Herbert Hoover (Library of Congress)
When Herbert Hoover took the oath of office of the presidency in March 1929, the nation seemed poised for a period of great growth and prosperity. A year before, the stock market had begun to soar — from May through September 1928 alone, the average price of stocks rose more than 40 percent — leading to a speculative fever that fed what appeared to be a healthy and robust economy. Hoover hoped to help maintain the boom by expanding social and economic policies he had espoused during his eight years as secretary of commerce in the Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge administrations. But it was not to be.
The rising markets led financial institutions to grant millions of dollars in easy credit loans, fueling the fever. On October 26, 1929, the bubble finally burst completely when 16 million shares were traded, and the indexes dropped some 43 points. While the stock market crash on that ‘Black Tuesday’ did not cause the Great Depression, it did signal that the supposed halcyon days were over. As the economy continued to unravel, Hoover attempted a number of reforms, but the crisis was so deep that nothing seemed to work, and the president’s political standing began to decline as well. Shantytowns called Hoovervilles sprang up across the country as people lost their homes to foreclosures and fled rural areas, seeking urban employment. Democrats made significant gains in Congress in the midterm elections, farmers protested on the Capitol steps and went on strike in the Midwest. Many Americans began to blame Hoover personally for the disaster, thinking him aloof, inflexible, uncaring and incompetent.
Those feelings were solidified in the nation’s mind following his reaction to the appearance of the Bonus Expeditionary Force in the streets of Washington, D.C. In the spring and summer of 1932, World War I veterans — perhaps more than 20,000 — and their families arrived in the capital to claim a bonus that Congress had promised them years before but was not to be paid until 1945. After weeks of peaceful protests and marches, tensions grew and tempers flared, resulting in fights between members of the Bonus Army and local authorities. Hoover ordered U.S. Army forces, under the command of Maj. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, to drive the marchers from downtown. MacArthur exceeded his orders by crossing the Anacostia River to drive the marchers from their camp and burn it to the ground. Whatever the facts of the case were, by sending armed soldiers against destitute veterans, Hoover was charged, in the public’s view at least, with insensitive cruelty — a view that would haunt him for the remainder of his days. Hoover became convinced that the constant attacks from the public and the press were the result of a smear campaign by political opponents. In this excerpt from volume 3 of The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: 1929-1941, The Great Depression, published by The Macmillan Company in 1952, Hoover presents his side of the Bonus March story.
Probably the greatest coup of all was the distortion of the story of the Bonus March on Washington in July 1932. About 11,000 supposed veterans congregated in Washington to urge action by Congress to pay a deferred war bonus in cash instead of over a period of years.
The Democratic leaders did not organize the Bonus March nor conduct the ensuing riots. But the Democratic organization seized upon the incident with great avidity. Many Democratic speakers in the campaign of 1932 implied that I had murdered veterans on the streets of Washington.
The story was kept alive for twenty years. I, therefore, deal with it at greater length than would otherwise be warranted. As abundantly proved later on, the march was in considerable part organized and promoted by the Communists and included a large number of hoodlums and ex-convicts determined to raise a public disturbance. They were frequently addressed by Democratic Congressmen seeking to inflame them against me for my opposition to the bonus legislation. They were given financial support by some of the publishers of the sensational press. It was of interest to learn in after years from the Communist confessions that they also had put on a special battery of speakers to help Roosevelt in his campaign, by the use of the incident.
When it was evident that no legislation on the bonus would be passed by the Congress, I asked the chairman of the Congressional committees to appropriate funds to buy tickets home for the legitimate veterans. This was done and some 6,000 availed themselves of its aid, leaving about 5,000 mixed hoodlums, ex-convicts, Communists, and a minority of veterans in Washington. Through government agencies we obtained the names of upwards of 2,000 of those remaining and found that fewer than a third of them had ever served in the armies, and that over 900 on the basis of this sampling were ex-convicts and Communists.
Some old buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue had been occupied by about 50 marchers. These buildings stood in the way of construction work going on as an aid to employment in Washington. On July 28th the Treasury officials, through the police, requested these marchers to move to other quarters. Whereupon more than 1,000 of the disturbers marched from camps outside of the city armed with clubs and made an organized attack upon the police. In the melee Police Commissioner Glassford failed to organize his men. Several were surrounded by the mob and beaten up; two policemen, beaten to the ground, fired to protect their lives and killed two marchers. Many policemen were injured.
In the midst of this riot the District Commissioners, upon Glassford’s urging, appealed to me. They declared that they could not preserve order in the Capital, that the police were greatly outnumbered, and were being overwhelmed. With the same right of call on me as municipalities have on the governor of any state, they asked for military assistance to restore order. At my direction to Secretary of War Hurley, General Douglas MacArthur was directed to take charge. General Eisenhower (then Colonel [actually major]) was second in command. Without firing a shot or injuring a single person, they cleaned up the situation. Certain of my directions to the Secretary of War, however, were not carried out. Those directions limited action to seeing to it that the disturbing factions returned to their camps outside the business district. I did not wish them driven from their camps, as I proposed that the next day we would surround the camps and determine more accurately the number of Communists and ex-convicts among the marchers. Our military officers, however, having them on the move, pushed them outside the District of Columbia.
I reviewed the incidents at once to the press, saying in conclusion:
‘Congress made provision for the return home of the so-called bonus marchers who have for many weeks been given every opportunity of free assembly, free speech and free petition to the Congress. Some 6,000 took advantage of this arrangement and have returned to their homes. An examination of a large number of names discloses the fact that a considerable part of those remaining are not veterans: many are communists and persons with criminal records.
‘The veterans amongst these numbers are no doubt unaware of the character of their companions and are being led into violence which no government can tolerate.
‘I have asked the Attorney General to investigate the whole incident and to cooperate with the District civil authorities in such measures against leaders and rioters as may be necessary.’
General Glassford, shortly afterwards, published a series of articles stating flatly that he had opposed calling out the troops, and that he could have handled the situation without them. The Attorney General, however, took sworn statements from the District Commissioners proving that Glassford had implored them to call for troops. Among the statements to the Attorney General was one from General MacArthur stating flatly that General Glassford had appealed to him directly for help and accompanied him throughout.
The misrepresentation of the bonus incident for political purposes surpassed any similar action in American history. Not only did Roosevelt use the incident in the 1932 campaign, but Democratic orators also continued to use it for twenty years after, despite all the refutations and proof to the contrary. I was portrayed as a murderer and an enemy of the veterans. A large part of the veterans believe to this day that men who served their country in war were shot down in the streets of Washington by the Regular Army at my orders — yet not a shot was fired or a person injured after the Federal government took charge.
And it was I who, as President, provided more for World War I veterans in need than any previous President, as I placed all needy and sick veterans on disability allowances.
That the Bonus March was largely organized and managed by Communists became clear with the passage of time, through disclosures by Congressional committees and repentant Communist leaders who participated in it. Benjamin Gitlow, who was a leader in the Communist Party, later published a full account of the movement in which he described the organization of the march and its direction in Washington by a Russian Communist agent from a safe hotel room, and the anger of the director when the attempt failed after the troops took charge without hurting a single veteran.
This article was originally published in June 2004 issue of American History Magazine.
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