So much trouble in the future could be avoided if we could only learn from the past and heed the dicta: Pay the troops – and pay their bonuses.
The practice of paying deferred bonuses to soldiers began in America proper with America itself and the Revolutionary War. Demobilized farmer-soldiers sold their deferred bonuses, payable by the former colonies, to speculators at a deep discount. The pressure by speculators to be paid partly impelled Congress to form the new government in 1787, so it could assume the states’ war debt and the speculators could profit. Something similar happened with land grants to the soldiers: Rendered nearly useless by Congress in the 1780s, they were amassed by speculators, who were paid off by Alexander Hamilton’s credit plan in 1795. Joseph Plumb Martin, a veteran of seven years’ hard, enlisted campaigning in the Continental Line, later wrote, “The country was rigorous in exacting my compliance to my engagements to a punctilio, but equally careless in performing her contracts with me, and why so? ... Because she had all the power in her own hands and I had none. Such things ought not to be.”
In 1924, Congress passed bonuses for World War I veterans, $1 per day of domestic wartime service and $1.25 for overseas duty. Amounts of $50 or more – about $750 today – were issued as certificates to mature in 1944. President Calvin Coolidge vetoed it. “Patriotism,” he said, “bought and paid for is not patriotism.” Congress overrode him. It issued 3.6 million certificates, worth about $55 billion today.
By 1931, with the Depression deepening, Congress allowed World War I veterans to borrow up to 50% of the certificates’ value. It was not enough. By spring 1932, all across the country, people were taking to the roads on foot, restless, abandoned, hungry. About 25,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians hoofed it to Washington, D.C., demanding work. And out on the roads, another group formed, composed of about 10,000 veterans plus women and children, who determined to march on D.C. to demand the rest of their bonus pay. They called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force. By the time the first of them arrived in the capital, on May 29, 1932, they were known as the Bonus Army. They camped on the Anacostia Flats.
On June 15, the House passed a bill to redeem the balance of the cash bonuses, but it was defeated by the Senate as Congress adjourned. The Bonus Army was offered free fare home. Most took it, but a core of about 2,000 remained.
On July 28, D.C. police tried to clear their camp. President Herbert Hoover ordered the Secretary of War to do it. And so was dispatched Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a decorated World War I veteran, now the Army chief of staff, with troops, tanks, machine guns and the assistance of his two officer aides, Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. Eisenhower and Patton had trained some of the veterans. MacArthur had led them in battle.
They injured more than 100 of the marchers. The marchers’ camps were set on fire. When some tried to re-enter the camps, D.C. police fired on them and mortally wounded two veterans, 37-year-old William Hushka, a Lithuanian immigrant who sold his St. Louis butcher shop to enlist in World War I, and 38-year-old Eric Carlson, of Oakland, California, who had fought in the trenches in France. It was all pitiful, Eisenhower said later. And it was another strike against Hoover, who was running for re-election that year.
In 1936, Congress finally replaced the World War I service certificates with bonds that could be redeemed immediately. Hushka and Carlson were buried in Arlington National Cemetery.