Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The War Against the Vets: The World War I Bonus Army During the Great Depression

By Jerome Tuccille
Potomac Books, 2018
Bryan Alexander, Reviewer

Bonus Marchers on Their Way to Washington

The aftermath of war rarely interests audiences so much as the conflict itself. The centennial of World War One is bearing this out, as most books, films, and stories in other media concern themselves with events up to November 1918. This lack of attention is a woeful mistake, since the impact of WWI reverberated around the world, transforming civilization and helping create our present day.

A case in point is how America treated its First World War veterans. As partial reward for their service Congress in 1924 offered each soldier a bonus, which could be redeemed in 1945 (20). However, the Great Depression hit in 1929, the economy fell apart, many veterans were rendered destitute, and some conceived the idea of getting their bonus right away. Perhaps inspired by Coxey's Army of unemployed men marching on Washington for economic relief in 1894 as well as Cox's similar 1932 march of the unemployed, individuals and groups started planning on taking their argument to the very seat of power.

In The War Against the Vets Jerome Tuccille narrates the story of how the veterans' campaign proceeded. Several attempts were made to bring veterans to Washington, culminating in an occupation of part of the capital area by nearly 40,000 people during the summer of 1932. Veterans and their families, sometimes called the Bonus Expeditionary Force in an echo of their Western Front designation, camped in and around the Anacostia area, demanding that Congress and the Hoover administration award them their bonuses. Congressman Wright Patman of Texas, one of Tuccille's few heroes, introduced a payment bill and lobbied for its success, while Hoover argued against it.

Tensions between the government and the vets grew, despite the best efforts of police superintendent Pelham Glassford, a WWI general and someone who genuinely sought to placate both vets and the government. Radical groups sought (and failed) to turn the vets into an insurgent, left-wing army; despite this, rumors and what we could call today fake news linking the bonus marchers to Moscow persists. Various veterans sought to lead the group, notably the vain and openly fascistic Walter Waters, who organized a would-be disciplinary unit called the Khaki Shirts. Waters struggled for supremacy with Royal Waterson, a navy vet who organized his own separate marches and events, but no single stable organization ever emerged (52, 67, 84, 91).

Meanwhile, rumors flew. Politicians and industrial titans publicly criticized the marchers, characterizing them variously as layabouts, criminals, and communist revolutionaries. For example, Pierre Du Pont dubbed the vets "the most favored class in the United States, having health, youth, and opportunity," while president Hoover claimed that "vets were likely to spend any money they received on 'wasteful expenditures'" (30, 33). Even the American Legion's leader turned against the BEF (50). Some in government feared the Bonus Army was a criminal and/or revolutionary group about to assault the White House. On Bastille Day vice president Curtis, suspecting a Bonus uprising, managed to station sixty Marines on the Capitol grounds (94).

U.S. Army Tanks and Cavalry Move on the Marchers

In July 1932 President Hoover, proclaiming the Bonus Army to be a communist insurgency, ordered the vets expelled from the capital area, while Glassford and Waters were negotiating for a peaceful withdrawal. A military force led by veteran Douglas MacArthur and including cavalry, infantry, tanks, and one George S. Patton (another WWI veteran) attacked the Bonus Army, killing several, wounding more, and setting the area ablaze. In a foreshadowing of his Korean career, MacArthur repeatedly disobeyed orders from commander in chief Hoover to pause his attack; instead, the general finished what Tuccille calls "a blitzkrieg" according to his own strategy.

The attack proved unpopular with both Washingtonians and Americans at large, contributing to Hoover's reelection defeat the following November. His successor, Franklin Roosevelt, pursued a different strategy. Like Hoover, FDR consistently opposed paying the veterans their bonus, but he was better at handling both the marchers and public relations. He asked Eleanor Roosevelt to meet with the vets and their families, defusing some tensions, and leading one participant to famously observe that "Hoover sent the Army, [while] Roosevelt sent his wife." (139) He arranged for better quarters and soup kitchens for vets who remained in the Washington area.

The War Against the Vets doesn't end with MacArthur's assault and FDR's election. Instead, Tuccille follows the veterans as they scattered across the United States. Many were resettled by the Roosevelt administration into various types of work camps, including the nascent Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration (138, 144). One camp in the Florida Keys was nearly wiped out by a hurricane in 1935, killing 259 veterans; official negligence magnified the number of deaths, then covered up the event. Meanwhile, Representative Patman kept reintroducing bonus payment bills and lobbying for their passage. By 1936 supporters of paying the bonus managed to win large enough Congressional majorities in both the House and Senate to override FDR's veto, leading to a $2 billion payout in the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act.

Tuccille links the Bonus Army's saga to subsequent history by pointing out successive administrations' desire to not experience a similar debacle. Instead World World II led to the GI Bill, and later wars saw their veterans much more fully rewarded for their service than the soldiers of the First World War.

The War Against the Vets is a clearly and passionately written account. Tuccille writes with a keen eye for character and a fiery sense of justice. The book is a welcome addition to any library dedicated to America in World War I.

Bryan Alexander