diggers: an ever-larger, stronger, and organized working class. Sooner than most people might think, on the basis of their own experience, the American workers will be in a position to relegate capitalism and all its ills to the graveyard of history. Imperialist wars and unemployment would be made a thing of a distant past. But this must be done consciously and with a leadership prepared in advance. All history shows that such a leadership cannot be improvised on the fly. Revolutionary “windows of opportunity” are too few and far between to be left to chance. Join us in preparing that leadership!

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