The Bonus Army was a group of World War I veterans who marched on Washington, D.C., in 1932 to demand cash bonuses promised to them by Congress.
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What Is a Bonus Army?
A bonus army is a group of people who publicly demand something from the government, usually money or benefits. The term is usually used in the United States, where such groups have protested various policies and actions by sitting in at government buildings or occupying public spaces.
The firstbonus army was composed of World War I veterans who marched on Washington, D.C., in 1932 to demand payment of a “bonus” that had been promised to them for their military service. After Congress failed to act on their demands, the veterans were dispersed by the U.S. Army under the orders of President Herbert Hoover.
Other notable bonusarmies include the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF), which occupied Washington, D.C., in May and June 1932; and Occupy Wall Street (OWS), a movement that began in September 2011 to protest economic inequality and corporate greed.
The Origins of the Bonus Army
The Bonus Army was a group of approximately 43,000 World War I veterans, their families, and other supporters who marched on Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1932 to demand early payment of a bonus promised to them by Congress for their service in the war. The march and subsequent Camp Bonus protests were led by Walter W. Waters, a former sergeant in the U.S. Army.
Waters and his supporters had hoped that President Herbert Hoover would support their cause, but Hoover ordered the eviction of the protesters from government propertyand called in the Army to do so. The eviction turned violent, and two veterans were killed by soldiers under General Douglas MacArthur’s command. The Bonus Army dispersed after this confrontation, but many of its members remained in Washington and continued to press for their demands.
In 1936, Congress finally approved the early payment of the bonus, which was distributed to the veterans in early 1937. By that time, however, most of the members of the Bonus Army had died or returned home.
The Bonus Army’s March on Washington
In 1932, as the Great Depression continued to devastate the United States, Congress passed a bill that would give World War I veterans their long-awaited “bonus” payouts early. When President Herbert Hoover vetoed the bill, more than 20,000 unemployed veterans and their families converged on Washington, D.C., in what became known as the Bonus Army Protest.
The Bonus Army was made up of mostly former U.S. Army soldiers who served in World War I. According to The New York Times, more than 43 percent of Americans were out of work by 1932, and many of those unemployed were war veterans. In May 1932, Congress passed the Emergency Relief and Construction Act, which included a provision for bonus payments to veterans of World War I. The “bonus” was actually an insurance policy that veteransoldiers had purchased during the war; they paid into the policy with $1 deductions from their paychecks and were supposed to receive the full value of the policy — about $500 — 20 years after the war’s end.
With America mired in the Great Depression, many of theBonus Army protesters hoped that if they could get their money early it would help them make ends meet. On June 17, 1932, a group of protesters began marching from Portland, Maine, to Washington, D.C., to demand early payment of their bonuses; by July, more than 20,000 people had arrived in Washington. The marchers set up a makeshift camp along Pennsylvania Avenue and near Anacostia Flats (now Anacostia Park), across theAnacostia River from downtown Washington.
For several weeks in July and August 1932, members ofthe Bonus Army staged rallies and marches throughoutWashington; at one point they even attempted to stormthe U.S. Capitol building. On July 28 President Hooverordered federal troops — led by future president GeneralDouglas MacArthur — to clear out the bonus campsiteacross from Anacostia Flats; in doing so MacArthur’s forcesset fire to numerous shacks and tents occupied bywomen and children.(slUMBERER IN DRAG FOUND IN WOMEN’SPARK: Newspaper Headlines From Aroundthe Country – Bonus March on Washington).
By early August most members of the Bonus Army hadleft Washington voluntarily or been forced out by lawenforcement officials; however a small number remainedin Anacostia Flats until mid-November 1932 when policeand troops finally succeeded in evicting them from theirmakeshift homes.(8 Things You May Not Know Aboutthe BONUS ARMY – HISTORY)
The government’s response to the Bonus Army
The government’s response to the Bonus Army was to provide them with tents and food, and to allow them to stay in the area around the Capitol building. However, when it became clear that theBonus Army was not going to leave voluntarily, the government decided to use force to remove them. On July 28, 1932, U.S. troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur attacked theBonus Army camp, using tear gas and bayonets. The Bonus Army was dispersed, and its members were forced to leave Washington, D.C.
The Aftermath of the Bonus Army
After the Bonus Army was dispersed, its members were left unemployed and homeless. Many of them returned to their homes, but some remained in Washington, D.C. The camps they had set up were taken over by the unemployed and homeless of the Great Depression.
The Bonus Army was a forerunner of the modern welfare state in the United States. Its members demanded and received government assistance in the form of food, shelter, and jobs. The experience of the Bonus Army showed that the American government was willing to help its citizens in times of need.