Veterans of American Expeditionary Forces in the First World War (known simply as the Great War until we had the Second World War) were promised a bonus. Such bonuses were instituted in the Revolutionary War, when soldiers were given additional compensation of money and land. (The tradition goes at least as far back as Roman times.) Its purpose was to make up some of the difference between a soldier’s military pay and what he may have been earning at a civilian job.
WWI veterans were given a paltry $60. The American Legion, formed in 1919, led the movement for an additional bonus.
Congress passed such a bill in 1924. President Calvin Coolidge vetoed it, saying “patriotism… bought and paid for is not patriotism.” Congress overrode the president’s veto a few days later.
The “World War Adjusted Compensation Act” authorized payment of $1.00 for each day of domestic service up to $500 (equivalent to $7,500 today) and $1.25 per day for foreign service, maximum $625 ($9,000 today).
There was a catch, though. Veterans received “Certificates of Service” redeemable in 1945, twenty years later.
By 1932, the U.S. was deep in Depression. Veterans, battered by unemployment, agitated for cash payments. In June, more than 20,000 veterans converged on Washington D.C. Calling themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Force,” they built a shantytown on Anacostia Flats, across the river from the capitol. They settled in, many with their families.
President Herbert Hoover dismissed them as “largely organized and promoted by the Communists, and included a large number of hoodlums and ex-convicts bent on raising a public disturbance.”
The House of Representatives passed legislation on June 15 authorizing immediate payments. The bill failed in the Senate. The Bonus Army dug in, also occupying vacant buildings in the District of Columbia. At the end of July, the Attorney General ordered the D.C. police to remove the protesters. The eviction of squatters from buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue instigated a riot and police shot and killed two protesters. Then came the army.
General Douglas MacArthur along with his aide Major Dwight D. Eisenhower led the Army troops. Major George S. Patton commanded a tank brigade. Troops advanced with fixed bayonets. Under President Hoover’s orders to drive the protesters back across the Anacostia River, the Army was in position by late afternoon. Once the order was given, the troops advanced with fixed bayonets, supported by tear gas and tanks. They pushed the veterans back across the river. President Hoover ordered MacArthur to not cross the bridge, but being MacArthur, he did anyway.
The troops drove out the Bonus Expeditionary Force and burned the shantytown. The Washington Daily News, until then a supporter of Hoover, declared “If the Army must be called out to make war on unarmed citizens, this is no longer America.”
Herbert Hoover lost his 1932 bid for reelection to Franklin Roosevelt in a landslide.