No, not in 2003. Not in 1971. In 1932.
The data caught up on me Friday, but May 29, 1932 was when the Bonus March arrived in Washington, D.C. — and laid the groundwork for how the U.S. currently pays veterans for their service in war.
These were veterans of the ‘Great War’,World War I: from our first really national army, two million strong. Many of these would push for justice, a stumbling, angry presence across class and race lines, even as the twenties were “roaring” around them.
And among them was Walter Waters, who would become the ‘commander’ of the BEF after losing his cannery job in 1929.By March 1932, he wrote years later, “we were not only penniless but had nothing left except a very scanty wardrobe.There were many days that winter when we experienced actual hunger.”
While job-hunting, Walters discovered many men like him – another ‘lost generation,’ rootless since the Armistice. “I found that a large percentage of these men in Portland were, like myself, ex-service men…Among these men there was profound discontent with conditions. There was a ravaging desire to change them but a complete and leaden ignorance of the way to do it….These men did think and talk a great deal about the so-called Bonus.”
Thus did Waters enter into another ongoing national debate: whether former soldiers deserved a permanent pension or a lump sum, known as “adjusted compensation” (usually expressed in its shorthand, “the bonus”). Veterans groups had long been split on the issue – the labor-oriented World War Veterans favored the bonus, while the anti-labor American Legion backed a proposal to pay it all out in government bonds. When the stock market crashed in 1929 the promise of those bonds seemed to evaporate, and with it the hopes of veterans who’d not been able to find their way.
Little of this veterans’ discontent traced back into opposition to war itself, especially as Adolf Hitler’s rise in Europe began to be notice. The Red Scare had dampened much of the progressive energy that had fueled much prewar resistance. But Waters was among those who didn’t let this one go, pulling together what became called the “Bonus Expeditionary Force.”
When thousands of veterans began to converge on Washington, D.C. in 1932, for a “bonus march,” their chant was more satiric than political, and set to the tune of the last decades’ greatest hit:
Over there, over there
Tell the world to beware
Cause the Yanks are starving, the Yanks are starving….
They marched in New Orleans, Montgomery, Poughkeepsie. Black and white veterans sometimes marched together. They marched in groups of ten, of thirty, of several hundred; it was a march against invisibility, and an ever-escalating demand for recognition, as much as for a permanent pension. By the eve of a May 29 vote on a comprehensive package of veterans assistance, there were 4,000 veterans out in front of the White House, with an additional 3,000 on the way.
Calling their fort “Camp Marks,” the group published several issues of the newspaper BEF News. The national organizing committee included the Workers Ex-Servicemen’s League, a Communist front group that carried on the tradition started at Fort Leavenworth nearly 20 years earlier.
After six months, the growing and ever-more-militant protest moved Hoover to order colonel Douglas MacArthur to move against the encampments in 1933, claiming that the encampments endangered public safety. MacArthur went further than his orders, chasing down veterans all over the capital and leaving scores injured, actions that may have helped doom the Hoover administration in the 1933 elections.
When the next wave of bonus marchers got to Washington the following year, the Roosevelt administration was working to implement its New Deal and reserving spots in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) for “Great War” veterans – thus treating them, as has been true ever since, like just another special-interest group. In turn, the veterans’ demands fueled the drive in Congress to provide some level of social insurance, to prevent war veterans from becoming a privileged class unto themselves.
Some of you may recognize the voice in the video, saluting the ragged vet troops: Maj. Gen, Smedley Butler, who went on to write War is a Racket. I’d originally conceived of this piece as drawing more explicit connections to contemporary vets’ issues, from the VA to “pension reform.” But for now, I’ll take my cue from Butler and just call this a salute: To those sweaty, determined men whose struggle changed our world forever, even if the most fundamental of their demands remains unmet.