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The Bonus Crusade

ISSUE:  Winter 1933

The Bonus Expeditionary Force of World War veterans smote Washington’s consciousness on the night of May 30, 1932, that is to say, of Memorial Day. Its coming had long been heralded. From all over the country had emanated dispatches telling of nonplussed yardmasters, jittery welfare workers, and raging deputy sheriffs who had sought to deflect or impede the bands of veterans in their progression to the capital. These reports had been read by an unimpressed Washington. It is a community long accustomed to the ballyhoo of people with missions to the District of Columbia and the institutions housed within its boundaries. Washington has learned that, of the many who start, few arrive, and that most of these last are void of either effectiveness or entertainment value. Even the facts that several hundred marchers had reached town, had called on Congress for bonus legislation, and had thrown themselves on the bosom of the police chief for food and shelter,—even these events had been provocative of little more than gossip and sarcasms. The formal introduction was reserved for Memorial Day.

Memorial Day culminated in the traditional parade down Constitution Avenue at nightfall. Washington likes parades. It puts in much of its time turnabout in marching and in watching its neighbors march. Most of this parade was no different from its predecessors. Leather-faced regulars from Fort Myer strode their horses or sat stiffly upright on the artillery caissons. Beefy national guardsmen flinched at the bump and pinch of military equipment. Cadet Corps stalked abroad solemnly and importantly. Veterans’ societies, male and female, streamed past in regalia which proved conclusively that man’s soaring imagination can rise superior to the trammels of an economic depression. Literally acres of bands achieved sublimation into Sousa. Then, in the midst of it all, came something different. Down the avenue crawled a little column. At its head blared a well-fed band of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, aluminum ersatz trench helmets tilted at a jaunty angle. Behind them came an American flag; grouped around it were a dozen men on whose breasts crosses and medals glinted dully in the lamplight. And behind them in turn followed the less distinguished bonus marchers in close-formed company. They were gaunt and flat-bellied. Most of their clothing was threadbare. But every man was freshly shaven and every shirt was clean. Their elbows were back, their chins were in, and they walked with the thirty-inch parade step they had learned fifteen years before. The B. E. F. was making its public debut.

The spectators watched them with a catch in their throats. These were “the boys” for whom nothing had seemed too good in 1919. Now here they were, hungry, homeless, and ragged, spiritually naked except for a wistful gallantry. And in addition they were superb theatre. Everything was just right: the time, the occasion, the contrast with their fellow paraders who, tomorrow, would have jobs to which to repair. Washington, which has a pretty taste in showmanship, sensed it all. Here was something more simple, more sincere, more gripping than presidents, premiers, princes, lobbyists, grafters, murderesses, or movie stars. The crowd cheered and clapped in a great surge of enthusiasm. The B. E. F. had stolen the show.

But — and this is important — the marchers remained a show. They aroused sympathy, interest, and curiosity, yet they never became, even momentarily, an organic part of the Washington community. Local organizations contributed to their support. Chain groceries and tobacco stores provided baskets where their customers could deposit gifts for the veterans. These receptacles were fairly well patronized, to the benefit of the merchants and the marchers, and presumptively to the spiritual comfort of the donors. The various camps were thronged with visitors. Yet the average Washingtonian, despite the large veteran element among government employes, never felt that “there but for the grace of God go I.” The B. E. F. came as aliens, stayed as aliens, and finally were expelled as aliens. In consequence, if they had sought to bring about any social upheaval, local or national, during their sojourn in Washington, they were prevented by their psychological isolation from indoctrinating the masses of the community. Even if the B. E. F. had contained the potentialities of revolution, this state of affairs narrowed its purview to the potentialities of riot.


Washington, then, regarded the B. E. F. in July much as it did in May. There had grown up a little boredom with it and some vexation at the tendencies of the marchers to grift and panhandle. But the community’s fundamental objectivity of outlook remained unchanged. So far as the capital was concerned, its attitude toward its visitors could be expressed in terms of psychological statics.

Now, contrary to appearances and even expectations, the temper of the B. E. F. showed a similar uniformity, almost monotony. It is true that its stay was attended by a ferment of events. There were, first of all, the set pieces, the public presentations of the movement: the Memorial Day parade, the hammering and lobbying of the bonus bill through the House of Representatives, the rejection of the bill by the Senate, the “Death March” of several hundred men led around the Capitol by Roy Robertson in the closing days of Congress, the abortive radical demonstrations at the seats of legislative and executive power. There were the tragi-comic struggles for place within the ranks of the marchers. There were the earnest efforts of Gifford Pinchot and Smedley Butler to muscle-in upon and to appropriate the movement. There was the vague tendency to make common cause with the Jobless Party and the drift toward fascist organization. There was the steady pressure of the radicals in the direction of provocation and violence. There was the final drama of the expulsion while the tanks rumbled and bayonets gleamed through the murk of tear gas. All of these events and tendencies, even if many of them were contradictory, would seem fitted to stir up powerful mass drifts in the emotions of the B. E. F.

Nor was this all. The marchers were not a homogeneous body. They came from all parts of the country and from widely varying walks of life. Some were congenital tourists, making a cheap and exciting trip to Washington. Some were hoboes and bundle-stiffs, drifting where the kitchens called. Some were doctrinaires of currency inflation, more enthusiastic over the economics of the bonus than over its payment to them as individuals. Many of them were skilled craftsmen, ex-foremen, former shopowners, ground down to the common level of unemployment by the weight of the depression. Some were manifestly unemployable. Hundreds drove to the camps in their own automobiles. A considerable proportion enjoyed regular incomes from the Veterans Bureau for various degrees of disability. Many were in the most abject state of destitution, threadbare of clothing, of purpose, and of hope.

The human composition of this army was continually shifting. Men came and went as they willed. Adventure, boredom, unemployment, and the vague hope of money brought them to Washington. Jobs, boredom, disillusionment, and full stomachs sent them away. At its peak the B. E. F. had more than twenty thousand individuals in its camps. Perhaps seven thousand remained to be evicted on July 28th. Of these probably not more than three thousand had records of a month’s uninterrupted stay in the capital.

And yet, with this steady change in personnel, and with the varied stimuli impinging on the collective consciousness of the B. E. F., its mass mind continued singularly placid and unmoved. It, too, was a study in statics. One reason for this, of course, was the marchers’ vagueness of purpose. They were no legions of blackshirts converging on Rome to take over the government. They were no British unemployed resolved on the abolition of a means test. Theirs was not the brawling swagger of a Coxey’s Army. They had nothing in common with the Hunger Marchers who, in their contact with Washington, came, stayed, and went in the essence of provocation. If we are to seek a parallel to them we must go far, far back to times when men’s relationships were simpler and faith was simplest of all. If we are to find their prototypes we must turn to the Children’s Crusade, when the weak and the meek trudged blindly toward the Holy Sepulchre. These men, too, were weak. Theirs was the terrible meekness of acknowledged helplessness. And they came to Washington, not in the hope of accomplishment but in the hope of Miracle. With this spirit it is little to be wondered that their mass capacity for psychological dynamics was limited.

But in addition to this innate passivity, there existed another sedative factor, equally important. As the ex-soldiers arrived in camp and organized their forces they assimilated themselves to discipline. It is true that this discipline was superficial in character. It operated, not through the personality of the commander nor through the limitations of laws and regulations, but rather through the kitchens and their presiding mess-sergeants. He who did not conform did not eat. Its tangible results were only the orderly alignment of tents and shacks, the fairly scrupulous cleaning of the camps, and, to some extent, the segregation of the radical element. Its intangible effect was vastly more important. Discipline in itself is an anodyne. It makes men plastic for leadership, but only for that contained within the organization. A disciplined army is psychologically null until there is infused into it a soul by leaders it knows as its own. Discipline makes its subjects suspicious and resentful of the outsider, of him who seeks to impose an external compulsion over and above that by which they are already restrained. Thus it was that the wiles of Father Cox, of “Mr. Zero,” of Smedley Butler, of Gifford Pinchot, and of John Pace, the radical, met with no response. They fell on men dulled by discipline, whose mental eyes refused to lift from the metaphorical napes of the necks in the front rank.

While thus denied alien commanders, the B. E. F. was bankrupt in its own leaders. Aside from their venal scrambles for place and notoriety, the numbing hand of passivity bore down inexorably upon them. Of course, if they had been big men they would have thrown it off. But they, too, were children of the crusade. They, too, lived for Miracle.

This dulled lethargy of the B. E. F. was nowhere more apparent than in its grand scene, its behavior when the Senate voted down the immediate payment of the adjusted compensation certificates. Once again it was twilight deepening slowly into night. On the lawns of the Capitol and of its steps stood and sprawled six or eight thousand men. They talked and wisecracked with a bitter gaiety; for they had been told the bill was doomed. Their wistful eyes hungrily followed every spectator who seemed to have a spare cigarette.

In the Senate chamber the business of killing the bill droned out its weary coil. There were the usual set speeches, undertaken with no faint expectation of changing a vote, their oratory rumbling like empty carts along endless country roads. There were the usual dignified straddles of explanation for the mollification of sensitive constituencies. There was the usual window dressing of elder statesmen reading their newspapers with dignified unconcern while the debate flowed about them. Only in the galleries was there tension; through them passed an interminable stream of coatless, sunbrowned veterans. They came in, sat anxious, eager, and silent, then for no apparent reason rose and left, and others took their places. The only interpolated sounds came from the floor itself. There, as each speaker completed his periods, a single, hopeless voice implored, “Vote! Vote! Vote!”

On the North steps outside the Capitol there suddenly sprang up a khaki-clad figure. The admirable lighting system seemed to focus on him and picked out the highlights in his yellow hair. It was Walter W. Waters, nominal commander of the B. E. F. He raised his arm in the fascist salute, and a shiver ran through the air as the marchers rose to their feet.

“Comrades,” he called, “Comrades, we have just experienced a temporary setback. The Senate has rejected the bill. . . . Let us show them that we can take it on the chin. Let us show them that we are patriotic Americans. I call on you to sing ‘America.’ “

A few voices rose, then the anthem soared from thousands of throats. The air was thick with pathos. It was a moment of high, unalloyed tragedy, a catharsis acceptable to the mightiest of gods—but there was no sense of rebellion. Miracle had failed; perhaps tomorrow, somehow, there would be Miracle.

“Three boos for Hoover 1” called a voice. They were given; but they were a formula, not an outburst. The crowd began to melt away across the lawns as it strolled toward the camps. The Army Band filed into the stand for its weekly Capitol concert. It played, as scheduled, a characteristic program featuring Latin-American music.

Such, then, was the temper of the Bonus Expeditionary Force. For two months it sat in its camps and cantonments. It yawned, it scratched. Its stomach gradually filled with free food. The summer sun tanned its face and arms and back. It savored the open air, unmindful of the sour tang of garbage and the faint fetor of the latrines. It was back in the Army after fourteen years. Psychologically isolated in an alien community, any tendencies it might have had toward forcible political action were foredoomed. Such tendencies could have developed, for it was spiritually plastic. But they did not. Around the suggestible kernel of the group were thick insulating layers of self-imposed discipline and of the mysticism of humility. At that given time and place the B. E. F. was not the stuff of revolution.


Is it fair, however, to write the B. E. F. off the books of revolution merely because it failed to develop the proper psychoses while it was a coherent entity? In actual fact are not its scattered fragments, wandering as groups and individuals over the face of America, carriers of a revolutionary virus? There can be no doubt that such results were the goal of the small communist element. They felt, of course, that any mass disorders that could be fomented in Washington would be all to the good. But their major aim was to inoculate the marchers with class consciousness and then to scatter them to carry the gospel over the nation’s expanse. This was obvious at all the mass meetings held by the Workers’ Ex-Service-Men’s League. Barred from the camps, they selected the little open spaces so generously provided in L’Enfant’s Washington. There they unfurled an American flag and their own white banner on which were blazoned a laborer, a sailor, and a legless negro soldier, arm in arm. There they harangued for hours little gatherings that seldom exceeded two hundred in number. The burdens of their message were two. First, they urged stronger measures in the fight for the bonus. “Comrades, we should demand, not ask!” And, secondly, they sought passionately to undermine the authority of the marchers’ constituted leaders. The vanity, the self-seeking, and the incompetence of these officers, together with their friendly relations with officialdom, were relentlessly pilloried. Only oblique references were made to capitalists and capitalism. The objective was plainly the disintegration of the B. E. F.’s organization. If its reintegration could occur under their auspices, that, too, would be splendid. But the prime consideration was its reduction from a coherent group into snarling, embittered individuals.

The results achieved were almost nil. While the B. E. F. held together it was girded in its armor of discipline and mysticism. And when it was driven from the capital, the circumstances of its expulsion prevented it from becoming a revolutionary organism. This result was probably unheeded in the calculations of those who ordered out the Regular Army to clean up the camps; but it was not without some importance to the existing social order.

The rights and wrongs of the use of troops on July 28th have become a subject so controversial, so tainted with political significance, that their correct evaluation is almost impossible. On the one hand, you have the B. E. F. entrenched in Washington, with its immediate aspirations nullified, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Its numbers were dwindling, but there seems little doubt that a rump of two or three thousand marchers would have stayed on indefinitely until dispossessed by some sort of force. To limit disorder the Metropolitan Police of Washington had been compelled to convert themselves into a welfare agency to see that the veterans were fed and sheltered. They had made friends of the marchers, but their authority was unquestionably diminished. On the other hand, there seems to have been no valid reason why the specific occasion for the eviction should have arisen when it did.

Be that as it may, on the morning of that burning July 28th the police set to work to expel the veterans from one of their eyries, a group of condemned and half-demolished buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue and near the Capitol. In the process clashes inevitably arose. A spirited episode of brick-throwing developed and then the situation quieted. The police caught their breath and returned stolidly to their task. Another flurry of scuffling started. A knot of veterans cut off a policeman and battered him down. Suddenly his revolver flashed. The crowd fell away from him and there were two forms sprawling on the ground. Silence and inaction supervened. The police and the marchers fell apart, eying each other coldly, neither force venturing into the other’s territory. Everyone seemed to be waiting for something.

Word of what they were awaiting came characteristically. No heralds appeared, no bailiffs came in due solemnity to read a Riot Act. Instead out ran newsboys, not bothering to shout. In their hands they displayed the Hearst evening paper with one eight-inch headline splashed across the front page:


The police waited. The veterans waited. Their numbers had been swelled by reinforcements from other camps and they filled their beleaguered area to the curb line. Across the street stood thousands of spectators, waiting. A cordon of police was hastily provided to keep them from harm. Among them circulated news vendors, sellers of ice-cream cones, agents of the B. E. F. newspaper who proclaimed in voices of brass: “Read WHY we’re doing this.” The waiting dragged on. As hours passed the obscene curiosity of the crowd began to flag.

Up the Avenue the sun glinted on steel. The soldiers. Sabers drawn, four troops of cavalry clattered by, each in single rank, thirty men abreast. Six tanks followed them, coughing, wheezing, thumping like iron foundries. Across the street two troopers and a led horse trotted up. In a matter of seconds they had assembled and loaded a machine gun. A minute later and it was packed on the horse again, and the little group stood there, instantly available. Now the tanks had passed and behind them appeared a column of infantry. As compared with the middle-aged veterans they seemed mere striplings. Their bayonets were fixed and they wore steel trench helmets. (Did anyone recall the silvered helmets of that band behind which he had marched on Memorial Day?) They halted. Then, at a word of command, about a hundred formed a cordon along the front of the marchers’ stronghold. They pushed forward. The veterans gave back, flowing into the interior of the buildings. Then, as though a spring had been compressed too far, the marchers surged up to the curb again.

Here was the zero instant of the B. E. F. and revolution. A few coping stones from the walls above, and there would have been dead men on Pennsylvania Avenue. There would have been a clamor for vengeance against the government not only by the B. E. F., but by thousands who had worn the uniform in France. But no stones fell. There was no forcible reaction to the troops.

An officer shouted an order. The soldiers donned gas masks. Suddenly they threw smoking tin cans into the crowd of marchers. Tear gas. There was a panicky rush away from the curb. The infantrymen entered the buildings. The doors and windows belched forth veterans, who were running before their feet touched the ground. Across the area plodded the soldiers, still throwing tear gas grenades. Black smoke and orange flame rose from the shacks constructed between the buildings.

And here occurred a surprising psychological event. The veterans showed very little rancor toward the soldiers. One element seemed to regard the whole eviction process as an enjoyable riot organized for their special amusement. They cursed blood-curdlingly. They threw paving stones which bounced off the stolid cavalry horses or rocked the stocky troopers in their saddles. Until they discovered the tear gas containers were red hot, they tried to pick them up and hurl them back at the infantrymen. To them it was a fine public fight and a splendid opportunity for manly sports.

But the majority were different. While they too cursed, their profanities had a sardonic sting. “Soldiers? Oh, Yeah? Tin soldiers! Why, hell, I was totin’ a Springfield when you wore rubber pants. You son-of-a-bitch, you ain’t old enough to shave yet.” And as they reviled the men in olive-drab, you realized that, while they did not know it, they were thinking subconsciously that these soldiers were the men they had been in the Great War. They recalled how they, too had been young, alert, ready to go through hell at a sergeant’s whistle. And because they saw their younger, stronger, unconquerable selves across the bayonets, they did not resist and they could not hate.

That is the whole story. The B. E. F. in being was inherently estopped from becoming a revolutionary force. Of its dispersed members today, a few may drift into revolutionary parties. Many more might affiliate with a fascist organization if one should materialize sufficiently plausible and sufficiently glamorous. But the vast majority of these men have failed to accumulate a potential of revolution because they feel that they left Washington, not under the compulsion of a brutal and tyrannous government, but as ghosts fleeing before their real selves of fifteen years ago.


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