A look back at June 1932: Federal troops rout Bonus Army in DC

A look back at June 1932: Federal troops rout Bonus Army in DC

By: By John Brannon, Staff Reporter

A look back at June 1932: Federal troops rout Bonus Army in DC | John Brannon, Just A Thought
This month marks the 76th anniversary of perhaps the dumbest political blunder in the history of presidential election years. The July 30, 1932, issue of The Washington News lamented, “What a pitiful spectacle is that of the great American government, mightiest in the world, chasing unarmed men, women and children with Army tanks.” Those unfortunates being chased were what historians dubbed the Bonus Army — 20,000 strong, World War I veterans had come to Washington from throughout the nation to implore Congress to pay them bonuses it had already approved for them. It makes sense that they would remind the government of its promise. In the early 1930s, the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression. Jobs and money were scarce as the proverbial hen’s teeth. Apples were a nickel apiece but nobody had a nickel. In June 1932, Republican Herbert Hoover was president, having been elected in 1928. He was running for re-election but he and the Republican party were in deep trouble. Their chances of winning the November elections were questionable at best. The Democratic National Convention was to be held in Chicago in a few days. New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt was favored to win the nomination. Who was to blame for the Depression? That question weighed heavily on the public mind, according to the late William E. Leuchtenburg, author of the book, “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal 1932-1940.” The answer came readily enough, the writer tells us. “Throughout the 1920s, publicists had trumpeted one never-ending refrain: that the prosperity of the decade had been produced by the genius of businessmen. If businessmen had caused prosperity, who but they must be responsible for the Depression?” Moreover, the public remembered what Hoover told them In his inaugural address in March 1929: That good times were not the result of good fortune, but of the wisdom of the Republican party and business leaders. Then came the stock market crash of October 1929. Suddenly the Party of Prosperity had egg on its face. The economic situation was bad, very bad. Leuchtenburg cites some examples. “By 1932, the unemployed numbered upward of 13 million. Many lived in the primitive conditions of a pre-industrial society stricken by famine. At least a million, perhaps as many as two million, were wandering the country in a fruitless quest for work or adventure or just a sense of movement. … “On the outskirts of town or in empty lots in big cities, homeless men threw together makeshift shacks of boxes and scrap metal. St. Louis had the largest ‘Hooverville,’ a settlement of more than 1,000 souls, but there was scarcely a city that did not harbor at least one. … In Chicago, a crowd of 50 hungry men fought over a barrel of garbage set outside the back door of a restaurant; in Stockton, Calif., men scoured the city dump near the San Joaquin River to retrieve half-rotted vegetables. … “As the party in power during hard times, the Republicans faced almost certain defeat in the 1932 elections.” One would think that, considering the economic condition of the country, Hoover would be careful not to do anything dumb. One would think so. But he did. “Nothing revealed so sharply Hoover’s lack of rapport with the people nor caused him such a loss of favor as his inept handling of the Bonus Army,” Leuchtenburg writes. “Throughout the month of June 1932, singing the old war songs and bearing placards, ‘Cheered in 1917, Jeered in 1932,’ veterans of World War I massed on Washington to petition Congress to pay them, at once, war service bonuses. “They set up a large shanty town on the Anacostia flats outside the capital, and when they overran the flats, they took over some land and unused government buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue. When Congress rejected this petition in boots … some of the veterans went home, but many others, homeless, jobless and aimless, stayed on in Washington. … “As the Bonus Army squatted down for what might be a protracted stay, Hoover lost his sense of proportion. The White House was put under guard, the gates chained, the streets about it cleared of people — all of which added to the impression that the president had cut himself off from the country. “Then the administration decided it must have immediate possession of the unused buildings which the veterans had occupied.” Washington police attempted to dislodge the veterans; two veterans were killed in a skirmish with police. Convinced they faced a Communist uprising, Hoover and Secretary of War Patrick Hurley sent in federal troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur. “Four troops of cavalry with drawn sabers, six tanks and a column of steel-helmeted infantry with fixed bayonets entered downtown Washington,” Leuchtenburg says. “After clearing the buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue, they crossed the Anacostia Bridge, thousands of veterans and their wives and children fleeing before them, routed the bonusers from the crude homes, hurled tear gas bombs into the colony, and set the shacks afire with their torches. That night, Washington was lit by the burning camps.” As you might imagine, Hoover’s use of armed force against American veterans “raised a storm of protest.” “After the rout of the Bonus Army, Hoover encountered the bitter animosity of men and women who held him personally responsible for their plight,” the book states. “In Detroit, he was greeted with the cry, ‘Down with Hoover, slayer of veterans.’ He drove through miles of streets lined with sullen, silent men. When he got up to speak, his face was ashen, his hands trembled. (He) was a pathetic figure, a weary, beaten man, often jeered by crowds as a president had never been jeered before.” And what of election day in November 1932? Roosevelt swept to victory, receiving 22,800,000 votes to Hoover’s 15,750,000. In the electoral college, the margin was 472 for Roosevelt, 59 for Hoover. “Roosevelt carried more counties than a presidential candidate had ever won before, including 282 (counties) that had never gone Democratic. Of the 40 states in Hoover’s victory coalition four years before, (he) held only six. … “No Republican candidate had ever been defeated so badly.” Memo to John McCain: Please, please don’t do anything dumb. We can’t stand four years of you-know-who. Staff reporter John Brannon may be contacted by e-mail at jbrannon@ucmessenger.com. Published in The Messenger 6.6.08

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