The Bonus Army was a protest over benefits that had been promised veterans of World War I.
The American 1924 Adjusted Service Certificate Law gave war veterans "bonus" certificates that they could redeem for cash in 1945. When the Great Depression hit in the early 1930s, many veterans went through financial struggles and, like many other Americans, found themselves out of work, and some began to demand their certificates early. 15,000 of them marched on Washington, D.C. in May, 1932, demanding that they receive their bonuses. A significant percentage of the membership in the Bonus Army had been composed of Communist instigators by the time they arrived at Washington. In addition, John Pace also was sent in by the communists to stir up trouble. Although the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have given them their money, the Senate voted against it.  The marchers did not leave. Fearing a coup, on July 28, President Hoover deployed the military. General Douglas MacArthur led a strong strike against the Bonus Marchers where they were camped at Anacostia Flats in Washington, D.C., involving the use of tanks. While only one Bonus Marcher was killed when all was said and done, the reputation of Hoover had been permanently stained.
The movement to demand early payment of the bonuses did not go away, and in 1936, Congress overrode the veto of President Roosevelt, and gave the veterans their bonuses early. Congress passed the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 in an effort to prevent a similar scenario from occurring again.
Notes and references
- Document #2:A secret Army intelligence report issued by Conrad H. Lanza, Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, to the intelligence Officer of the second Corps Area. The report was dated July 5, 1932. 'Word has been passed around in Syracuse (New York) that the first blood shed by the Bonus Army at Washington, is to be a signal for a communist uprising in all large cities thus initiating a revolution. The entire movement is stated to be under communist control, with branches being rapidly developed in commercial centers.'
- Document #9: Statement to the press by President Hoover, July 28. ...Congress made provision for the return home of the so-called bonus marchers who have for many weeks been given every opportunity of free assembly, free speech and free petition to the Congress. Some 5,000 took advantage of this arrangement and have returned to their homes. An examination of a large number of names discloses the fact that a considerable part of those remaining are not veterans; many are communists and persons with criminal records.
- Document #16: An excerpt from Benjamin Gitlow's The Whole of Their Lives, a book describing the author's experiences as a Communist published in 1948. Walter W. Waters charged that the communist gang led by (John T.) Pace which seized the Illinois contingent were drunkards guilty of misusing veterans funds. The communists, now in the driver's seat, kicked Waters out of command, put Thomas Kelly in command for a few hours and then took complete charge of the Bonus March movement.
...The communists had succeeded in keeping the veterans in Washington almost a month. The mood of the veterans got uglier from day to day. The communists' leaders were then firmly in the saddle. On July 5 Earl Browder (Chairman of the American Communist Party) declared that the veterans were shock troops of the unemployed. Said he, "The Bonus revolutionary force in Washington is the most significant beginning of the mass struggle against the consequences of the crisis."
On July 28 the government went into action. General Douglas MacArthur . . . stepped in to prevent bloodshed after a fight between communist led veterans and police resulted in the death of one veteran and the shooting of an innocent bystander. It was just what the Communists wanted. Now they could brand Hoover as a murderer of hungry unemployed veterans. They could charge that the U.S. Army was Wall Street's tool with which to crush the unemployed, and that the government and Congress of the U.S. were bloody Fascist butchers of unarmed American workers.
- Document #17: Excerpts from Douglas MacArthur's Reminiscences, published in 1964. ...At night, morose men squatted by burning campfires listening silently to the endless speeches, always tinged with the increasing violence of Communist propaganda. The (bonus march) was actually far deeper and more dangerous than an effort to secure funds from a nearly depleated federal treasury. The American Communist Party planned a riot of such proportions that it was hoped the United-States Army, in its efforts to maintain peace, would have to fire on the marchers. In this way, the Communists hoped to incite revolutionary action. Red organizers infiltrated the veteran groups and presently took command from their unwitting leaders.
- Document #22: Excerpts from The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: The Great Depression published in 1952. "When it was evident that no legislation on the bonus would be passed by the Congress, I asked the chairmen of the Congressional committees to appropriated funds to buy tickets home for the legitimate veterans. This was done and some 6,000 availed themselves of its aid, leaving about 5,000 mixed hoodlums, ex-convicts, Communists and a minority of veterans in Washington. Through government agencies we obtained the names of upwards of 2,000 of those remaining and found that fewer than a third of them had ever served in the armies, and that over 900 on the basis of the sampling were ex-convicts and Communists.
- Reminiscences - General Douglas MacArthur, pp 92-97
- Encyclopedia Britannica entry on the Bonus Army: "Even the marchers’ response to this crushing disappointment did not persuade President Hoover that these thousands were peaceful, patriotic Americans; he was convinced that the Bonus Army was not a grassroots movement of impoverished veterans but a mass of communist agitators eagerly plotting a Bolshevik-style revolution for the United States. In fact, there were communists present in the camps, led by John T. Pace from Michigan. But if Pace believed that Bonus Army was a ready-made revolutionary cadre, he was mistaken. The marchers routinely expelled avowed communists from the camps. They destroyed communist leaflets and other literature. And among their other slogans the veterans adopted a motto directed at the communists, “Eyes front—not left!” "
- presidency.ucsb.edu: "Attorney General's report, dated September 9, 1932:
2. The quality of the Bonus Army.
(a) Number of marchers who were not ex-service men. A considerable number of the marchers were not in military service during the World War. An approximation of the number is impossible, but two items of reliable information throw some light on this question.
(c) Communists. As soon as the bonus march was initiated, and as early as May, 1932, the Communist party undertook an organized campaign to foment the movement, and induced radicals to join the marchers to Washington. As early as the edition of May 31, 1932, the Daily Worker, a publication which is the central organ of the Communist party in the United States, urged worker veteran delegations to go to Washington on June 8th. Under date of June 1st, Emanuel Levin, alias Herman Levin, managing editor of the Daily Worker with a long police record for Red activities and rioting, arrived in the city. He then contended that the bonus march had been largely planned in the headquarters of the Workers Ex-service Mens League, a Communist organization with headquarters in New York City. Another Communist leader present in Washington was John T. Pace, who led a large contingent of bonus marchers to Washington, and in a demonstration on July 25, 1932, near the White House he was arrested by the Washington police. Pace was elected Field Marshal of the Detroit bonus marchers. James W. Ford, colored, now candidate for Vice President on the national ticket of the Communist party, was one of the bonus marchers arrested on July 29th. Clair Cowan, another Communist leader, led a contingent of bonus marchers from Cleveland consisting of several hundred men. Cowan himself was intercepted and arrested at Pittsburgh on June 8th and did not reach Washington. Another leader of the radical element among the bonus marchers was Waiter F. Eicker. He was arrested on July 21st and again on July 25th by the Washington police. Another leader of the demonstration made by bonus marchers on July 25th at the White House was Sylvester G. McKinney, a Communist organizer with a police record for Communist activity.
One of the bonus camps--that within 12th and 14th and B and C Streets, S.W.-was occupied principally by Communists headed by Pace. Possession of this government property had been seized and occupied by these marchers without any authority. During June and July, while the Bonus Army was present, Communist meetings were held in this city frequently. The files of this Department contain voluminous reports of these meetings, at many of which incendiary speeches and plans to stir the Bonus Army to violence and bloodshed were made. During the various disorders, including the final riot, persons identified as radicals and Communists were observed among the disturbers. There is irrefutable proof that a very large body of Communists and radicals, some ex-service men and some not, were in the city as part of the Bonus Army, circulating among them and working diligently to incite them to disorder.
- History.net article on the Bonus Army "In June, the House of Representatives narrowly passed the Patman bill, but the Senate defeated the measure with a lopsided vote of 62 to 18. ...many of the marchers felt betrayed and disillusioned. With nowhere else to go, they decided to stay. Ominously, their disappointment festered in Washington's muggy summer heat. To complicate matters, at this point the American Communist Party saw an opportunity to cause trouble, and sent forth John Pace as the catalyst with instructions to incite riot. The degree of his success is uncertain and will be forever a matter of debate, but his presence alarmed the Washington power structure. The almost constant tension between the marchers and Washington police, coupled with the stifling summer heat, fueled frustrations on both sides, leading to confrontations that caused the police to ask for federal assistance. Historian Kenneth S. Davis theorizes that Pace may have had a hand in escalating the tensions, goading the angry veterans to become more aggressive. A more plausible explanation for rising tension may simply be that frustrations finally reached a boiling point.