Here a demonstrator is clubbed and tear-gassed, but there real reforms are won: thus unfolds this memorable story of a now-forgotten episode in 20th-century history.
The idea that WWI veterans should receive a bonus for their service took years to build and years more to fulfill. As popular historians Dickson (Sputnik, 2001) and Allen (Code Name Downfall, 1995, etc.) write, part of the delay was a matter of political clout; whereas Civil War vets formed a powerful and populous voting bloc and agitated for pensions, by the time Woodrow Wilson sent troops off to war in Europe, his notion was that soldiers would pay for their own life insurance and “there would be no demand for postwar compensation to those who were not injured during their service.” Veterans in Oregon thought otherwise, and soon African-American vets from Virginia and hill-country farmers from Tennessee would join in their call for what was now being called a “bonus” for service. When neither Congress nor presidents would cough up, the vets began to organize nationally, and in 1932 thousands arrived in Washington to protest the Senate’s defeat of a bill that would have funds for them. Sure that the leaders were Communists, Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur sent in troops, routing the ethnically mixed protestors and killing some. On hearing the news, Franklin Roosevelt reportedly said to an aide, “This will elect me,” and indeed it seemed one of the last straws for the Hoover administration. Ironically, the Bonus Army’s leadership was far more inclined to the right than the left, so that even as MacArthur was blustering about the Reds, a group of financiers approached a retired Marine Corps general to lead an army of veterans to stage a coup. The general replied, “If you get these 500,000 soldiers advocating anything smelling of fascism, I am going to get 500,000 more and lick the hell out of you, and we will have real war right at home.”
The lesson the New Deal government took home: avoid ticking off discontented veterans, whence the GI Bill. A lively, engaging work of history.