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U.S. WWI Veterans occupy Capitol Hill for adjusted payment (Bonus Army), 1932
After fighting in World War One, American soldiers returned home to find that they had missed out on the chance to earn a significant amount of money while away. The average soldier was paid much less than the average factory worker during the First World War, and in an effort to win back some level of equity, WWI veterans lobbied Congress to compensate them for the wages they had lost out on while serving the country in combat. They carefully used the phrase "adjusted compensation" (instead of "bonus", a term used by their opponents) to describe the money they argued they were owed. In 1924, the US government issued what it termed "adjusted universal compensation" to its World War One veterans (along with their families). These certificates promised to pay $1.25 for each day a veteran had served abroad, and $1.00 for each day a veteran had served in country. They were to be paid by 1945. By 1932, however, the United States was at the peak of the Great Depression, and 25% of the population was unemployed. The WWI veterans began lobbying to have their bonuses paid to them early, as many of them were not only unemployed, but also homeless.
In May of 1932, thousands of unemployed and homeless veterans, many of them traveling with their entire families in tow, began camping out in Washington, DC. The largest "tent city" was in Anacostia Flats, very nearby to the Capitol building. Although termed by the media as the "Bonus Army," the veterans called themselves the "Bonus Expeditionary Force", a play on the "American Expeditionary Force", which was the name for the American troops sent to fight in France during the war. Led by Walter Walters, a former cannery worker who emphasized that there would be no begging, “drinking, or radicalism" in the camps, the veterans proceeded to create extremely well organized systems of operation. They marked clear roads within the camps, dug latrines, and held daily military formations and non-violent marches arguing for their payment.
The orderliness of the campsites simply made the government's refusal to give the veterans their money seem all the more unjust. By engaging in non-violent and non-communism-related conduct, the veterans sought to make themselves appear as the noble and worthy recipients of the compensation. Several other protests and marches against the lack of resources, jobs, money, and food to the American people had already taken place, some spouting communist ideals and ending in violence. In light of these previous campaigns, Army Chief of Staff MacArthur was suspicious that the "Bonus Army" was running a communist conspiracy to overthrow the government. In contrast to the other protests, however, the veterans labeled their efforts as an example of "pure Americanism."
By the end of May, there were an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 veterans living in the camps near the capitol with their families. Their goals were to shame the government into giving them their money and demonstrate how a transformed social and economic system could work. They vowed to stay in the camps they had established until the Veteran's Bill, which would allow them to be paid their money immediately, was passed.
On June 15, the House of Representatives passed the Veteran's Bill, but it was blocked two days later in the Senate. As tensions increased, the veterans became more and more angry. On July 21, Washington Police Superintendant Pelham D. Glassford was ordered to begin evacuating the veterans and their families from the buildings they had been occupying near Pennsylvania Avenue. One week later, on July 28, several marchers rushed at Glassford's police and began throwing bricks at them. President Hoover, who was soon to be up for re-election, ordered the Secretary of War to clear the affected area "without delay.”
Although there is some dispute about whether or not he was in fact ordered to do so, MacArthur followed the veterans across the bridge that led to the rest of their encampments on the other side of the Anacostia River. There, the authorities used tear gas and drawn swords, as well as a number of other weapons, to systematically destroy all of the marchers' tents and possessions. The protesters, in response, shouted "Stand clear as long as you can!" and stood by as their campsite was subsequently burned to the ground. Two veterans and two babies were killed in the chaos, while the local hospitals were overwhelmed with the injured. The attack marked the end of the veteran's campaign.