"The Bonus Army" is the story of the World War I veterans who marched on Washington, D.C., in 1932. In the worst year of the Depression, they squatted...

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“The Bonus Army: An American Epic”

by Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen

Walker, 384 pp., $27

“The Bonus Army” is the story of the World War I veterans who marched on Washington, D.C., in 1932. In the worst year of the Depression, they squatted in a “rag and tin can city” of more than 15,000 men, demanding immediate payment of what Congress had promised it would pay in the year 1945: an extra $1 to $1.25 for each day they had served in the Great War. Congress refused, and the federal government burned their encampment to the ground.

Across America, black-and-white newsreels showed saber-wielding cavalrymen advancing on raggedy veterans. Theater-

goers booed the U.S. Army and its commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who a decade later would be a hero in the Pacific. New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt concluded that President Herbert Hoover was politically doomed. Roosevelt opposed the bonus as much as Hoover did, but he was not so politically inept as to use the Army to attack veterans.

The authors argue that this is one of the pivotal events of 20th-century U.S. history, and they make a good case. They show how the Bonus Army fits into that history, from Coxey’s Army of the 1890s to the GI Bill of the 1940s.

The authors side implicitly with the bonus marchers, and if there is any weakness in the account it is that they are not much interested in the side that lost. The authors briefly quote columnist Walter Lippmann arguing that the men were owed nothing more and Franklin Roosevelt saying essentially the same. After all, they were demanding extra payment for service already paid for (though most were conscripts). Leaders of both political parties opposed their demands, as did leaders of the American Legion.

Coming Up

Paul Dickson
and Thomas B. Allen

The authors of “The Bonus Army” will read at 6 p.m. Thursday at the University Book Store’s branch store in Tacoma. Free (253-272-8080; www.ubookstore.com).

“The Bonus Army” is at its best when detailing how the veterans crossed the continent with no money, starting in Portland in the manure-soiled cattle cars of the Union Pacific and building a “Hooverville” in a muddy field along the Anacostia River. The book draws on many personal accounts and has classic photographs.

The authors’ favorite character is Pelham Glassford, Washington’s chief of police. Glassford dealt with the leaders of the Bonus Army day to day. He knew the psychology of the men and contributed hundreds of dollars of his own money to feed them. He was not swayed by accusations that they were Communists. A few hundred were, but they were set up in their own “Red camp,” and the rest ostracized them. Most bonus marchers were genuine veterans, unemployed and feeling unappreciated. Understanding them, Glassford knew how to keep the peace.

The government didn’t. After Congress adjourned without passing the bonus bill, there was no more obvious reason for the Bonus Army to be there. When it refused to disband, the White House began to perceive a threat to the government. A decade earlier, Benito Mussolini had taken over Italy with a march on Rome. Army Intelligence was worried about a Red threat, particularly from New York City, Cleveland, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle. Army Intelligence reported a planned insurrection to be aided by disloyal elements among the Marines. The report was wrong and also alarming.

The Bonus Army’s leader, ex-sergeant William Waters of Portland, announced he was taking “complete dictatorial powers” over the movement. The men voted him that authority, but he didn’t really have it, which was obvious to those who knew them.

President Hoover, who had never gone to a Bonus Army camp or talked with any of the petitioners, ordered MacArthur to clear them out of the capital. After destroying two smaller camps downtown, including the Reds’ camp, MacArthur received the president’s new order to stop before crossing the Anacostia River. There had been pandemonium already, and police had fatally shot two veterans. Hoover had had enough for the day — but MacArthur ignored the president’s order.

Hoover should have fired MacArthur, but he didn’t, and four months later the people fired Hoover. Four years later President Roosevelt vetoed the bonus bill again, arguing that nondisabled veterans could apply for New Deal benefits the same as anyone else. But he had not unleashed the Army on loyal Americans, and had once sent Eleanor to sing songs with them. In 1936, when Congress overrode FDR and paid the bonus — the average was $583 — the veterans forgave him.

The benefits veterans have today express a stronger appreciation of service. This book is a reminder that they also have another purpose, which is to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.