Dec 12, 2011
Against the background of the Occupy protests across the country, it’s useful to recall an earlier “occupy” movement: the occupation of Washington, D.C. in 1932 by more than 20,000 World War I veterans and their families.
For years, the veterans had demanded a bonus to make up for the extremely low pay they received in the military. In 1924 Congress had voted them the bonus, but withheld payment until 1945, which led veterans to sarcastically call it the Tombstone Bonus.
In the spring of 1932, the march to demand the bonus was started by unemployed and penniless veterans in Portland, Oregon who started to trek across the country. As word spread of their march, they were joined by thousands more vets. By late May, the first contingents had arrived in Washington.
The veterans and their families set up camps at various places around the city. The largest camp was in a muddy, swampy flat across the Anacostia River from the Capitol. Approximately 10,000 veterans, women and children built shelters from materials dragged out of a junk pile nearby – old lumber, packing boxes and scrap tin covered with roofs of thatched straw. The veterans laid out streets, dug latrines, set up kitchens, sick bays, libraries, classes, entertainment. Music of all sorts was everywhere. And the veterans carried out regular lively demonstrations and rallies demanding their bonus.
Not often mentioned was the fact that the occupation was integrated at a time when segregation was still the law of the land in Washington, D.C., a southern city, as well as in the military. To the horror of officials of government and military big wigs, the black and white veterans broke down those barriers. As Roy Wilkins reported in Crisis magazine, “Black men and white men, veterans of the segregated army that had fought in World War I, lined up equally.... For years, the U.S. Army had argued that General Jim Crow was its proper commander, but the Bonus marchers gave lie to the notion that Black and white soldiers – ex-soldiers in their case – couldn't live together.”
Less than a month after the veterans arrived, Congress hurriedly put a Bonus Bill up for a vote. On June 15, the House voted in favor. Two days later, with 10,000 people waiting anxiously outside, the U.S. Senate defeated it overwhelmingly, 62-18. The crowd reacted with stunned silence. A silent “Death March” began in front of the Capitol.
Over the next weeks, the veterans continued to hold regular demonstrations to demand that President Herbert Hoover grant them their bonus. But Hoover refused and instead prepared to forcibly end the occupation. In the early morning of July 28, he ordered the police to remove the Bonus Army veterans squatting in some abandoned buildings near the Capitol. Thousands of veterans from around the city joined the fight.
Immediately after a policeman shot and killed two veterans, Hoover used the violence created by his police as the pretext to bring in the U.S. Army. Later that afternoon, more than a thousand cavalry, infantry, as well as several tanks and armored vehicles, under the command of Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur and Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, drove the veterans and their families out of the camps, setting the camps on fire. Two babies were killed and the nearby hospitals were overwhelmed with casualties.
Despite this crushing blow, the veterans organized a second, smaller occupation in Washington, D.C. in 1933. The new president, Franklin Roosevelt, who had defeated Hoover in 1932, also opposed the bonus. Instead, Roosevelt got the veterans out of Washington by pushing tens of thousands of them into the WPA programs – with little money and no security.
But the vets finally did get their bonus. In the face of a real working class revolt, with factory occupations and mass strikes, Congress overrode Roosevelt’s veto in 1936 and granted the veterans their bonus.