Remembering FDR’s Engagement with Another Occupation

Reprinted from New Deal 2.0 (October 28, 2011)

By David Woolner

FDR engaged with the Bonus Army instead of cracking down. Today’s mayors should take note.

The violence that broke out in Oakland earlier this week and the wounding of Scott Olsen, a Marine veteran, recalls a similar “occupy movement” involving veterans that took place in Washington at the onset of the Great Depression.

In 1932, thousands of unemployed World War I veterans, desperate from lack of work, converged on Washington, mostly by riding the rails, in support of a bill that would have allowed them to receive immediate cash payment of the war service “bonus” they were due in 1945. The veterans called themselves the “Bonus Army” or “Bonus Expeditionary Force.” By the end of May of that year, more than 20,000 had occupied a series of abandoned buildings near the Washington Mall and a sprawling shantytown they built on the Anacostia Flats not far from the Capitol. On June 15, 1932, the House of Representatives passed a bill in favor of the veteran payments, but as both President Hoover and a majority in the Senate opposed it, the “Bonus bill” went down to defeat two days later.

In the wake of this defeat, roughly 15,000 members of the Bonus Army decided that they would continue their occupation as a protest against the government’s decision. By late July, President Hoover decided it was time to clear the city of the protesters, using four troops of cavalry under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. Late in the afternoon of July 28, General MacArthur’s troops — with sabers drawn — cleared the buildings near the Mall. They then fired tear gas among the men, women, and children encamped in Anacostia (many veterans were accompanied by their families); stormed the area on horseback, driving them out; and intentionally burned the shantytown to the ground in the process. More than 1,000 people were injured in the incident and two veterans and one child died.

In attacking the shantytown, MacArthur had exceeded his orders, which were simply to clear the buildings and surround the camp so as to contain it. But this meant little to the public, who were outraged at the treatment the veterans had received at the hands of the government and furious at Hoover for ordering the operation. Hoover, nevertheless, remained publically unrepentant and refused to apologize to the veterans — moves that contributed greatly to his massive loss to Franklin Roosevelt a few months later.

FDR, for his part, was disgusted by the whole affair. When a smaller group of about 3,000 Bonus Marchers converged on Washington with the same demand a year later, FDR took quite a different approach. Where Hoover had refused to meet with the protesters, FDR invited a delegation to come to the White House. He also provided the marchers housing in an unused army fort, made sure that they were given three meals a day plus medical attention, and sent Eleanor Roosevelt to engage them in further discussions and check on their condition. Not wanting to single out any group for special treatment, in the end he refused to support their demand for the early payment of their pensions. But the men were offered work in the newly formed Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which 90 percent accepted. Shortly thereafter the Bonus Marchers voted to disperse, and those that opted to return home rather than join the CCC were given free rail passage.

Perhaps the municipal authorities in Oakland, New York, and elsewhere might learn something from FDR. They could use a lesson on the value of dialogue and the benefits a government that is responsive to the needs — if not the demands — of its citizens.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book on U.S.-UK economic relations in the 1930s, entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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