Swans Commentary » swans.com May 18, 2009  



The History Lesson


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - May 18, 2009)   In the early tough days of the Great Depression when apple peddlers huddled on street corners and soup kitchens were crowded with bedraggled men, women, and children relying on handouts in order to survive, the national climate changed from sullen acceptance of poverty to a burgeoning sense of agitation leading, in some quarters, to open revolt. The labor unions became vociferous and the impoverished converted their despair into what had hitherto been unthinkable in America: a rebellious movement clamoring for justice -- by which they meant food, jobs, and the restoration of some degree of human dignity. During this troublesome period, the closest thing to a nationwide rebellion was the straggly veteran-brigades called the Bonus Marchers.

Six years after the end of World War I, the American Congress, wanting to compensate servicemen for the years they spent in the trenches and the loss of revenue imposed by wartime service, passed the Adjusted Compensation Act. Under its provisions, veterans of the Great War received a policy in 1925 that could be cashed twenty years later. On average, the value of this policy, after the addition of a 4% interest rate, would have been about $1000 for each veteran.

When the Depression began to take its toll and as many as ten million Americans were jobless and hungry, it seemed like a cruel irony to wait until 1945 for a bonus that, if paid immediately, could go some way towards alleviating their economic suffering. When they had returned from France, they had been welcomed as heroes and now, a scant fifteen years later as foot soldiers in the Army of the Unemployed, they were being deprived of basic necessities such as food and shelter.

Veterans from all over America began to agitate for payment of the bonus now when it was desperately needed rather than wait for 1945 when many of them might be dead. Congressmen in all 48 states were deluged with letters and petitions; newspaper editors added their voices to those of left-wing agitators in calling for the bonus to be paid at once. By 1931, the vets had found a politician to champion their cause. Representative Wright Patman of Texas promised he would sponsor a bill to pay the bonus immediately and that neither President Herbert Hoover nor any other American president would ever dare veto such a measure.

But Hoover and the Republican businessmen who were both his friends and his backers, were dead-set against the bonus payments. They feared it would unbalance the budget and send an already precarious economy into an even greater tailspin.

Social conditions continued to deteriorate and the number of disgruntled veterans increased exponentially. By 1932, the discontented masses had created a leader for what was now referred to as "the Bonus Army." He was Walter Waters, an ex-garage mechanic, bakery helper, automobile salesman, and farmhand from Portland Oregon who had fought at Meusse-Argonne and at Aisne-Marne and had recently been sacked from his job at a local cannery. He, like so many of his fellow Americans, could not find work -- but he could agitate and agitate he did -- to whatever cluster of veterans would listen to him.

But hungry men are also apathetic men, and despite Waters's exhortations, he could not ignite them to action -- until, that is, Representative Patman's bill was shelved by the House Ways & Means Committee and what had begun as a groundswell became an avalanche. Thousands of ex-servicemen, now convinced that their government had no intention of addressing their grievances, combined with Waters's exhortations for the Bonus Army to march on Washington D.C. and demand their payments. It became that most frightening of all social phenomena: a national movement with a fanatical political goal.

Hopping onto freight cars all over the country and assisted by sympathetic politicians and ordinary men and women in almost every state, over 25,000 veterans landed in Washington D.C. in the summer of 1932 and rapidly constructed encampments in empty lots, abandoned buildings, and public parks throughout the city. New batches of veterans arrived at the rate of a thousand a day. Washington had never seen anything like it and Congress and the president quietly panicked at the size of the invasion. Many of them saw it as a calculated attempt on the part of Communist subversives to unseat the government. They asked Police Commissioner Pelham Glassford, himself a veteran of World War I, to try to contain the growing multitudes and maintain some kind of order. Glassford was liked and trusted by the Bonus Army and he and Sergeant Waters managed to forge a working alliance that kept the "occupying army" under some degree of control. But the agitation for the payment of the bonus never relented and every member of Congress and every inhabitant of the Capital was constantly reminded that a large horde of hungry and angry ex-servicemen were on their doorstep demanding their country recognize their distress.

On June 13th, the House of Representatives voted to pay the bonus immediately. The veterans were euphoric, but the Senate vote was still to come. The night it was to be announced, over eight thousand veterans massed on the stairs of the Capitol singing old army songs and waving placards to promote their cause. Shortly after the vote was taken, Sergeant Waters was summoned inside to meet with the lawmakers. After about five minutes, he emerged to address his troops. The bonus bill had been defeated sixty-two to eighteen.

The assembled vets received the news in stony silence. No one made a move to leave. It was a moment that could have turned into a riot or a wave of collective grief. The desperation in the eyes of the ex-servicemen was for something greater than hunger for food. Something deep in their notion of "country" had failed them and they were trying to come to terms with it. Waters put on as brave a face as possible and gently urged the vets to disperse, but virtually no one moved. Someone suggested to Waters that they sing "America." Tentatively, listlessly, devoid of any feeling, a small cluster of men began the song. Little by little, it was taken up by others and before long, the multitude was spilling what remained of their broken hearts into the anthem: "America, America, God shed His grace on thee/And bless thy good with brotherhood/From sea to shining sea...." The song done, the crowd, united by a silent despair, turned from the steps of the Capitol building and wandered off into the night.

Although the Congress of the United States had spoken, the people to whom they had addressed their words had refused to listen. The vets stayed on in their makeshift huts, in their Hoovervilles and flimsy tents throughout the capitol. The government offered them free railway transportation back home, the cost of the tickets to be deducted from their bonus payment in 1945, but only a handful of men took up the offer. The large majority, still fired by Waters's determination that the lawmakers' minds could be changed, hung on. The Communist agitators in their midst became more and more vociferous, even defiant, in the face of the congressional snub. Hoover, who had consistently refused to meet with Waters and other veteran leaders, was said to have barricaded himself in the White House and viewed the whole national incident as an embarrassment to his own administration -- which, in fact, was in its final months.

The patience of the Washington officials and the military leaders who advised them was fast giving out. People in high places began to talk about "routing" the veterans whose occupation of public lands and government-owned buildings was clearly in defiance of the law. Waters got the message loud and clear from Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General Douglas MacArthur -- so clearly in fact that he politely asked MacArthur, should troops be called out against the Bonus Marchers, would his men be given an opportunity to collect their belongings and "retreat in an orderly fashion." MacArthur assured him that, should such an exigency occur, they certainly would.

Events moved faster than either man could have suspected. On July 28th, the men were ordered to evacuate government-owned buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue and told they had only ten minutes to obey the command. Clearly this violated the promise given Waters by MacArthur. Both he and his men felt betrayed. Within moments, a hundred policemen, many of them ex-servicemen themselves and heavily reinforced by federal agents, surrounded the buildings and the rout was officially on. Bricks were thrown, windows smashed, teargas released, and then, a shot rang out mortally wounding William Hrushka, a thirty-seven-year-old veteran who, ironically, had been a casualty during the 1914-1918 war. Word of the incident immediately reached MacArthur's headquarters and, within moments, the army, numbering over eight hundred troops, was mustered into service against the veterans.

The attack by government troops upon the men who eighteen years before had themselves been loyal government troops, was sustained and vicious. It was instigated by General Douglas MacArthur and his adjutant, Major Dwight D. Eisenhower and its marauding cavalry charges were led by General George Patton. (Ironically, one of the routed bonus marchers named Joe Angelo had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for saving Patton's life in 1918.) After the bloody event, there were some grave questions as to just how much initiative MacArthur had assumed without presidential directives.

The vets and their families (many of whom had joined them in Washington) were goaded out of their flimsy huts and tents; many of them were burned out. Reinforcements were recruited from nearby army bases. The vets were forced across the river towards Anacostia Flats and away from the heart of Washington. In addition to infantry, cavalry, and artillery forces, tanks were mustered into service. Two veterans would die in the charge and one child would be gassed to death. Within a few hours, the whole of the Bonus Army had been effectively driven out of the Capitol and, in the midst of smoke and plunder, one of the darkest chapters of American history came to a close.

"That mob down there," MacArthur was to say afterwards, "was animated by the essence of revolution." They were "insurrectionists" and "if there was one man in ten in that group today who is a veteran it would surprise me." The makeup of the Bonus Army was never in question. These were men who had served their country and were hoping to get something back from it to sustain their lives in the worst economic times America had ever known. But it served MacArthur's ends, and others', to pretend that they had put down an uprising that would have threatened the safety of the Republic.

We are living in different times today and our wobbly recession has not yet matured into a full-fledged depression, but the lessons from the Bonus Army episode become more and more relevant as the divide between rich and poor, employed and unemployed, the protected and the endangered, reverberate throughout the nation. It was World War II that resolutely ended the depression of the 1930s. Our own wars are now in progress -- both in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and should events conspire to hurl us into additional military adventures, it is doubtful it would salvage the economy as it did before. But wars apart, there is a frightening similarity between the despair that enveloped the nation in the thirties and the malaise that is currently dragging down its spirit.

I don't anticipate for a moment that the current recession will trigger a revolutionary uprising and the severed heads of politicians will roll in the streets of the Capitol, but as nations in Africa, the Middle East, and even Europe demonstrate, the spirit of rebellion is potentially always there and any population pushed too far has a breaking point. There are three stages that a roiled citizenry go through. First there is sullen resentment of injustice, deprivation, and economic hard times. Then there is hope that things will dramatically change. When those hopes are frustrated and poverty, injustice, and hunger combine, there is a collective combustion that blows the lid off all those frustrated hopes and accumulated grievances. What saves America from such a fate is the fact that deep within the national psyche, the guarantees proclaimed in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence remind us that there is a solidity to American life that, no matter how stressed it may be, will ultimately assert itself. We have to rely on that idealistic assumption if we are to survive and we have to remind ourselves that despite the presence of looters, thieves, conmen, and spoilers, there is an idealistic foundation that will guarantee not only our survival but our victory over the greatest turmoil and deprivation.

That, in any case, is the optimist's belief. What the pessimists believe is too frightening to contemplate.


[Parts of the material for this article were derived from Marowitz's introduction to a recently completed film script entitled STARS AND STRIPES.]


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 18, 2009