The Bonus Army

images-2The U.S. army’s destruction of the Bonus Army encampment in Washington, D.C.

From my History in Politics series:

Needless to say, various commentators on today’s economic and financial climate in the United States, have seen parallels with the time of the Great Depression. Admittedly. that economic disaster triggered in 1929 by conditions over here similar to ours at the end of the George W. Bush Administration, hit Americans on a much bigger scale. Unemployment, for example, was 25 percent, not 9.1 percent, which is high enough certainly, given that one major political party, the Republicans, have dedicated themselves to keeping it at that level.

Recently, the amazing overnight growth of the OWS, [Occupy Wall Street] movement has brought to mind a similar activity in the early 1930’s, albeit in this case on a much smaller extent compared to the flood of occupiers worldwide at the present time. It then involved the “occupation” of only a single city, Washington D.C., by some 40,000 people, mostly comprised of military veterans of the First World War and their families. They are known to history as the Bonus Army, although in their own eyes they preferred the term Bonus Expeditionary Force, reflecting the name, the “American Expeditionary Force,” under which they were sent to Europe in 1917-1918.

Those veterans had been left bankrupted by the ravages of the Depression. Following an American military tradition that went back to the Revolution, they had been promised bonuses for their service after they had been demobilized. In the spring of1924, the U.S. Congress passed a bill entitled the World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 that granted more than three and a half million veterans certificates redeemable for cash – but not until 21 years later in 1945. On May 15, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge vetoed this measure, but Congress overrode him.

However, given the dire conditions in 1932, many of these veterans were so destitute they could not wait 13 years longer for an infusion of cash. They asked to redeem their certificates ahead of time. The Hoover Administration’s utter refusal to deal with them led to their organized “occupation” of the capital city.

Actually, they were confined out on a sort of wasteland within D.C. known as the “Anacostia Flats.” Coming from all over the country, they pitched their tents there and set up an orderly campsite that they policed themselves. They also ignored the conservative and right wing critics who called them “Communists and criminals.”

Name-calling, of course, has entered the reception tendered to the Occupy Wall Street groups from their opposite numbers, be they Tea Partyers or Republicans or Fat Cat rich in general. Communist doesn’t have quite the pejorative ring that did in its Marxist heyday, so the detractors of the 99% have taken to shouting “Get a job” to folks who have been looking for work in some case as long as three years running. Here, the kettle is really calling the pot black since by now it is obvious that there is a deliberately organized effort behind the scenes to prevent job creation by funneling more and more of the country’s wealth to the 1% that already has more of it than ever in the past.

Anyway, the Bonus Army, which in no way was composed of “Communists” and “criminals,” was eventually routed by the Hoover Administration, using the U.S. Military to dislodge them from Anacostia Flats. General Douglas MacArthur was in charge. He totally had swallowed the “Communist” charge and even though ordered by Hoover, himself, to tone down the violence, went right ahead with the brutal destruction of the encampment. General George Patton commanded the six armored tanks that formed the vanguard of the military’s assault. Dwight Eisenhower, who was an aide to MacArthur, expressed disgust at the Army’s action and has been quoted as saying: “I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch [MacArthur] not to go down there…I told him it was no place for the Chief of Staff.” Another military personage who involved himself in this drama was the retired Marine Corps’ General Smedley Butler, twice the winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, who had a much different take on what the veterans were doing. He visited their makeshift quarters while they were in Washington and declared his sympathy for their efforts.

A year later, Smedley Butler was found at the center of a bizarre conspiracy apparently orchestrated by “Wall Street” leaders. Despite the fact that Butler, a life-long Republican, had supported Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election, he was approached by representatives of a Wall Street clique and asked to head up a coup that would drive FDR from office, apropos of the type of event happening frequently in the “Banana Republicans” to the south of us.

This “White House Putsch” was apparently put together by Wall Street insider firms like Du Pont and J.P. Morgan. Irenee Du Pont, head of the Delaware company, was particularly cited; so was Grayson Murphy, a Director of Goodyear, Bethlehem Steel and a group of J.P. Morgan banks. Robert Sterling Clark, one of Wall Street’s richest bankers and stockbrokers, was said to be in on the deal; likewise John J. Raskob, a Republican, who paradoxically had become head of the Democratic Party in the 1920’s and was a former chairman of Du Pont. Even Al Smith, who lost the Democratic nomination for President to FDR in 1932, was named as supporting this takeover, which would usher in a Fascist government for the U.S.

During the summer of 1933, after Roosevelt’s whirlwind “First 100 Days,” General Butler was contacted by the conspirators.

Initially, he played along, wanting to learn more about the plot. What they wanted him to do, he found out, was lead an armed force of 500,000 veterans who would overwhelm the government and depose Roosevelt. Butler’s real feelings were later expressed in a quote attributed to him, telling off the Wall Street schemers: “If you get these 500,000 soldiers advocating anything smelling of Fascism, I am going to get 500,000 more and lick the hell out of you.”

In 1934, Butler became pro-active. He went to a new Congressional body called the “Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain other Propaganda Activities” and told them his story. This arm of Congress, referred to most often as the McCormack-Dickstein Committee [its co-chairs were Representatives John McCormack of Massachusetts and Samuel Dickstein of New York] listened to his evidence and eventually declared it to be true. However, the names of the Wall Street bigwigs were never made public and no action was ever taken against them. Disbanded soon afterward and re-constituted, the House Un-American Activities in time became notorious for its ferocious anti-Communism. Never again were Fascist-inclined groups ever investigated by them.

There has been some speculation that Wall Street right wing types and other contemporary “fat cats” currently may be contemplating just such a latter-day coup as was proposed in 1932. The oil baron Koch brothers, David and Charles, have been cited as potential masterminds. Today, they provide ample funding for conservative “think tanks,” like the Heritage Foundation, a group whose propaganda has been relentless and effective. Neither the Kochs, nor their counterparts more than four-score years ago, have shown any ardent belief in Democracy.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has a different focus from that of the early 1930’s Bonus March. Today’s protest is intent not on pressuring Congress to provide desperately needed promised money ahead of its intended if arbitrary date of 1945, but on publicizing the unequal distribution of American wealth. Despite the “negative gnattering” of the media, they do have an overall goal – and it is to inform Americans of lower financial means, why it is and how it is that they are becoming more and more impoverished.

It should never be forgotten that Herbert Hoover’s brutal handling of the Bonus Army helped lead to his ignominious defeat in the 1932 presidential election. The arch-conservatives in this century who have taken over the GOP will do well to ponder what this history has revealed to us.

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