A March Upon America
A Review of Thomas Allen and Paul Dickson’s The Bonus Army: An American Epic
Paul Dickson graduated from Wesleyan University. After graduation, he served in the U.S. Navy. Since 1968, he has been a full-time freelance writer contributing articles to various magazines and newspapers. Thomas B. Allen is an author and editor. Herald served two years in the U.S. Navy. Allen is a contributing editor to National Geographic.
BY BRIAN PHAN
During the summer of 1932 at the height of the Depression, some 45,000 World War I veterans traveled from all over the country to descend on Washington, D.C. to demand a bonus promised to them years before their wartime service. Their story is told in Thomas Allen and Paul Dickson’s book, The Bonus Army: An American Epic. They lived in hastily built camps, closely resembling the infamous Hoovervilles of the time. For months they protested and rallied for their cause, becoming known as the Bonus Army on its Bonus March. On July 28, 1932, troops and tanks rolled through the camps, using tear gas, batons, and excessive force to expel the veterans. Before the fatal event, General MacArthur told his generals to “use such force is as necessary to accomplish [their] mission.”1 Despite their violent expulsion, veterans would continue to push for the bonus bill, until it was finally passed on June 12, 1936. This success would indirectly leave its mark on history by influencing the passing of the G. I. Bill of Rights in 1944, one of the most important pieces of social legislation in US history, which in large part created America’s middle class through aid for World War II veterans. The Bonus Army is a significant story in the saga of our country.
Allen and Dickson open their book by explaining events well before the 1930s’s, examining all the events that led to the Bonus March. They begin by explaining how the US got into World War I, under president Woodrow Wilson, and how a bonus had been promised to those who went to war. When the veterans returned, however, they faced “the cold reality of the home coming [that] went deeper than indifference.”2 They returned to a country that considered them outcasts in society; their jobs were taken, their farms were confiscated, and the civilian war workers had prospered from the war while the veterans were forced to live on military pay. Many prominent citizens and renowned veterans immediately began pushing bonus bills through Congress to support these veterans. Under constant pressure from the masses, the Coolidge administration passed the World War Veterans Act, granting adjusted service compensation to WWI veterans in 1945. Despite the passing of a bonus bill, a majority of the veterans remained unsatisfied, because the only way for the veterans to be paid their bonus before 1945 was to die. To veterans, this act became known as the Tombstone Bonus. Demands for immediate payment quickly arose, the most important of which was George Patman’s bonus bill, which gained much popular support. The president at the time, Herbert Hoover, rejected the passage of any further bonus bill “because of the fiscal problems that the United States was facing.”3 With the arrival of the Great Depression, things became even more difficult for the veterans as the unemployment rate soared. Soon, multiple veteran groups from all over the country began their marches towards Capitol Hill to protest and petition Congress.
The multiple marches that occurred following the Great Depression would pave the way for Walter W. Waters, who became the leader of the famous Bonus Expeditionary Force, or the Bonus Army. Waters and his men were welcomed by the cities they passed by; they were given donations of food and money, and many cities provided transportation to the next city, where the process would be repeated. Pelham D. Glassford, a police chief in Washington, would become a prominent man within the Bonus Army movement, gathering up food and supplies, as well as arranging for aid and shelter for the mass of veterans that would come to Washington, mainly to prevent violence. As time passed, the number of veterans heading towards Washington only increased. Glassford, knowing that it would be chaotic if the veterans weren’t fed, continued to provide aid for the veterans. He opened Anacostia Flats, a swampy, muddy area across the Anacostia River from the federal core of Washington, as a camp site for oncoming veterans. Though the camps in Washington were often unsanitary, camp life was very organized and disciplined. In Washington, however, most government officials began to fear the oncoming Bonus Army, as the veterans “were [tarred] with the red brush. Allegations of Communist sympathies…[hung] like a mist over the entire [Bonus Expeditionary Force].”4 This fear of communism would be the driving point behind the harsh treatment of the veterans. Despite numerous protests—all of which caused little to no violence—the bill was overwhelmingly put down in the Senate in 1931.
Despite the rejection of the bill in Congress, the vast majority of veterans, who had nowhere else to go, were determined to stay until they got their bonus. Waters began assuming a dictatorial rule as the leader of the BEF, openly embracing fascism, enforcing rules among the veterans, creating an army of shock troops, and even forming a totalitarian group called the Khaki Shirts. This reckless abuse of power, combined with the increased Communist activity by the communist veteran group, WESL, led General MacArthur to believe that the Communist veterans were on the brink of violence. He would later initiate Plan White, a plan to protect the White House from civilian attacks using military intervention and martial law. Until then, MacArthur demanded Waters to evacuate Washington before troops were sent in. Before troops were sent in, Macarthur said that they would “break the back of the BEF…The operation will be continuous. It will all be done tonight.”5 MacArthur would soon send his troops through camp after camp, burning down homes and throwing gas grenades. Observers saw “a blaze so big that it lighted the whole sky… a nightmare come to life.”6 The evacuation, later known as the Battle of Washington, soon ended, along with any hopes for the continuation of the Hoover administration: The event proved to be a public relations catastrophe. On the morning of July 29, Democratic presidential nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt told an aide that “there was no need now to campaign against Hoover.”7 Newspapers and the media portrayed the government in a dark light, depicting the Hoover administration as corrupt and heartless. The army and the Hoover administration insisted that their actions were righteous. They tried to justify their actions by claiming that the BEF actually consisted of more communists than veterans. The public, however, ignored their logic. On November 8, 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in a landslide, and his New Deal, as well as his famous Hundred Days, soon followed. However, his New Deal programs actually hurt the bonus army initially by using veteran funds to pay for New Deal programs and by not allowing the veterans to profit from the unemployment relief. By 1933, the Bonus Army was forming once again.
The last part of the book begins with the presidency of FDR, who would find himself involved with two new bonus marches. One march was by a right-wing group, which was a revival of the Bonus Expeditionary Force, or BEF, led by Harold B. Foulkrod. The other was organized by a left-wing group called the Veterans National Liaison Committee, led by the communist Emanuel Levin. Having challenged the attorney general of the U.S. and indirectly the president, Glassford had lost all chance of any further success, and ultimately resigned before FDR’s election. With Glassford gone, there was no one to stand between the White House and the rival planners of the second bonus march. To prevent possible conflict, Roosevelt decided to bestow extraordinary privileges on Levin’s Veterans National Liaison Committee, also known as the VEF, or Veterans Expeditionary Force. The VEF’s pushed for a national veterans’ convention and for food and shelter for veterans at Fort Hunt. In order to keep veterans from camping in Washington, the administration set up work camps for veterans in South Carolina and Florida. Though the veterans successfully made Florida Keys into a successful town, a hurricane struck Florida Keys on Labor Day of 1935, killing a majority of the veterans in work camps on Florida Keys. U.S. Government officials tried to cover up the government’s failure to take proper measures to prevent the deaths by maintaining that it was due to an act of God, but government was widely criticized for not having evacuated the veterans when the news for veterans. Before, in January 1935, “the bonus had little to do with Republicans… Now it was an old albatross hanging from the neck of the New Deal. The now familiar Patman bill…. sailed through the house.”8 Though the bill was initially vetoed by Roosevelt, it was passed again in the next congressional meeting in 1936. This time, Congress overrode Roosevelt’s veto, and on January 27, 1936, the cash-now bonus became a reality. The overall cash value of the bonus was over $1.9 billion, and distribution began on June 15. What followed was a “boost to local economies… a ‘bonus rush,’” as veterans cashed in their bonuses and went on a spending spree.9 On November 14, 1937, the odyssey of the Bonus Army ended. The government, realizing that history might repeat itself, pushed for a much needed veteran’s benefit benefit benefitlegislation. This would pave the way for the passing of the GI Bill, which would provide relief for veterans of wars to come.
Allen and Dickson’s overall purpose for writing this seems to be to convey the importance of the Bonus Army, an event they feel isn’t given enough credit in history. They open with the nagging question, “How could this all be forgotten?”10 They see the Bonus Army as something that should be better known and that such a historic event should be learned from. The lesson to be learned from this book is that veterans of war will struggle financially, socially, and psychologically, and it is the U.S. government’s duty to take care of its military veterans. The Bonus March “was not a mere Depression-era incident—it was a great American epic lost in the margins of history.”11 As they write this story, Allen and Dickson write with the intent to show how the Bonus Army fits into history as one of the pivotal evens of the 20th century by relating it to surrounding events like Coxey’s Army from the 1890s to the GI Bill of the 1940s. In the end, the book can be considered Allen and Dickson’s attempt to take the Bonus Army from the dark shadows of history and to place it in the spotlight, where its true glory and importance can be seen by everybody.
Allen and Dickson accept the fact that the Bonus Army has been deemed a minor event in history, and provide their own beliefs for the relative obscurity of the veterans’ crusade. The first is racial: the bonus marchers were an integrated force as “veterans of both races marched together in the Bonus Army and lived together in Washington in integrated camps.”12 The actual army had been segregated, so this union of veterans was a whole new spectacle to the nation that was barely introduced to civil rights. The fact that veterans of both races had come together for a common cause had aided in the march’s obscurity. The second is communism: the marchers were quickly dismissed to be a radical group, a function of Communist organizers, though this was an “erroneous belief…supported by cover work of a federal national intelligence apparatus” as there were radicals and Communists among the veterans but “they were an ineffective minority disdained and dismissed by the main body of the BEF.”13 Throughout the history of the Bonus Army, most of the contempt that came from the government arose from the fear of communism within the Bonus Army. Towards the veterans, Allen and Dickson convey an implicit support, constantly describing the innocence and righteousness of the Bonus Army.
In a critical review, Seattle Time’s writer Bruce Ramsey writes that Allen and Dickson “argue that this is one of the pivotal events of 20th-century U.S. history, and they make a good case.”14 Ramsey also sees the many personal accounts and classic photographs that the book draws upon as one of its redeeming factors. Janet Maslin of the New York Times shares the same opinions as Ramsey, giving her opinion on what she believes to be a “prodigious research project on the Bonus Army of the 1930’s.”15 In Maslin’s eyes, the most important aspect of the book is its verbal and pictorial record of the marchers’ individual experiences that illustrated the journeys of the Bonus Army. Maslin wholeheartedly agrees with Allen and Dickson’s views that the Bonus Army was indeed an influential event in history, seeing that “its legacy was of great importance to the World War II veterans… [and] is all the more meaningful today.”16 Like the reviews write, possibly the greatest strength of this novel arises from the extensive research that comes from Allen and Dickson. Their extensive work in mining the relevant archives of history and interviewing many of the surviving witnesses adds powerful testimony to the record of the march. The only weakness this book has may originate from its authors, who both are veterans, causing the book to be slightly biased.
Though the event took place in the 1930’s, The Bonus Army: An American Epic was published in 2005. Allen and Dickson, who are both veterans, felt it was necessary to inform the masses of an undervalued piece of history that holds relevance because of the Iraq War taking place—an event that would result in a return of veterans just like in World War I. Because of the war situation, the Bonus Army would hold a more significant impact as people were already thinking about war and its effects. Following the New Left Historiography, The Bonus Army: An American Epic opens up to the conflicts that scarred America in the 1930s, creating the image of the divided America and showing “the need for a social contract between nation and soldiers.”17 In this case, instead of ethnic group or races, all kinds of veterans rose together to struggle against the government.
The Bonus Army has had an everlasting impact on U.S. history that is greatly understated in society. The Bonus Army paved the way for many great changes in politics. The World War I veterans were among the first to petition so largely, and successfully, for a bonus bill. There were also among the first to successfully hold a mass protest in Washington. The Bonus March provided a model for many mass protests that would be held in the capital since. The Bonus Army was the beginning of a legacy where veterans wouldn’t have to return home as outcasts, but where “Millions of Americans [could] peacefully march on Washington in support of various causes, their way paved by the veterans of 1932.”18
A physical representation of this legacy comes in the form of GI Bill of Rights, which was signed on June 22, 1944. It provided veteran benefits, the most important of which were loan guarantees for homes and free education and training, which was a foundation for the forthcoming technological and academic success of the US. The Bonus Army left an “enduring legacy that… goes well beyond the GI Bill”; that something would have to be done for the veterans of the future, especially those from World War II. 19 Allen and Dickson use the Bonus Army to explain the political dynamics that led to Hoover’s defeat by Roosevelt and ultimately to the passage of the GI Bill.
Through the actions of the Bonus Army, treatment of veterans became a political issue. By banding together, members of the Bonus Army became a political force to be reckoned with. By persevering, a successful social contract between the nation and the soldiers was produced. This guarantee of “a just reward and the resulting creation of a vast productive and creative middle class, is the magnificent legacy of the Bonus Army.”20
1: Thomas, Allen. Dickson, Paul. The Bonus Army: An American Epic. New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 2005. 173.
Brian Phan was born on November 28, 1933. He was born in Fountain Valley, CA raised in Irvine, CA, and now lives in Tustin, CA. Some of his hobbies are playing the piano, strumming the ukulele, and swimming. He plans to major in Engineering in college.
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