By Philip Scranton
The heroes of 1917 had become bums by 1932. On June 3, 1932, diarist Benjamin Roth of Youngstown, Ohio, wrote: "Thousands of world war veterans are marching toward Washington to demand that Congress pay them their bonus."
The march revealed in microcosm many of the social and economic fissures then roiling the U.S., and its disastrous conclusion would become a pivotal moment in its politics.
After lobbying by the American Legion, Congress passed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act in 1924, overriding President Calvin Coolidge’s veto.
The act provided payments of $1 a day for domestic service and $1.25 a day for overseas service from April 1917 to July 1919. Certificates bearing 4 percent interest with a total face value of $3.5 billion were issued to 3.3 million vets. These certificates would yield about $1,000 per person when they were paid -- which wouldn’t be until 1945.
This was actually "a 21-year endowment life insurance policy payable at death or in 1945, whichever came first," according to the book "The Bonus Army." For many veterans, the 1945 payouts were too far off.
Broke or nearly so, they started walking, driving and riding the rails to Washington to petition Congress for an early payout. Walter Waters, a former field artillery sergeant from Portland Oregon, organized veterans into the "Bonus Expeditionary Force" and led the march. Several hundred strong, they started eastward in early May in empty boxcars that railway officials reluctantly attached to a long-distance freight.
By April 1932, the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization had demonstrated wide support for the project, delivering petitions with 2.2 million signatures to Congress.
Meanwhile, Texas Representative Wright Patman’s bill to authorize early bonuses had stalled in the House Committee on Ways and Means, the gateway through which all legislation had to pass. Former Vice President Charles Dawes testified against the bill. He argued that issuing $2.4 billion in "fiat money," cash printed without accompanying taxation, "would undermine the credit of the country and shake the soundness of the United States Government itself."
He said it would be "an invitation to start on the primrose path Germany followed until her mark went down in 1923.
President Herbert Hoover promised to veto the legislation if it reached his desk, but the marchers hoped to persuade both Congress and the president to change their minds.
The bonus force was increasing. On May 28, the Wall Street Journal reported, "Bonus 'armies' are sprouting all over the country. More than half a dozen brigades are streaming toward freight lines and highways intent on urging payment of the soldiers’ bonus."
The New York Times added: "Rigid discipline has been enforced and there has been no sign of disorder. Those violating rules of the march, one of which prohibits use of liquor, have promptly been dropped."
On May 29, Waters told the Washington Post that he expected 20,000 more to arrive in the next two weeks. As contingents arrived in the capital, one Portlander claimed: "We are going to stay here until the bonus is paid, whether it is next year or 1945."
Washington's response would help to profoundly alter the course of the Great Depression.
(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the History of Industry and Technology at the University of Rutgers at Camden and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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