When the important tales of US history are doled out in American schools, there’s little room left in the curriculum for the Bonus Army March - but maybe there should be. Bonus Army facts and knowledge are sparse throughout the general American population, but the group deserves more historical credit than it's been granted. The actions of the Bonus Army remain one of the most successful protests in national history, serving as the foundation for modern veterans’ rights.
The story of what happened when the Bonus Army marched on Washington in 1932 is one that needs plenty of context to be understood, and yet it remains the sort of event that seems like it could have happened in any era of American history. With protests over the treatment of veterans, insinuations of communist conspiracies, and tanks rolling into Washington, the Bonus Army incident may have taken place during the Great Depression, but it wouldn’t seem too out of place in 2019.
Bonus payments for enlisted individuals during times of war - meant to compensate soldiers for lost potential earnings during the conflict - had a long and established history in the United States by the time WWI rolled around. The situation changed, however, when the Great War reached its conclusion.
It took Congress five years to approve adjusted-compensation certificates for WWI veterans, but even then the bonuses came with a catch. The full payments from the certificates were scheduled for 1945 - more than 25 years after the Armistice of 1918. When the Great Depression hit in the early '30s, this delay became untenable for many vets, and they began to march.
In May 1932, former Army Sergeant Walter W. Waters formed a group of a few hundred veterans called the Bonus Expeditionary Force in Portland, OR, and pledged to march on Washington in the name of expedited payment. Other Bonus Armies formed around the country - mostly consisting of jobless veterans and their families - and slowly but surely started making their way east.
When Waters and his group arrived, hundreds had already made camp at Anacostia, just across the river from Capitol Hill. As more Bonus Armies arrived, their numbers quickly swelled, and Waters stepped up to keep the troops in line.
The veterans and their families that arrived in Anacostia to protest for bonus payments arranged themselves in shantytowns not unlike the "Hoovervilles" already strewn across Depression-era America. Walter W. Waters took charge of the main camp - which numbered close to 20,000 - as its "commander in chief," and he enforced strict military conditions.
Not only did Bonus Army members have to prove they were actually honorably discharged vets, they also had to avoid nefarious activities like gambling, drinking, or making radical talk while in the protest camps. Soon, they numbered in the tens of thousands, and Congress was forced to take action.
Congress responded to the pressure of the growing Bonus Army on its doorstep by introducing and passing a bill that called for more than $2 billion in appropriated funds to be immediately paid out to veterans of the Great War. President Herbert Hoover opposed the bill. During the deliberation over the bill, one of its proponents, Rep. Edward E. Eslick, succumbed to a cardiac episode on the floor of the House, prompting several thousand Bonus Army protesters to march at his funeral.
After passing in the House by a margin of 211 to 176, the bill moved to the Senate, where it was resoundingly defeated. This demoralizing loss prompted many of the assembled protesters to cut their losses and head home, but at least 20,000 stayed on site at Anacostia. Food began to run short, the weather got hotter, and tempers started to flare as the days turned to weeks and the tension mounted.