Blogs > HNN > Murray Polner: Review of Paul Dickson & Thomas B. Allen's The Bonus Army: An American Epic (Walker, 2005)

Mar 9, 2005 2:34 pm

Murray Polner: Review of Paul Dickson & Thomas B. Allen's The Bonus Army: An American Epic (Walker, 2005)

The movement for a bonus for World War I veterans began in 0regon, when Walter Waters, an ex-junior officer, recruited some 250 veterans demanding payments once promised them for their wartime service. Calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, they headed for Washington on boxcars and donated trucks and cars, harassed on the way by government authorities terrified that this scruffy bunch of men they once forced into uniform were, God forbid, communist revolutionaries. Ironically, the authors tell us, Waters later developed fascist sympathies.

Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen’s The Bonus Army arrives at a propitious moment, given the inordinate sacrifices now being demanded of soldiers and marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sooner or later, a large number of new veterans, both whole and wounded in body and mind, will return home demanding benefits from an administration loaded with policymakers who never served in the military. (Disclosure: I knew Dickson years ago when he published an article in a magazine I edited.) Dickson is the author of books on Washington’s fledgling think tanks and on electronic warfare and Allen’s subjects have included Pearl Harbor and Admiral Hyman Rickover. Together they have produced an impressive, important, and extremely well researched account of what happened when the U.S. reneged on its pledge.

Dickson and Allen credit a young scholar, Cielo Marie Dorado Lutino, whose study of the Bonus Army wondered why historians consider the Bonus protests “an insignificant event” and “why they ignored the impact of the largest and most sustained public demonstration of the Great Depression.” It is difficult to say whether or not the protest was a central event in our past but it probably helped Franklin D. Roosevelt defeat Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election.

Not long before, in May 1932, amidst the bleakness of the Great Depression, Pelham Glassford, the Washington, D.C. police chief and a West Point graduate, one of the authors’ heroes in this book (the other is Wright Patman, the Texas congressman who sponsored and fought for a bonus), spied two men, one carrying the flag and another a banner reading, “Bonus or a Job.” They too were on their way to the nation’s capital, where in a brief period of time, veterans and their women and children set up scores of shacks called Hoovervilles. Many WWI veterans felt abandoned and betrayed by their government.

A fundamental question posed by Dickson and Allen is why the government reneged on the WWI Veterans Act, which had granted ex-servicemen an “adjusted universal compensation” bonus certificate redeemable in 1945 or in the event of their death. They argue that racism and the prevailing and widespread anti-Communist hysteria played crucial roles. Black soldiers had been segregated during the war and surprisingly, “America’s 404,000 black soldiers, barred from all-white units, had fought under a French flag.” The BEF, however, was integrated and Roy Wilkins, a reporter for the NAACP’s publication Crisis, dreamed it might be a model for a new America. But Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur’s “most trusted subordinate” Brigadier General Van Horn Moseley viewed the BEF’s racially mixed protesters as evidence that “Negro and Jewish” Communists were plotting to overthrow the government.

Even so, the veteran’s agitation continued until they were forcibly expelled. President Herbert Hoover, Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley and MacArthur were all convinced that the Communists had taken over the protest; Hoover in his memoir claimed that 900 Bonus veterans “were ex-convicts and Communists,” which all proved to be nonsense though opportunistic Communists falsely claimed a far larger role than they ever had. Hoover was reluctant to use force, however, and claimed he merely wanted to surround the camps to find out the number of Communists present. He issued an order through Hurley to avoid the use of force. But the imperious MacArthur -– who Harry Truman rightfully fired for insubordination during the Korean War -— deliberately chose to attack, with bayonets, tanks and gas. Two vets died. The Hoovervilles were burned. As military units stood by with machine guns, Glassford, who denied that the BEF was communist dominated, said that he witnessed “brutality” not by the military but by “the Hoover administration’s attempt to make political capital out of hunger, misery and despair.” The sight of the American army attacking American veterans was so appalling that public sympathy shifted in favor of the BEF; FDR later told his friends that it made his election a certainty.

Presidents from Wilson to FDR opposed granting a bonus for varying reasons. Wilson, who never cared much for black people, had lost his superficial appetite for progressive reforms early on. Better to battle Mexicans and the Germans and jail Eugene V. Debs and other dissenters. Even if he had not fallen ill, there is no reason to believe he would have taken the side of the integrated Bonus veterans. Calvin Coolidge and Hoover were concerned about the impact a bonus might have on the economy yet they spent money protecting corporate interests in the so-called Banana Wars in the Caribbean and Central America. Franklin D. Roosevelt balked at awarding bonuses because he insisted the Depression’s victims had a higher priority.

Finally, Congress overrode Roosevelt’s veto in 1936 and 3,518,000 WWI veterans received bonuses totaling $1.9 billion. Eight years later, as WWII was slowly beginning to draw to an end, over the objection of the arch-demagogue Rep. John Rankin of Mississippi, who argued that any veteran benefit bill which proposed to grant $20 for 52 weeks to black veterans would, write the authors, be “a frontal assault on white supremacy and the so-called two-tier economic system in Mississippi and in much of the old South," Roosevelt signed the very popular GI Bill on June 22, 1944, one of the most effective and rewarding pieces of legislation ever enacted.

It changed the nation economically, socially and politically and enlarged the educated middle class tenfold. This was the bonus marchers’ true legacy to future veterans of America’s constant wars, even the unjust ones. There were others, though, as when thousands of angry Vietnam veterans paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington in April 1971 to protest the war they had been forced to fight. The Bonus Army was not forgotten. In one of the famous Nixon tapes unearthed by Dickson and Allen, John Mitchell asked Richard Nixon what to do about the demonstrating veterans. “Leave them there,” answered Nixon. “I don’t wanna, uh, like the Bonus March ‘n; all that stuff. You recall poor old Hoover and MacArthur, you know."

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Dayfydd Griffing - 8/1/2008

Most veterans of WW1 used to talk about the way the so-called Spanish Enfluenza was introduced into the war-time U.S. by an incompetent medical corps forcing expiramental innoculations on soldiers in Kansas... Vaccines were just being developed, and our soldier boys, who had very little say over it, were the test mice selected. If you add the flu casualties worldwide from this plague-like, horrific epidemic, WW1 was a huge disaster in terms of lives lost and ruined families.

james walter zobel - 8/17/2005

I enjoyed reading the review of Dickson and Allen's book, however, I have a few comments.

Hurley's order to MacArthur dated 28 July 1932, 2:55 PM clearly states,

"Surround the affected areas and clear it without delay."

Also, didn't the two veterans die during the fight with District Police? Wasn't it their deaths that led Hoover to call out the army.

Also, sorry to keep going on, but MacArthur was fired for holding views not in "support to the policies of the United States Government and the United Nations in matters pertaining to his official duties." Insubordination was not the reason. Secretary of Defense Marshall confirmed this before the Senate investigating committee in May 1951. Had the charge been for insubordination MacArthur would have asked for a court martial and that was the last thing the Truman administration wanted.

Keep up the good work


Don Adams - 3/14/2005

This is a truly bizarre submission. Ostensibly a book review, it fails to answer even basic questions about its subject: How long is it? Is it for a scholarly or a general audience? Does it offer any new insight or information? Does the reviewer recommend it? Instead, we are given a 1000-word reflection on its author's thinly disguised contempt for American conduct. When, for example, Polner discusses Woodrow Wilson, who died 8 years before Bonus Army marched on Washington, he cannot resist a speculative sideswipe:

"Wilson, who never cared much for black people, had lost his superficial appetite for progressive reforms early on. Better to battle Mexicans and the Germans and jail Eugene V. Debs and other dissenters. Even if he had not fallen ill, there is no reason to believe he would have taken the side of the integrated Bonus veterans."

Well, maybe, but such extraneous asides add nothing to his readers’ understanding of the book he is reviewing. Even more telling is Polner's assertion that the federal government "reneged" on its promise to WWI veterans at the time of the Bonus Army march. Thoughtful readers will note that the government could hardly renege in 1932 on a the payment of a bonus which was not due until 1945.

These and other characterizations make clear that Polner is less interested in telling us about Dickson and Allen's book than he is in offering gratuitous commentary American conduct. Even readers who share his sensibilities will have to look elsewhere for useful information about “The Bonus Army: An American Epic.”