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Horrific history of Hoovervilles has relevance today
The Bonus Army
THE ‘BONUS ARMY,’ as those who lived in the ‘Hoovervilles’ that sprang up around Washington D.C. were called, was pushed out of Washington by cavalry, infantry, tanks and machine guns. When the veterans moved back into the camp, police drew their revolvers and shot at the veterans, two of whom, William Hushka and Eric Carlson, died later.

BackTalk is a column that appears weekly in the County Line newspaper in Ontario. Publisher Emeritus Karen Parker is the author.

Here is stuff they did not teach you in history class.

When peaceful protesters were cleared from Lafayette Park last week with pepper spray, flash bombs and men on horseback nearly trampling people and slugging the unarmed with nightsticks and batons, it was a chilling sight. Marching and protesting is as American as apple pie. We are always for or against something: war, abortion, gay rights, animal rights, religious rights, civil rights, maybe even uncivil rights. The Constitution guarantees us the right to take to the streets, yell, scream, and stamp our feet. And despite claims from Attorney General Bill Barr about “thrown projectiles,” there is no evidence of any dangerous behavior or even threats from the crowd. 

Then, when Donald Trump threatened to send in the military, the retired top brass went into a dead swoon. There is something a bit creepy about sending in the military, who has sworn to protect us from our enemies (and whom we support with our taxes), and have them turn even a small bit of their enormous fire power on grandmas, on parents pushing strollers, youngsters in flip-flops and the occasional disabled person in a wheelchair. That’s what happens in banana republics and dictatorships, not here in America, home of the brave, the true and red, white and blue.

Oh, but there was this little incident in 1934 when American troops fired on not just moms in T-shirts and sandals, but on veterans. American veterans, no less!

Many of them were older guys carrying old war wounds, and, along with their wives and children, nearly all of them were suffering from the ravages of the Depression.

Throughout our history, veterans were traditionally reimbursed with either land grants or cash to make up for the income they would have enjoyed in private life had they not enlisted or been drafted. By the Spanish American War, the tradition had faded. But, in 1924, President Calvin Coolidge vetoed a bill granting bonuses to veterans of World War I, saying, "Patriotism... bought and paid for is not patriotism." Congress overrode his veto a few days later, enacting the World War Adjusted Compensation Act. Each veteran was to receive a dollar for each day of domestic service, up to a maximum of $500 (equivalent to $7,500 in 2019), and $1.25 for each day of overseas service, up to a maximum of $625 (equivalent to $9,300 in 2019). Amounts of $50 or less were immediately paid. All other amounts were issued as Certificates of Service maturing in 20 years. 

Can you imagine anyone enlisting now being told, “Just hang on; we’ll get you a check by 2040.” “Thank you for your service” would have to suffice. But the Depression caused many veterans to lose patience. They wanted their money. Despite support from Congress, President Hoover and his Republican allies determined the country would have to raise taxes to pay the veterans, and that might slow the recovery from the Depression. Too bad, so sad for the veterans.

And then the veterans read the Constitution and noted it would be just dandy if they went to Washington to appeal their grievance. Since they didn’t have homes, they took the wife and kids. As it was before the age of Super 8 (not that they could have afforded it), they set up shantytowns around Washington. Approximately 10,000 veterans, women and children lived in the shelters that they built from nearby junk piles, including old lumber, packing boxes, and scrap tin. The camps were tightly controlled by the veterans, who laid out streets, built sanitation facilities, and held daily parades. To live in the camps, veterans were required to register and to prove they had been honorably discharged. Not only were they peaceful, but also they employed all of the organizational skills they had learned in the service.

But Congress wasn’t any brighter then. They turned down a bill 62–18 to move up the date of the payout. That caused the veterans to amass on the capitol steps. We still don’t know what Hoover was up to, although clearly he wasn’t looking for a photo op, nor was he brandishing a Bible. But he was ticked off, and he ordered the Secretary of War to disperse the protesters. 

The ‘Bonus Army,’ as they were called, was pushed out of Washington by cavalry, infantry, tanks and machine guns. When the veterans moved back into the camp, police drew their revolvers and shot at the veterans, two of whom, William Hushka and Eric Carlson, died later. Hushka was an immigrant to the United States from Lithuania. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, he sold his butcher shop in St. Louis, Missouri, and joined the army. 

Carlson was a veteran from Oakland, California who fought in the trenches of France in World War I. It’s kind of a unique way to thank them for their service, wouldn’t you say? Their widows immediately got their bonuses.

But still it was too much for Hoover and his chief of staff, Douglas McArthur. Hearing rumors that the veterans were planning a major Communist uprising, MacArthur ordered troops to assemble immediately south of the White House. 

Within the hour, the 3rd Cavalry, led by Patton, arrived with the 12th Infantry. Although the troops were ready, Hoover twice sent instructions to MacArthur not to cross the Anacostia bridge that night, both of which were ignored, as MacArthur gave orders to cross the bridge and evict the Bonus Army from its encampment. 

The ‘Bonusers’ and their families were attacked in their shanty shacks by the 12th Infantry Regiment, Fort Howard, Maryland, and the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, supported by six M1917 light tanks commanded by Major George S. Patton.

When the unarmed veterans fled to another camp, they were attacked again with bayonets and tear gas. Fifty-five veterans were injured, and a 12-year-old boy died after a tear gas attack. Evidently, MacArthur also had failed to read the Constitution. 

Although Roosevelt (elected in 1932) feared that paying the bonuses would be inflationary, Congress agreed to move the pay day up to 1936. But it was Franklin’s wife Eleanor who met with the marchers, and then persuaded her husband to create 30,000 positions in the newly formed CCC Corps for the veterans. 

“Hoover sent the Army, Roosevelt sent his wife,” commented one veteran. 

Oh yeah,  guess who won the 1932 presidential election? Hint: It’s not Hoover.

Many believe his defeat was directly related to his stupid decision to attack the protesters with military troops. Ah, the lessons of history, if only that history was being read by our leaders. Driving protesting veterans out of Washington was not our finest hour, nor were the activities of June, 2020. 

‘Make America Live Up to Its Promise’ could be a good slogan for 2020 just as it would have been in 1934.