The Bonus Army During the Great Depression: Definition, March & Riot

The Bonus Army During the Great Depression: Definition, March & Riot
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  • 0:00 The Bonus Army
  • 0:48 March and Riot
  • 4:00 Aftermath
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
In this lesson we'll look at the Bonus Army, World War I veterans who demanded early payment of a postwar bonus, protested, and ended up in a standoff. After reading about this tense period in American history, you can test you knowledge with a quiz.

The Bonus Army

We all have those moments--decisions that were made in the spur of the moment, or that we didn't really think through, or that backfired on us, despite our best intentions. For most of us, those decisions, and their consequences, only affect a few people at any given time. But what if your choices affect thousandsā€¦even millions? What happens when your bad decisions occur when you're the most powerful person in the room--or the nation?

Bad decisions, and their consequences, are the most obvious element of the story of the Bonus Army, a terribly sad and very preventable event in 1932 that pretty effectively summed up the sorrow of the Great Depression and the difficulty faced by the federal government and in particular, the President at the time, Herbert Hoover, in solving the crisis.

March and Riot

In 1924, in an effort to thank American veterans of World War I, the U.S. Congress voted to provide a 'bonus' to U.S. servicemen--$1.25 for every day served overseas, and $1.00 for every day served in the United States. This bonus was due to be paid in 1945, and was meant to be a sort of pension for veterans in their golden years (this was before the creation of government entitlement programs like Social Security, so most everyday Americans didn't have guaranteed pensions).

With the deepening of the Great Depression by 1931-1932, however, veterans began clamoring for early payment of their pensions. In the spring of that year, veterans and their families began to gather in Washington, D.C., to collect on the debts they believed were due to them. Over 40,000 marchers (about half of them World War I veterans) descended on the nation's capital, forming makeshift camps at various places--the largest was at Anacostia Flats, on the opposite side of the Potomac River. The marchers made use of discarded building materials and constructed a working, quasi-military camp, in which they held daily 'inspections' and met with sympathetic figures, including former and current members of the U.S. military.

By June, tensions were beginning to rise. On the 17th of that month, the Wright Patman Bonus Bill, which had already passed the House of Representatives (and would have allowed veterans to receive their bonuses early), was defeated in the U.S. Senate. On July 28, the U.S. Attorney General ordered Washington police to clear marchers from their main camp; when veterans resisted, police officers fired their weapons and shot two veterans (both of whom later died).

This was the last straw for President Herbert Hoover, who had spent the previous 2 and a half years absorbing blame for the Great Depression--the same pro-business, anti-regulation policies which had been credited for national prosperity prior to the Crash of 1929 were now being derided for the manner in which such an approach denied a role for government in emergency relief and assistance. Hoover was becoming a national figure of scorn and derision; looking out the windows of the White House and seeing thousands of veterans, camped around the Washington Monument and throughout the city, irritated him.

When he heard about the shooting, Hoover decided he'd had enough. He ordered the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General Douglas MacArthur, to remove the marchers. MacArthur (who believed the march was, at a minimum, wrong, and at worst, was a bona fide attempt to overthrow the government), sent in infantry troops, cavalry (under the command of Major George S. Patton), and six tanks.

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