A few weeks ago, with celebrity Jon Stewart giving an impassioned speech on their behalf, U.S. military veterans pleaded for Congress to pass the $280 billion PACT Act to help those suffering from toxic burn pit exposures and other service-related health threats.
Using the U.S. Capitol as a backdrop, 100 or so veterans staged a peaceful protest that ultimately browbeat the Senate into passing the legislation; even though it took a second vote to pass. President Biden signed it into law last week.
A promise finally kept.
Flash back to 90 years ago, when veterans also gathered in Washington, D.C., to ask for help, and for a promise to be kept. Only that time, there were as many as 20,000 veterans who gathered at the nation’s capital with hopes of getting the bonus they were promised following their service in World War I.
This is their story:
After the Allies prevailed in the Great War, Congress passed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act in 1924, known informally as the Bonus Act. In fact, Congress overrode President Coolidge’s veto to authorize the bonuses. They would be based on a veteran’s time of service between April 5, 1917 and July 1, 1919. The veterans were to receive $1 per day for stateside service and $1.26 for those who went overseas. The payments would max out to $500 stateside and $625 for overseas duty.
The catch was that a veteran wouldn’t receive the bonus until his birthday in 1945. They could, however, borrow money using the bonus as collateral beginning in 1927. With the economy strong, many didn’t exercise that option. But on October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed sending the nation spiraling into the Great Depression. Banks suddenly lacked the money to loan to veterans, or anyone else for that matter. More than 12 million Americans were unemployed, including veterans. They were desperate to feed their families and keep roofs over their heads. They needed the money immediately.
In March 1932, veteran Walter W. Walters organized what became known as the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” (a name adapted from the World War I American Expeditionary Force that fought in Europe under General John J. Pershing). The veterans couldn’t wait 14 more years for their bonuses. They needed them immediately.
They set up camps throughout Washington, including near the naval yard at Anacostia. Some family members joined them, and they got a pep talk from retired Marine Major General Smedley Butler. But President Hoover claimed “the march was largely organized and promoted by the Communists, and included a large number of hoodlums and ex-convicts bent on raising a public disturbance,” which turned public opinion against them.
Some in Congress, however, sided with the veterans. The House passed a bill to provide $2.4 million, which Hoover declared he would veto. The bill died in the Senate by a 62-18 vote, and on July 28, 1932, the president sent General Douglas MacArthur to lead 800 Army troops—with 2,700 more on standby—to break up the encampments. Also involved was future General George S. Patton, who expelled, among others, the very soldier who saved his life in World War I by pulling the wounded officer to safety in Europe.
When the veterans refused to leave, they were tear-gassed and confronted by soldiers bearing bayonets. Their encampments were burned. Two veterans were killed by D.C. police officers while 55 others were injured and 135 arrested.
Granted, Walters lacked Jon Stewart’s star power. And there was no internet then to sway public outrage needed to browbeat politicians into fulfilling their promises, as happened with the PACT Act. In fact, two-thirds of the newspaper editorials in the summer of 1932 favored the government’s actions during the so-called Bonus Army March. Two Chicago papers, however, called Hoover’s decisions “sheer stupidity … without parallel in American annals.”
Despite such treatment by their own government at the time, their march on Washington had a major impact on the country. Americans voted Hoover out of office and elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president. Four years later Congress overrode FDR’s veto to again pass legislation to fund the bonuses, and in June 1936 they began receiving checks that averaged $580 per veteran.
The Bonus March also led to the creation of the G.I. Bill, which Roosevelt signed into law in 1944 to help veterans go on to college and established a loan program enabling veterans to own homes.