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What was the Bonus Army?

What was the Bonus Army?

Bonus Army veterans in front of the U.S. Capital.

What was the Bonus Army?

The United States faced many problems during the Great Depression.  So did President Herbert Hoover. One notable problem he faced was his public image after the handling (or perhaps, mishandling) of the marchers in the “Bonus Army”.

The Bonus Army is a term that refers to about 10,000 to 20,000 veterans of World War I, and their families. They were also known as the Bonus Expeditionary Force. They converged in Washington, D.C. from all over the country in 1932 to march for the support of the Patman Bill. The Patman Bill was being debated in Congress, as it was intended to pay bonuses to veterans for their service during World War 1. Congress approved the bill in 1924. The bonus that the Patman Bill was supposed to pay was a life insurance policy, and an average of $500 cash. However, the bonus was also intended to be paid out in 1945.

Since the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression, Congressman Wright Patman thought that the government should pay the bonuses as soon as possible to ease many of the veterans’ suffering. Many World War I veterans still had not been compensated for their service during the war. An unemployed cannery worker from Oregon named Walter Waters led the Bonus Army to Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States. But despite their efforts, President Herbert Hoover did not support the Patman Bill. In fact, President Hoover considered the marchers of the Bonus Army to be communists and people with criminal records.

Although President Herbert Hoover did not support the Bonus Army marchers’ viewpoint or the Patman Bill, he did support their right to a “peaceful assembly”. He provided them with supplies and food, to enable them to build a “shantytown” while they protested.

The Senate voted on the bill on June 17, 1932. To the dismay of the Bonus Army and supporters of the Patman Bill, the bill did not receive enough support in the Senate. The bill failed to pass.

After the bill was voted down in the Senate, President Hoover wanted the Bonus Army to disperse. Many of the marchers packed up and left town at the president’s request. However, 2,000 of them stayed behind to continue to try to persuade the president and the government. President Hoover was worried that the Bonus Army would start trouble.

A Bonus Army shantytown burns from military confrontation.

A Bonus Army shantytown burns from military confrontation.

Following the orders of President Hoover, General Douglass MacArthur commanded an army of 1,000 soldiers to disband the Bonus Army. To make the Bonus Army marchers leave, the soldiers used bayonets, tear gas bombs, and set fire to the shantytown buildings. As a result, an 11 month old infant died. An 8 year old boy lost part of his eyesight. Numerous people were injured, and a few people were even shot.

The nation was shocked to learn about how the Bonus Army was treated, which in turn negatively affected President Herbert Hoover’s public image. The damage to his image was a major blow, as he was already losing the confidence of the American throughout the Great Depression. This certainly didn’t help him — in fact, 1932 was an election year.

In the presidential election of November 1932, President Hoover lost to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.


References: The Americans – McDougal Littell – ISBN 0-618-68985-0

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