Chapter VII — 3 MARCH ON WASHINGTON
During the second week of May, 1932, two hundred unemployed World War veterans in Portland, Oregon, hastily packed together a few of their meagre belongings and set out on a 3,000-mile trans-continental journey to Washington, D.C. “to petition Congress for the immediate payment of veterans bonuses.” Their departure heralded the beginning of one of the most extraordinary, spontaneous popular demonstrations in American history: the Veterans March on Washington . . .
After two-and-a-half grim years of joblessness and destitution, the smouldering resentment of American ex-servicemen had flared into a nationwide demand that Congress enact legislation providing for immediate payment of funds still due on veterans’ bonus certificates.1
With the scheduled adjournment of Congress only a few weeks away, the veterans began converging on Washington to present their “petition on boots.”
The veterans came singly, in small bands and caravans of hundreds, many bringing their wives and children with them. They halted trains and compelled conductors to allow them to travel as non-paying passengers. They hitchhiked, jammed old jalopies, and rode freight cars. One small group trekked down from Alaska and across the continent, a distance of more than 4,000 miles. Three veterans sailed as stowaways aboard a ship from Hawaii.
Throughout the hot summer days and nights, the ex-servicemen streamed endlessly along the highways of the land, across deserts, plains and mountains, through villages and towns, toward the nation’s capital. Scarcely a day passed without the press announcing the departure of new detachments: 900 from Chicago; 600 from New Orleans; 1,000 from Ohio; 700 from Philadelphia and Camden; 200 elected as delegates by the patients in the National Soldiers Home at Johnson City, Tennessee . . .
State and federal authorities, and railroad executives, sought desperately to halt the Bonus Marchers and to force them to return home. Police officials forbade them to enter certain towns. Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley announced that veterans reaching Washington would be given no sleeping bags by the War Department. The Washington Chief of Police, General Pelham Glassford, dispatched frantic wires urging governors to turn the veterans back. A vice-president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad proclaimed his determination “to protect the interests of the railroad in the impending war” . . .
And still the veterans came.
And, in the communities through which they passed, tens of thousands of sympathetic Americans greeted them with great public demonstrations, provided them with clothing, food, lodging and gave other assistance to help them on their way . . .2
By June, more than 20,000 Bonus Marchers had poured into Washington.
The ex-servicemen, who thirteen years before had been hailed as national heroes on their return from Europe’s battlefields, were not now treated as such by their Government. Congressmen visited by veterans’ delegations smilingly agreed to support the bonus legislation—and did nothing. President Herbert Hoover coldly refused to grant an audience to any representatives of the Bonus Marchers. A heavy military guard patrolled the White House.
Some of the Bonus Expeditionary Force, as the veterans now called themselves, established makeshift living quarters in empty lots and vacant government buildings in Washington. The great majority, however were directed to an encampment on the Anacostia Flats, a dust-ridden, low-lying stretch of land bordering the Potomac River across from the nation’s capital. Here, unprotected from the broiling sun and from tepid rains that converted the Flats into a muddy morass, there mushroomed a jungle-like city of tents, dugouts, crude shacks, and caves in the river’s bluff.
Lacking the most elementary sanitation facilities, and with hopelessly inadequate food supplies provided by the Washington authorities, the ex-servicemen and their families were soon beset by widespread sickness. Within a short time, several of the veterans’ children had died from intestinal disorders and malnutrition . . .
Every possible device was employed to discredit the Bonus Marchers, disrupt their ranks and force them to leave Washington. Newspapers reported that the Bonus Army was infested with “communist agents” seeking to set up “soviets in the nation’s capital.” Police Chief Glassford threatened to invoke an evacuation order; and when the veterans refused to move until Congress granted their demands, Glassford, who was in charge of all food provisions for the veterans, announced a “food shortage” and drastically reduced the veterans’ already skimpy rations.
The Bonus Expeditionary Force, moreover, was riddled with Federal agents, police spies, paid informers and agents-provocateurs. W. W. Waters, the dapper, smartly uniformed autocratic “commander” of the BEF, was himself in constant communication with General Glassford and was actually getting orders from the Police Chief. According to Glassford’s own subsequent account, the “Military Police Corps” which Waters had organized to “keep order” among the veterans “worked intimately with the Metropolitan Police under my command.” 3
“If we find any Red agitators in the group,” Waters informed Washington police, “we’ll take care of them.”
New arrivals at Anacostia Flats were warned by “Commander” Waters against the “red activities” of the Workers Ex-Servicemen’s League, a left-wing veterans group that had played a major role in mobilising the Bonus March, and were made to take an oath against Communism. A number of the League’s leaders were kidnapped, brutally beaten and ordered out of Washington. The battered bodies of two veterans suspected of being Communists were found floating in the Potomac.
But for all the efforts to terrorize them and split their ranks, the vast majority of the veterans stubbornly remained where they had settled and continued to agitate for payment of their bonuses . . .
On the morning of July 17, after a hasty final session, Congress adjourned without having taken any action on the bill. By nightfall most of the Representatives and Senators had scurried out of Washington.
General Pelham Glassford afterwards disclosed the careful preparations made by Government authorities for imminent developments:
. . . troops were in training for just such a climax as early as June. . . both officers and men at Army and Marine posts adjacent to Washington were being held in readiness without leave for a long period . . . these troops were receiving special training in the use of tear gas and in manoeuvres incident to dispersing crowds.
Matters came to a head on July 28, a date subsequently named “Bloody Thursday.” That morning a large police contingent attempted to evict several hundred veterans from two abandoned Government buildings at Third Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. When the veterans refused to leave, the police charged the buildings, hurling tear gas bombs at their occupants. The veterans fought back. Enraged, the police drew their guns and fired. A number of veterans dropped, two of them mortally wounded . . .
President Hoover promptly ordered General Douglas A. MacArthur, Army Chief of Staff, to assume command of the evacuation of the Bonus Expeditionary Force from Washington and to employ the army “to put an end to this rioting and defiance of civil authority.”
Around four o’clock in the afternoon, the troops arrived. Describing ensuing events, the New York Times reported:
Down Pennsylvania Avenue . . . the regulars came, the cavalry leading the way, and after them the tanks, the machine-gunners and the infantry . . .
There was a wait for maybe half an hour while the Army officers talked it over with the police and the bonus marchers shouted defiance. They wanted action and they got it.
Twenty steel-helmeted soldiers led the way with revolvers in their hands until about 200 were in position in front of the “bonus fort.” Then the mounted men joined. They rode down street clearing the path with their sabres, striking those within reach with the flat of their blades.
The action was precise, well-executed from a military standpoint, but not pretty to the thoughtful in the crowd. There were those who resisted the troops, fought back, cursed and kicked at the horses . . .
Amidst scenes reminiscent of the mopping-up of a town in the World War, Federal troops . . . drove the army of bonus seekers from the shanty village near Pennsylvania Avenue.
General MacArthur had planned every detail of the operation with methodical care, and fire engines were on hand to prevent the flames from spreading . . .
Wearing gas masks, and lobbing tear gas bombs, infantrymen pursued the fleeing veterans, who sought desperately to shield their wives and children. Scores of cavalrymen, swinging sabres, joined in the chase. Civilian onlookers were gassed, bludgeoned to the ground, and trampled on by horses . . .
“The mob was a bad-looking one,” General MacArthur told newsmen regarding the veterans. “It was one marked by signs of revolution. The gentleness and consideration with which they had been treated they had mistaken for weakness.”
That night MacArthur’s troops stormed the Anacostia encampment. With giant floodlights blazing across the mud flats, the steel-helmeted soldiers advanced, flinging tear gas bombs, setting fire to the ramshackle huts and tents, and driving before them the veterans and their families. By midnight, the Washington sky glowed as though a great forest were ablaze. Gas fumes overcame many veterans and their wives and children. One infant died.
Dawn found the Government undisputed master of the field. The Anacostia Flats were littered with smoking debris. Miles off, along the roads and highways of Virginia and Maryland, thousands of veterans and their families were hurrying away from the nation’s capital, some weeping and cursing, others silent and dazed . . .
A challenge to the authority of the United States had been met swiftly and firmly,” President Hoover declared in a statement to the press. “After months of patient indulgence, the government met overt lawlessness as it always must be met . . . The first obligation of my office is to uphold and defend the Constitution and the authority of the law. This I propose always to do.”
But whatever few illusions the American people might still have retained about the Great Humanitarian had vanished in the flames that consumed the pitiful hovels at Anacostia Flats. The nation would soon send another man to the White House.
That fall, with the presidential campaign underway, the editor and publisher of the New York Graphic, Emile Gauvreau, had an off-the-record interview at the New York state capital of Albany with the Democratic candidate. Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt.
As Roosevelt and Gauvreau lunched together in a small room, telephones kept up an incessant jangling in the Governor’s adjoining office. Reports of campaign developments were coming in from all parts of the country. Periodically, the conversation between the two men was interrupted as long distance calls of special importance were brought in to the Governor on telephone cord extensions.
Roosevelt was in an optimistic mood. There was no doubt in his mind that he would be the next President of the United States. Confidently, the Governor told Gauvreau some of his plans for the nation.
“We need a direct contact with the people,” said Roosevelt. “Now is the time for the human hand to reach out to help … So you liked my ‘forgotten man’ speech? That describes millions of our people. And the forgotten man represents four in each family that he supports as the good provider. If fourteen million people are out of work, multiply that by four to know the number actually in want. Something will have to be done about that . . . To keep the people happy, give the people work— that’s the job.”
The Governor drew deeply on his cigarette and slowly exhaled a cloud of smoke. “Now in Russia—,” he began, and deliberated before continuing, “I’m going to recognize Russia. I am going to send people there to see what the Russians are doing . . .” The subject seemed to hold a special fascination for him. “Russia . . . Russia, a strange land, and their ideas may seem strange— I shall send people to study Russia.”
Abruptly, Roosevelt sat bolt upright in his chair. “There is work to be done,” he declared. “Our people will have to be put back on their feet.”
Another telephone call was brought in. Roosevelt listened for a few moments, then laughed jovially. “Good work!” he said. “Three more states! Fine, Jim.”
Returning to his conversation with Gauvreau, Roosevelt told the editor. “We will help the people yet.” Momentarily, his face clouded. “It will have to be soon. They are getting restless. Coming back from the West last week, I talked to an old friend who runs a great western railroad. ‘Fred,’ I asked him, ‘what are the people talking about out here?’ I can hear him answer even now. ‘Frank,’ he replied, Tm sorry to say that men out here are talking revolution.”
On November 8, 1932, carrying forty-two states, with a popular plurality of more than seven million votes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States.
1. Officially titled the Adjusted Service Certificate, the Bonus was an additional payment to veterans of one dollar for every day served in the Armed Forces at home and a dollar twenty-five cents for every day spent overseas. The Bonus award had been passed by Congress in 1923 for payment in 1945. In 1930 veterans were permitted to borrow one-half their bonus money at 4½ cent interest. The Bonus Marchers sought to obtain the right to borrow the remainder of the money immediately.
2. In Cheyenne, Wyoming, a group of veterans arriving at midnight was welcomed by more than 5,000 townspeople, who staged a torchlight parade and feted the travellers at a great banquet. In Cleveland, 50,000 citizens congregated to support the demand of Bonus Marchers that they be given railroad cars by local authorities. In McKeesport, Pennsylvania, after frustrating the mayor’s efforts to prevent veterans from passing through the town, the townspeople halted a train for the ex-servicemen. Following a futile attempt by police and troops to prevent Bonus Marchers from boarding trains in East St. Louis, Illinois, the local sheriff reported: “When it looked like trouble, it wasn’t the veterans I was concerned about, but the sympathizers. There was a crowd of several thousand along the B & O tracks, and they were all yelling and cheering the former soldiers…”
3. Waters’ political inclinations and personal ambitions became clear some time later when, after forming an organization called the Khaki Shirts, he declared: “Inevitably such an organization brings up comparison with the Fascisti of Italy and the Nazis of Germany. For five years Hitler was lampooned and derided. But today he controls Germany. Mussolini before the war was a tramp printer, driven from Italy because of his political views. But today he is a world figure.”