• Excerpt

How World War I veterans invented the March on Washington

Known as the Bonus Army, desperate veterans descended on Washington 90 years ago — and were brutally repressed — in a march against invisibility.
As a hub of the Bonus marchers’ occupation of Washington, Camp Marks was not segregated. (Wikimedia Commons)

This is an adapted excerpt from I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Dissenters, Deserters and Objectors to America’s Wars.”

If you’d opened the New York Times on July 30, 1932, the lead article described the eviction of some 20,000 veterans, as well as their families and supporters, who had descended on Washington, D.C. as a “Bonus Expeditionary Force.” More details filled the entirety of page four under “Bonus Veterans Are in General Retreat,” followed by full-page photo essay: “Views of the Firing of the Bonus Camps and the Exodus from Washington.” Outlets across the country had sent reporters to Washington to cover this unprecedented protest. Three years after the stock market crash that unleashed the Great Depression, the BEF seized public attention, with all political tendencies jockeying for position.

Now that the eviction’s 90th anniversary is upon us, that jockeying continues. Some blaming Communist front groups and others worrying that the veterans, derisively called “Khaki Shirts,” represented a worrying echo of Mussolini’s brownshirts. But if you stop looking for someone to blame, you might hear the voices of a country trying to come to terms with the war it had just fought, the unprecedented millions drafted for a war far from home.

Some of those draftees came home to success: Lewis Milstein, after spending the war in the Signal Corps making training films like “Teeth,” went west to Hollywood and became the acclaimed director, Lewis Milestone. But Milestone’s success was nowhere near typical for new veterans; most of the “doughboys” had come home to a nation that expected them to return to the same jobs they had left, sometimes at lower wages, or as strikebreakers in anti-union battles. Those with injuries overwhelmed the agency set up to help them. According to the Rand Corporation, from 1919 to 1921, “the Rehabilitation Division processed claims from 393,725 veterans for some form of vocational training. They found that two-thirds [almost 260,000] had a disability sufficient to warrant it.” After the division’s responsibilities were transferred to a newly established Veterans’ Bureau, nearly 90,000 additional vets sought help without the stigmatizing word “rehabilitation.”

Even without physical injuries, too many veterans were like Walter Waters, who seemed unable to leave the war behind. Waters’ struggle began in 1916, when the Oregon native joined his state’s National Guard, 146th Artillery. Long before the U.S. entered the European war, Waters’ unit had taken part in a domestic military operation: they guarded border camps at Nogales, Arizona, as 14,000 regular Army troops under Gen. John Pershing drove into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa. By 1918, the Army could no longer focus on the revolution to the south, and Waters’ guard unit deployed to Europe with the Army’s 41st Division. Waters’ memoir doesn’t say much about what his unit did there, its battles and steep losses at Saint-Mihiel and Château-Thierry, or about his work in France after the war with the Allied occupation forces. But Waters sharply recalls that in 1919, it was hard to get a job back home.

Members of the Bonus Army on the U.S. Capitol lawn, Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Like many others of my age, I had no occupation or profession to resume,” Waters wrote. “Everything had to be commenced for the first time … In the next few years, I made numerous serious attempts to get going in some profitable business or position, as a garage mechanic, an automobile salesman, a farmhand, a bakery helper.” When each failed, he reflected, “My inability to take root in fertile soil may have been due to the unsettling effects of the war on me.” Like Civil War veterans a half-century earlier, Waters picked at his bad memories, trying to find a way forward.

News of such “unsettling effects” was already a national obsession. No sooner had most doughboys been welcomed home than newspapers blared headlines like these in the New York Times: “Shell Shocked Soldier Implicated in Shooting,” “Seek Missing Veteran — Shell Shock Victim Wanders Far from Home” or “Shell Shocked Veteran Kills Self with Rifle.” Soon enough, concerns were raised about “proper facilities for the treatment of men who are not completely insane,” as well as reports about new veterans who’d starved to death despite the booming stock market and healthy peacetime economy.

Waters finally put down some tentative roots in Portland, finding work at a cannery. Portland was an exciting place for many reasons, including a 1922 strike at the Port of Portland by the International Longshoremen’s Association and Marine Transport Workers. Police had responded by attacking picket lines, arresting 500 and rounding up anyone who might be with the International Workers of the World. Waters had a new name, Bill Kincaid, chosen to try to change his luck. For a while, it seemed that his bet had succeeded: He was employed, married and had worked his way up to assistant superintendent. “I seemed to have escaped from the failure that had followed me in the past.”

Much of the country seemed to be feeling the same way, with “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” replacing “Over There” as America’s number one song. Movie screens featured Charlie Chaplin’s pratfalls, gangster tales with a heroic FBI, and lavish histories like “Nanook of the North” (with snow provided by Hollywood). The literary crowd was besotted with modernism, agog over a dirty Irish novel called “Ulysses” and “The Waste Land,” a poetic rant by an American self-exiled to Britain named Thomas Stearns (T. S.) Eliot.

The war’s veterans, nearly three million strong, would soon be a stumbling, angry presence across class and race lines. Witness Walter Waters, who lost his cannery job shortly after the stock market crashed in 1929.

During months of unemployment, Waters and his wife drained their savings account. “Our savings vanished and the hope of work with them during the winter of 1931-1932,” he wrote. “In the meantime, our personal belongings, one by one, found their way to the pawn shop.” By March 1932, Walters added, “We were not only penniless but had nothing left except a very scanty wardrobe. There were many days that winter when we experienced actual hunger.”

Bonus Army vets heading for Washington on the outside of freight train. (Wikimedia Commons)

While job-hunting, Walters discovered men like him — another “lost generation,” rootless since the Armistice. “I found that a sizable percentage of these men in Portland were, like myself, ex-service men,” he wrote. “Among these men there was profound discontent with [their current economic] conditions. There was a ravaging desire to change them but a complete and leaden ignorance of the way to do it … These men did think and talk a great deal about the so-called Bonus” — by which Waters meant Congress’ 1924 legislation that promised Great War veterans a “soldiers’ bonus” payable in 1945.

Thus, Waters entered another ongoing national debate: whether former soldiers deserved a permanent pension or a lump sum, known as “adjusted compensation” or “the bonus.” Veterans groups had long been split on the issue — the labor-oriented World War Veterans favored the bonus, while the anti-labor American Legion backed a proposal to pay it in government bonds. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the promise of those bonds evaporated, and with it, the hopes of veterans who hadn’t been able to find their way to prosperity.

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Little of the veterans’ discontent rendered them antiwar, especially with the news from Europe about the rise of Germany’s Nazi Party. In addition, the Espionage Act had dampened much of the progressive energy that had fueled resistance to World War I. But Waters was among those who turned his malaise into activism, helping organize a “Bonus Expeditionary Force” that in 1932 converged on Washington, D.C., 43,000 strong, for a “bonus march.” One of their chants was more satiric than political, set to the tune of their war’s last greatest hit: Over there, over there/Tell the world to beware/’Cause the Yanks are starving, the Yanks are starving.

They marched in groups of 10, of 30, of several hundred. They marched from San Francisco, New Orleans and Poughkeepsie. Black and white veterans sometimes marched together. It was a march against invisibility, an escalating demand for recognition, as much as for a guaranteed pension. By the eve of the May 29 vote on a comprehensive package of veterans’ assistance, there were 4,000 veterans camped out in front of the White House, with an additional 3,000 on the way. Welcomed by Anacostia Police Captain S.J. Marks, the group published their newspaper, The BEF News, out of their fort “Camp Marks.”

Roy Wilkins wrote in the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, that Camp Marks was non-segregated: “There I found Black toes and white toes sticking out side by side from a ramshackle town of pup tents, packing crates and tar-paper shacks … For years, the U.S. Army had argued that General Jim Crow was its proper commander, but the Bonus marchers gave lie to the notion that Black and white soldiers — ex-soldiers in their case — couldn’t live together.”

Bonus marchers struggle with police at Camp Marks in 1932. (Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve often wondered why there’s no movie about the BEF, whose supporters included socialites and governors as well as the usual range of lefty and righty groups (some of whom founded their own “red” and “silver” marches). There’s even a dramatic climax: After six months, President Herbert Hoover ordered Col. Douglas MacArthur to move against the encampments, claiming they endangered public safety. That page four from the Times includes an item about a young George Patton approaching someone who had reported to him in France: “Cavalry Major Evicts Veteran Who Saved His Life in Battle.” MacArthur went further than his orders, ordering troops to evict the veterans and burn down their settlements throughout the region. Scores were injured, some badly, which helped doom the Hoover administration in that fall’s election.

When the next wave of bonus marchers got to Washington the following year, the Roosevelt administration reserved spots in the Civilian Conservation Corps for the veterans, asking states to establish camps for civic projects. While one such camp was soon notorious for the death of 700 in a 1935 hurricane in the Florida Keys (immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in the New Masses article “Who Murdered the Vets?”), programs like them laid the groundwork for what came after, including the G.I. Bill and the Veterans’ Health Administration. And the BEF kind of invented the 20th-century March on Washington: it was explicitly cited by successor marches, including the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. Ron Kovic talks about it in his autobiography “Born on the Fourth of July,” published a few years after Vietnam Veterans Against the War staged their own D.C. occupation.

At some level, the years since 1932 have been a constant debate about whether the United States is honestly trying to fulfill the promise voiced by President Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address — and about what role current and former servicemembers should play in that struggle. And as those debates continue, listen carefully for the echoes of the bonus march.

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