In 1932, the Bonus Army–some 17,000 American WWI veterans and their families and supporters (about 43,000 in total)–gathered in Washington, DC to demand the bonuses they were promised by the government for their service in the war. The law creating the bonuses stipulated they couldn’t be redeemed until 1945, for which they’d earn the principal plus compound interest, but many of the veterans had been out of work since the beginning of the Great Depression, and wanted the bonuses paid out in cash now.
After the protest, about 10,000 of them camped in “Hooverville” shantytowns in the city. An attempt to move up the date of the payout was defeated in Congress. Initial attempts to dispel the Bonus Army ended in violence and the camps unmoved. The shantytowns were controlled by the veterans, who made streets and sanitation facilities and held parades every day. Despite “Red Scare” rumors that went around the city, the protesters maintained good discipline.
President Herbert Hoover ordered the U.S. Army to remove the Bonus protesters. Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur commanded a force of infantry, cavalry, and tanks that approached the camps. The cavalry and tanks were commanded by Major George S. Patton. Civil service employees left work to watch from the streets. The Bonus Army thought the soldiers were marching to honor them and cheered. Patton ordered the cavalry to charge to cries of “Shame!” from onlookers. The infantry followed with fixed bayonets and tear gas to drive the protesters from the camp.
The protesters fled the first camp across the Anacostia River to their largest camp, at which point President Hoover ordered a halt to the attack. MacArthur ignored the order. Stating the Bonus Army wanted to overthrow the government, he ordered a fresh assault, resulting in 55 veterans being injured and another 135 arrested. The camps and all the veterans’ belongings were burned.
Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of MacArthur’s junior aides, disagreed the military should be used against fellow veterans. He later recalled, “The whole scene was pitiful. The veterans were ragged, ill-fed, and felt themselves badly abused. To suddenly see the whole encampment going up in flames just added to the pity.”
A second Bonus March in 1933 had a different result. Franklin Roosevelt, recently elected president, offered the veterans jobs in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Most took the jobs. Three years later, the Democrat-controlled Congress overrode FDR’s veto and paid out the bonus nine years early.