Remembering the Bonus Army — prefigurative politics that actually built long-term power

World War I veterans aboard a freight train headed to Washington, D.C. to join the Bonus Army. (Wikipedia)

World War I veterans aboard a freight train headed to Washington, D.C. to join the Bonus Army. (Wikipedia)

In the wake of an economic crisis, thousands of people fed up with an economy and a government dominated by big-money interests set up an encampment next to a major source of the problem. Sound familiar?

It wasn’t Occupy Wall Street, but what may have been its earliest precursor in the United States: an estimated 17,000 veterans descending on Washington, D.C., in the early summer of 1932. The Bonus Expeditionary Force, or BEF, was a ragtag, unarmed mass of World War I veterans from across the country. They came demanding a “bonus”: recompense promised for wages missed out on as a result of military service. The World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 had guaranteed deferred payments starting in 1945, but — following the stock market crash of 1929 — many veterans struggled to keep food on the table and demanded immediate compensation.

What’s striking about the Bonus Army is its similarity to more recent protests, and the lessons it can offer them. Because many of the veterans were either homeless or couldn’t afford to travel back home, they brought their families with them. Together, they set up a functional, multi-generational community in an existing Hooverville on Washington D.C.’s swampy Anacostia Flats. Anyone seeking to live in the camp had to register and abide by four rules: “no alcohol, no fighting, no panhandling and no communists.” While there were certainly communists among and supporting the BEF, organizers knew that any hint of red would lose them public support.

Cooking and cleaning crews kept the camp fed and orderly. Some residents started a newspaper, while bands and boxing matches even provided entertainment. Notably, the camp was embarrassingly more integrated than either the military or society at large in 1932, with African Americans taking on leadership roles alongside their white counterparts. For the BEF, prefiguration was not only a material necessity, but also a strategic maneuver. By maintaining the moral high ground, demonstrators made it harder for both the public and the government to dismiss either their actions or their ambitious demand: universal income for veterans in the midst of the Depression. As Washington, D.C. police chief Pelham Glassford commented, “These veterans could not be treated like bums.”

While the Anacostia encampment is the most legendary image of the Bonus Army, what’s often forgotten is that the veterans spent two weeks lobbying on Capitol Hill. On May 15, the BEF succeeded in urging the House of Representatives to pass a bill expediting payment. Just two days later, it died on the Senate floor, shortly before the end of the congressional session. Dispirited, but undeterred, those remaining vowed to stay. Tensions continued to grow in the capital until General Douglas MacArthur — joined by his second in command and future president Dwight D. Eisenhower — were ordered by President Herbert Hoover to disband the encampment on July 28. In the late afternoon, they moved six tanks, 500 infantry and 500 cavalry into Anacostia, pitting servicemen against servicemen and their families. By the next morning, four veterans had been killed and over 1,000 injured.

The Bonus Army had essentially created a large-scale dilemma action for Hoover: either concede, or violently evict 10,000 national heroes. Hoover chose the latter and paid dearly for it. His treatment of the BEF all but solidified his loss in the 1932 election, and created a new standard for presidential treatment of protesters. When a smaller bonus army returned to Washington in 1933, instead of General MacArthur, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to the encampment with food and fresh coffee. He also created legal exceptions to offer most protesters jobs in the newly formed Civilian Conservation Corp.

Albeit indirectly, the BEF and forces like it were a major contributor to landmark social welfare legislation, including a slew of New Deal programs and the GI Bill in 1944. In 1936, Congress overrode a presidential veto to pass the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act, finally meeting the Bonus Army’s original demands. Political sociologist Frances Fox Piven argues that these kinds of semi-spontaneous revolts also helped to build the early labor movement, which saw some of its most militant and formative years in the 1930s and 1940s. As Howard Zinn notes in A People’s History of the United States, “The Roosevelt reforms went far beyond previous legislation. They had to meet two pressing needs: to reorganize capitalism in such a way to overcome the crisis and stabilize the system; also, to head off the alarming growth of spontaneous rebellion in the early years of the Roosevelt administration — organization of tenants and the unemployed, movements of self-help, general strikes in several cities.”

Prefigurative politics are often set in contrast to those interested in building power for the long-term. As the Bonus Army shows, it may well be possible to do both.