The DC Insurrection of 1932

Given Santayana's warning to those who forget the past, there yet remains the problem of what to remember.  Events during the summer of 1932 have frequently been remembered to promote some political cause.  What follows is an outline of the incontrovertible facts that create their own perspective.

The context for these events begins with the demobilization of the WWI veterans and the problems of their re-integration into civilian society.  In 1924, Congress overrode the veto of President Coolidge to enact the World War Adjusted Compensation Act, which included an insurance policy that could be redeemed for cash in 1945.  President Coolidge had argued that existing programs were adequate to help the dependents of killed or disabled veterans and that the act would inevitably lead to a balloon payment in 1945, the effects of which could not be predicted in 1924.  When the Depression hit, demands grew to pay the veterans immediately.

In May of 1932, about 300 veterans, led by Walter W. Waters, entered the yard of the Union Pacific Railroad in Portland, Oregon; refused to leave until they were allowed to ride in empty boxcars; and started on their way to Washington, D.C. to "lobby" for the immediate payment of their "bonuses."  The news media began to follow their journey.  This attention prompted local authorities and veterans' groups to help with their transportation, and by the end of May, they were on the outskirts of Washington.  News coverage also inspired other veterans to join their march.  Waters estimated that over 20,000 veterans, some with their wives and children, appeared within the next two weeks.  Pelham Glassford, the district's chief of police, and President Hoover co-operated in accommodating the veterans by raising charitable contributions to set up their camps and kitchens.  The Veterans Administration, recently organized by President Hoover, set up a field hospital for this "Bonus Army."  Although some squatted in unoccupied buildings, the largest group lived on the Anacostia Flats in two camps.  A large camp formed on wetlands reclaimed by the Army Corps of Engineers as a public park and was called Camp Marks after the police officer who patrolled it.  A smaller one, Camp Bartlett, was on higher ground and named after the owner of the land who allowed the veterans to use it.  Anacostia Park now includes both sites.

In 1932, Leon Trotsky still had eight years to live.  The Workers' Ex-Servicemen League, a communist front, infiltrated the protesters, and the N.Y. Times (6/7/1932, p. 3) reported that the veterans purged those communists they could identify.  The communists set up a rival camp at 14th and D streets in southwest Washington.

Initially, fortune favored the veterans.  They organized a well-received parade and successfully lobbied the House to pass a bill for immediate payment of the bonus.  On June 17, 1932, about  8,000 members of the Bonus Army gathered outside the Capitol as the Senate debated.  The Capitol Police came armed with rifles.  When Waters told the veterans that the Senate had rejected the bill, they sang "America" and returned to their camps.  There was no violence.

 Congress authorized the V.A. to pay travel expenses and a daily subsistence to veterans who chose to go home, and thousands did.  But thousands also remained in camps scattered across Washington.  Waters said he would stay until 1945 if necessary.  On the morning of July 28, 1932, the Capitol Police, six days after giving notice, attempted to remove the veterans squatting in condemned buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue.  Some left quietly, but others hurled bricks and rocks, hitting Glassford in the chest.  In the ensuing violence, two veterans were killed, and several police officers were seriously injured.  By late afternoon, the Army, led by Gen. MacArthur and his aide Maj. Eisenhower, mobilized infantry and cavalry on the Ellipse; the latter unit, commanded by Maj. Patton, included five tanks.  As the Army rolled through the camps, some fleeing veterans set fires, and the troops completed the eradication as they went.  The Army crossed the Anacostia River around 9:00 P.M. to disperse the veterans and their families from Camp Marks;  Camp Bartlett, on private property, was untouched.  Many evacuees followed the government's plan and trekked to the Maryland line, where National Guard trucks carried them into Pennsylvania.

There were no serious injuries after the Army was called in.  Immediately after Camp Marks was cleared, MacArthur held a press conference.  The New York Times (7/29/1932, p.3) reported MacArthur's comments as follows: "At the first point of attack, on Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from the foot of the Capitol, the mob was a bad-looking one.  It was one marked by signs of revolution."  Later in the article, the veterans are referred to as "insurrectionists."

The aftermath generated many conflicting versions of events.  President Hoover said he had ordered MacArthur not to cross the bridge to the Anacostia Flats.  MacArthur denied receiving any such order.

Maj. Eisenhower defended MacArthur, but President Eisenhower repudiated him.  After the violence, Waters dissociated himself from any further protest and returned to Oregon.

But 1932 was an election year, and as the Washington Post wrote in 2017:

Newsreels showed the military with tanks, routing unarmed veterans.  To many, the action confirmed a view of Hoover as coldhearted and detached from reality.  Reading a New York Times account, Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt told his aide, future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, "Well, Felix, this will elect me."

Together with the Great Depression, it did. The new Congress eventually passed the bill to pay the veterans their bonuses forthwith, and  President Roosevelt vetoed it.  He reasoned that the bill was no longer needed because the recently created Civilian Conservation Corps would give jobs to all these veterans.  Congress overrode Roosevelt's veto, and by June 30, 1937, the V.A. had certified 3.5 million WWI veterans as eligible.

The most bizarre contribution to this saga came from Hollywood.  The genesis of Gabriel over the White House, loosely based on the Bonus Army, is amazing.  A novel by that name was written during the summer of 1932 by T.F. Tweed, a close adviser of the British politician David Lloyd George, prime minister during WWI.  The novel was published in February 1933 and immediately made into a movie through a production company within MGM by Willam Randolph Hearst with the intent of having its premiere coincide with Roosevelt's inauguration in March 1933.  Its message is simple: a president who loves the American people should be given complete control of the United States.  Hearst and George were old friends, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they collaborated for a political end; certainly, all Americans would feel that Roosevelt loved them, and the rest follows by syllogism.

The media remember the Bonus Army when they want Americans to associate a sitting president with President Hoover, whom they have placed as only slightly less vilified than Hitler.  Thus, the Washington Post wrote an article in 2017 (republished in 2020), and PBS released a documentary in August 2006 in time for the midterm elections.  But the facts suggest that the themes of Russian interference and British meddling approach a tradition in American politics.

Frank A. Greco is a physician practicing medicine in Massachusetts.

Image via Pexels.

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