This largely forgotten episode in history is the subject of Johanna Skibsrud’s new novel, Quartet for the End of Time. Here, Skibsrud – the winner of Canada’s Giller Prize (the equivalent to Britain’s Booker) – tells you everything you need to know about the Bonus Army.
Q: Who led the Bonus Army?
A: The Bonus Army was a group of more than 20,000 unemployed First World War veterans, their families and supporters, who marched to Washington DC in the spring and summer of 1932 in order to demand immediate cash payment of their wartime ‘Bonus’.
Their leader – a charismatic veteran from Washington State named Walter Waters – organised a sprawling, makeshift city for his followers on the Anacostia flats and along Pennsylvania Avenue. By July, numbers had swelled: some 43,000 Bonus marchers were camped, almost literally, outside the White House gates.
Q: Was the ‘Bonus’ really a bonus?
A: No. It was an insurance policy – payable at death, or 1945, whichever came first. It had been implemented back in 1924. The term ‘Bonus’ was, in fact, officially rejected by the American Legion: it implied that the veterans had already received adequate compensation.
In 1945, the Bonus, or ‘adjusted service certificate’ would be worth 125 per cent of the value of each veteran’s service credit (based on days served). But, by 1932, with record unemployment rates and the country facing mass starvation, the veterans were no longer willing to wait that long.
Q: Who supported the march, and who didn’t?
A: Among supporters of the veterans and their cause were railroad workers, who added extra boxcars to trains; corporations and private citizens, who donated money and food; and religious, political and community leaders, who urged the veterans on when their spirits flagged.
To those in power, however, the Bonus Marchers represented not an organised protest of starving patriots with a very specific agenda, but the threat of an imminent communist takeover.
It was true that a small faction of Bonus marchers (vehemently, and sometimes violently, opposed by Walter Waters) were led by the communist organiser, John T Pace. It was also true that, as the summer progressed, Waters grew increasingly militant in his approach. He openly modelled himself after Benito Mussolini, whose rise to power had been spurred by his support of First World War veterans in his own country.
Q: So what happened?
A: Despite large-scale protests and numerous attempts at negotiation, no significant progress had been made in passing the Bonus Bill, which would compensate veterans for their wartime service, by the time Congress adjourned for the summer on 16 July 1932. Now there were 43,000 starving veterans and their followers camped at the doorstep of the White House, with no hope of having their case heard until December, when Congress reconvened.
Something had to be done.
On several occasions before, the veterans had been urged to leave peaceably. At one point, they were even offered cash, and instructions to leave town on the first available train. Very few took up the offer, however, and it was rumoured that those who did, did so only in order to recruit more men.
On the morning of 28 July, Waters received an eviction notice – effective immediately. Soon after, government forces, led by no less a figure than General Douglas MacArthur, stormed both the Pennsylvania Avenue and Anacostia Camps, smoking out 10,000 men, women and children – including at least several veterans of the 42nd ‘Rainbow’ division, which MacArthur himself had led into battle at Verdun and through the Marne.
At the end of the riot, the Bonus camps had been burned to the ground, the forces scattered, and two veterans were dead: William Hushka, aged 35, a Lithuanian immigrant and veteran from Chicago, who had sold his butcher shop to join the US army in 1917; and Eric Carlson, 38 years old, from Oakland, California, who had survived the most brutal of the fighting in France.
Q: Did the veterans ever receive their Bonus?
A: Yes. For four years after their forced expulsion from the city, the veterans continued to return to Washington – though never in the same numbers as they had in the summer of 1932. Finally, in 1936, Congress overrode Roosevelt’s symbolic veto, and the Bonus Bill passed through the house. Soon after, the veterans were issued their payments – the average payout somewhere in the vicinity of $550.
Q: And that was the end of it?
A: Yes and no. Though few people remember the Bonus Army now, or the riot of 1932, the Bonus movement led directly to the creation of the present-day GI Bill [The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, which provided a range of benefits for returning Second World War veterans], and indirectly to FDR’s ‘New Deal’, along with several key ventures designed to put the veterans back to work.
If we let it, the Bonus Army also continues to serve as a reminder of how difficult it can be, when it comes to the question of unpopular wars and what is owed, to settle on a fair price.
Johanna Skibsrud’s new novel, Quartet for the End of Time (Cornerstone Publishing) is now on sale. To find out more, click here.