As humans evolve, there is the expectation that we will function on a higher plane with each cycle of evolution. Learning from past mistakes and failures, it is expected this new knowledge will assist future generations in better preparation. When the United States entered the first World War, we were not prepared to handle the needs of veterans upon their return. Since then, our country has continued to amass the greatest arsenal of weaponry on the planet, and no other country’s military rivals that of the United States.
But, what did we learn about the treatment of our veterans and their families once they returned home, and did we make equilateral adjustments in how our country treats those who go to war? Over the course of a four-part series, I will be discussing the treatment of veterans returning home from war, but I think its imperative for me to begin with the past. Have we made the same strides in making improvements or is history repeating itself?
When the Great Depression set in, millions of people found themselves without food, shelter, work, and little hope for a change in circumstances. This was particularly troubling for many of the four million veterans that recently returned home from the First World War. Many were frustrated that the men who stayed home during the war had gained better and more secure career opportunities, which they missed during the time they were gone, fighting in Europe.
Having lost out on these opportunities, hundreds of thousands of veterans were suffering from unemployment, homelessness, and sometimes even starvation. For most of these veterans, the potential of a Bonus check was their only chance of obtaining enough capital to pull themselves out of poverty and have a chance at a bright future.
The Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 put into law that veterans would be compensated, but not until they died or until 1945, whichever came first. Due to this stipulation, it became known as the Tombstone Bonus. During the peak of the Depression, the U.S. had millions of veterans that held certificates they were unable to cash in. Attempts to pass legislation to award veterans an early compensation occurred multiple times over the course of a decade, with no results. Veterans around the country were rife with frustration and desperation, which culminated in the formation of the Bonus Army.
A veteran of World War I from Portland, Oregon, by the name of Walter Waters, managed to rally a few hundred veterans to march on D.C. and demand action. The veterans of this collective effort called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.). As they traveled across the country via train, veterans all along the way joined them. News media from around the country were covering the B.E.F. and the U.S. government began making secret preparations to deal with a possible threat of civil unrest. As the B.E.F. arrived in the U.S. capital in the summer of 1932, they numbered in estimates between 25,000- 45,000 veterans and family members.
The B.E.F. quickly established camps to shelter the veterans and their families as well as organized many community mechanisms to keep it running smoothly such as lobbyists flooding the capitol buildings daily, camp enforcement to weed out Communist agents and covert U.S. military intelligence officers, libraries by the Salvation Army, entertainment, and other necessities. The main camp was at Anacostia Flats, which has been noted for pioneering integration and unification of multiple races in a time when racial segregation was still the norm.
Groups of veterans in these camps were not formed by race, but rather upon which states they traveled from, so it was common for groups to be multi-racial. As James O. Horton notes in the PBS Home Video, The March of The Bonus Army, “Military experience has the potential for transcending things like race… and for black veterans to be in company with white veterans was a revolutionary thing”.
Roy Wilkins, an African American writer associated with the NAACP, visited Anacostia Flats and observed, “Men and women can live, eat, play and work together be they black or white, just as the B.E.F. demonstrated. Countless thousands of people know it, but they go on pretending, building their paper fences and their cardboard arguments”. Ahead of their time, the B.E.F. was unwittingly empowering the civil rights movement. To this diverse group of veterans at the height of the Depression however, the main concern was their own livelihoods.
Within two weeks of occupying the capitol, the House managed to pass a Bonus Bill, which went on to be defeated in the Senate. Distraught Waters, Commander of the B.E.F., tried to encourage the veterans to stay in D.C. until democracy worked for them. As the days passed, the U.S. government became increasingly worried and agitated with the B.E.F. presence. President Hoover grew weary and considered having the federal government step in to evict the veterans from their encampments.
Soon, at the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur along with two other notable officers under his command, Major Dwight Eisenhower and George S. Patton, the U.S. military moved in to disperse the veterans. Armed with tanks, tear gas, cavalry, machine guns, and several companies of infantry, the U.S. military cleared the veterans out of their camps and set their shanty buildings on fire. At the end of the day, “two veterans had been shot to death, an eleven-week old baby had died, an eight year old boy was partially blinded by gas, two police had fractured skulls, and a thousand veterans were injured by gas”. The physical presence of the Bonus Expeditionary Force was removed from Washington, but their legacy would live on.
Three years later, on November 10th, 1935, officers of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion made a pact to continue fighting for an early Bonus and they quickly brought the Disabled American Veterans into the coalition. This was the first time since the war that all three groups would work together to effect legislature and by the end of January, 1936, after congress over-rode Roosevelt’s veto, a Bonus Bill was finally passed.
Between the eviction of the B.E.F. in 1932 and the passage of the Bonus Bill in 1936, a very sobering event occurred, which may have influenced congress changing their views toward veterans and the Bonus. Many Bonus March veterans were shipped to Federal Emergency Relief Administration camps in the Florida Keys to build a bridge that connected the Keys. They were caught in one of the worst hurricanes on record in 1935 that killed many of them. As the government tried to cover up the event, Ernest Hemmingway, a veteran himself, traveled to the Keys and wrote some scathing words that blamed the government for the deaths of these veterans, claiming they were sent to Florida to keep them out of Washington.
With this hurricane event on the minds of members of congress, the attitude toward awarding a Bonus early was finally accepted by the majority. The legacy of the B.E.F. continued on to 1944 as well, when Roosevelt signed into law the GI Bill of Rights, which paid college tuition for millions of veterans around the country and is believed by many to be a huge contributing factor to the economic boom of the second half of the 20th century. Not only did the GI Bill pay for tuition, it helped finance 11 million of the 13 million homes that were built in the 1950’s. What is now known as “the Greatest Generation” is a direct result of the efforts of the veterans of the B.E.F. and their legendary Bonus March.
As we can see, the Bonus Expeditionary Force moved mountains in creating policy that serves military veterans, the economic development of our country, and was even ahead of its time in relation to social rights issues and race tensions. In my next article, I will analyze the struggles and achievements of the B.E.F. in the context of key tensions and future implications in modern-day society.
Daniels, R. (1971). The bonus march: an episode of the great depression. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood.
Dickson, P. & Allen T. B. (2004). The bonus army: an American epic. New York, NY: Walker.
Public Broadcasting Service. (2006). PBS Home Video. The march of the bonus army. Washington D.C.: New Voyage.
Schram, M. (2008). Vets under siege: how America deceives and dishonors those who fight our battles. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Waters, W.W. & White, W.C. (1933). B.E.F.: the whole story of the bonus army. Mass violence in America. (1969). New York, NY: Arno Press & The New York Times.
Zinn, H. (1999). A people’s history of the United States. New York, NY: HarperCollins.