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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

December 8, 2010: Bonus Babies

Americans have a long tradition of marching on Washington in protest. And I’m not trying to seem young and talk about the 1960s like they require getting into the way back machine—I’m talking about a long tradition, one that actually predates the Constitution and even led to a particular clause being included in it. In 1781, with the Revolutionary War still ongoing but entering into a significantly less heavy phase, much of the Continental Army was demobilized without pay, and in 1783 a large number of veterans marched on DC, surrounded the State House, and demanded that money; Congress fled to New Jersey (joke about born to run would work on all kinds of levels here, but I’ll resist), forces in the regular army expelled the protesters, and four years later the Constitution was framed to include a section noting that the Posse Comitatus Act (which forbids the use of the army in civilian police work) did not apply within the borders of Washington, DC. But despite this founding presence of marches on Washington, I would argue that the 1932 Bonus Army, in its own moment and most especially in the years afterward, signaled the true arrival of this form of social and political activism.
The Bonus Army, which was the popular shorthand by which the self-titled Bonus Expeditionary Force came to be known, was a gathering of over forty thousand World War I veterans, family members, and interested parties that descended on Washington in the spring of 1932. The vets, who had not in many cases been what we would consider adequately compensated during the war, had been awarded Service Certificates by a 1924 law; but those certificates did not mature and could not legally be paid until 1945, and with the Depression in full swing and veterans hit particularly hard by unemployment and its attendant ills (as they always seem to be), the Bonus Army decided to push for immediate payments. To say that their march on and then multi-month occupation of Washington ended badly is to understate the case—in late July the Hoover administration ordered the army (led in prominent roles, interestingly enough, by Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Patton) to remove the marchers, and in the course of that removal the marches (who again included women and children in significant numbers) were driven out with bayonets and poison gas, and their makeshift camp was burned to the ground. Hoover wasn’t likely win the 1932 presidential election in the best-case scenario, but these events, coming about three months before that election, likely cemented Roosevelt’s victory.
And it’s really precisely the aftermath of the Bonus March, the way in which such a literal and tragic defeat became a multi-part public relations and then very real victory, that made it a potent model for future protesters. Among the Roosevelt administration’s earliest actions was an effort to reach out to the marchers, with Eleanor Roosevelt in particular working to get many of them enrolled in the Works Progress Administration. When Roosevelt balked at actually changing the law to pay out the Service Certificates early, Congress stepped in, overriding a presidential veto, and paid the Certificates in full in 1936, nearly a decade before they would legally come due. And many contemporary observers and subsequent historians have credited the publicity surrounding the Bonus Army with contributing heavily to the creation of the GI Bill of Rights in 1944, an act that made immeasurably better the reentry into civilian life for veterans of World War II. For all these reasons, organizers and leaders of the 1963 Civil Rights-connected March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom cited the Bonus Army very specifically as a key influence and inspiration, and of course many later groups have likewise taken up similar strategies of social and political protest and activism on the most national and public stage.
It’s entirely possible that, with the competing Glenn Beck and Stewart/Colbert rallies of this past fall, marches on or gatherings in Washington have jumped the cultural shark, or at least have become so ubiquitous as to be individually meaningless. It may thus be difficult, but is I believe crucial, to remember the deadly seriousness of the Bonus March—not only because of the tragic immediate results, nor even because of its significant long-term successes, but also and most meaningfully because it brought together a group of previously largely unheard and ignored Americans and forced the nation, at least for a time, to engage with their perspective and recognize their contributions to our history and community. More tomorrow, on the national symbol that we keep using but that does not mean what we think it means.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      Couple of nice pieces from the Library of Congress’s American Memory collection on the Bonus March:
2)      Much more extended, and chock full o’ historical goodness (connected to contemporary politics in spots for sure, but still lots of primary sources in here), blog post on it:

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