The Bonus Army Gathers In The Nation's Capital

On July 28, 1932, protesters known as the "Bonus Army," or "Bonus Expeditionary Forces (B.E.F.)," who had gathered in the nation's capital to demand an immediate lump-sum payment of pension funds (benefits) for their military service during World War I, were confronted by Federal troops (cavalry, machine-gunners, and infantry) following President Herbert Hoover's orders to evacuate. (While Congress had approved the payment in 1924, the bonus was not payable until 1945.) The presence of the Bonus Army was a continuing embarrassment and source of difficulty for Hoover. He sent in troops under the command of Brigadier Perry L. Miles and General Douglas MacArthur. The veterans faced tear-gas bombs, bayonets, and tanks. Riots erupted and the veterans eventually disbanded.

Suffering from the economic devastation of the Great Depression, veterans began assembling nationwide in March for their journey to the nation's capital. Estimates for the B.E.F. range widely—from a low of 20,000 persons to a high of 65,000 persons (including their families) by the summer of 1932. The veterans made their presence known to Congress—lobbying for payment and marching up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. They camped out in shacks and tents along the Anacostia River and health officials worried about the threat of disease.

The self-named Bonus Expeditionary Force was an assemblage of some 43,000 marchers — 17,000 World War I veterans, their families, and affiliated groups, who protested in Washington, D.C., in spring and summer of 1932. Called the Bonus March by the news media, the Bonus Marchers were more popularly known as the Bonus Army. It was led by Walter W. Waters, a former Army sergeant. The veterans were encouraged in their demand for immediate cash-payment redemption of their service certificates by retired U.S.M.C. Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, one of the most popular military figures of the time.

The war veterans, many of whom had been out of work since the beginning of the Great Depression, sought immediate cash payment of Service Certificates granted to them eight years earlier via the Adjusted Service Certificate Law of 1924. Each Service Certificate, issued to a qualified veteran soldier, bore a face value equal to the soldier's promised payment, plus compound interest. The problem was that the certificates (like bonds), matured twenty years from the date of original issuance, thus, under extant law, the Service Certificates could not be redeemed until 1945.

The 1932 march was brutally suppressed by U.S. Army troops under the leadership of Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton. After his election, Franklin D. Roosevelt, offered members of the Bonus Army work building the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys. In 1936 Congress, overriding Roosevelt's veto, allowed the veterans to redeem their certificates early.