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The Bonus March and #OccupyWallStreet

Millions for the bankers and the large corporations but nothing for the ex-soldiers, not even their back pay. — theme song of the 1932 Bonus Marchers

The bankers got bailed out; we got sold out — chant heard at Occupations in 2011

Mass occupations protesting the obscene levels of corporate greed and the abject prostitution of most elected politicians from Obama on down to every whim and desire of the Big Banks and Wall Streets are now installed in parks and other public spaces across the continent.  With some of these occupations now facing eviction by the “forces of order,” it might be useful to recall their famous counterpart during the last Depression — the great Bonus Army March on Washington, D.C. in 1932.

By the spring of 1932, two and a half years on from the Wall Street debacle and the subsequent implosion of the global capitalist economy, the official unemployment rate in the U.S. had soared to nearly 25%.  Local governmental and private relief, pushed to the max, had largely run out; people were literally starving on American street corners.  The Hoover administration, stuck in the classical liberal paradigm, proclaimed its unwillingness to help out since that might undermine citizens’ “sense of self-respect.”  Ironically-named “Hoovervilles” of the destitute and homeless sprang up.

Back in 1924, Doughboys released from the military of Wilson’s “War to End All Wars,” who had been paid only a dollar a day during the conflict (compared to Henry Ford’s prevailing automotive assembly-line wage in Detroit of five dollars a day), were promised by Congress an additional dollar a day plus an extra 25 cents for each day they had served overseas, capped at $625 — but not payable to them or their surviving dependents, unless it was 50 bucks or less, until 1945.  The intent with this “adjustment” was to bridge some of the disparity between the wartime military and civilian pay rates.

This lump sum pledged for twenty years in the future to the war veterans, who were given interest-bearing certificates, became known as “the Bonus.”  But it was needed now!  An idea took off in the spring of 1932 for a march of the needy, out-of-work, and increasingly desperate veterans on Washington to put pressure on Congress — where a bill had already been introduced by the populist Democratic Congressman and World War I vet from East Texas, Wright Patman, to authorize an earlier cash payout.  The crying need would be harder to ignore if the politicians had to look the distressed veterans face to face.  The idea’s originator was a Portland, Oregon veteran, a laid-off and broke cannery worker, Walter W. Waters.  Waters talked the idea up with other vets around Portland.  The Congress had just passed the Reconstruction Finance Corporation Act for Hoover under which $3.5 billion would be loaned to banks and businesses to help them cope with the Depression.  Why shouldn’t the federal government pay out the Bonus to those who had served the nation faithfully when it was extending funds to foreign countries and now making loans to large U.S. corporations?

So, in May, a ragged 300-man “Bonus Expeditionary Force” set out from Oregon for D.C., often traveling by hopping onto boxcars provided by sympathetic railway workers.  News of the Bonus Army went frontpage around the country following a confrontation when a railroad refused to carry them in East St. Louis and the marchers responded by physically preventing any trains from leaving without them.  Branches of the Army formed in other regions and converged on the nation’s capital.  We might well say, in those long-ago days before Facebook and Twitter, that the story went “viral.”

By June 1932, over 20,000 men and some women and children were taking up residency in tents and other makeshift dwellings on the muddy flats along the Anacostia River in southwest D.C., and they refused to leave until their sole demand for paying their bonuses immediately was met.  Some also occupied partly demolished buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue.  Along that avenue, a dramatic parade of the veterans who had already arrived, some 8,000 altogether, including many veterans disabled from their war wounds, took place on June 8th.  As with the occupations today, the camps that were set up provided bases where meetings could be held and from which people could head off to do political things as needed and return.  Many went to lobby their representatives on Capitol Hill to pass the legislation.  Americans throughout the country were now paying very close attention to what was happening, and the Bonus March came to represent not just veterans and their particular issues but a more generalized protest against unemployment, poverty, and the government’s inaction.

Much like today’s occupations, the occupying force in 1932 set up its own food and sanitary systems and many sympathetic persons sent small amounts of money and brought in donations of supplies.  Some small gardens were started by the camp residents and a donated cow supplied milk.  Babies were born.  In honor of a friendly police officer, the Anacostia encampment was dubbed “Camp Marks.”  It was probably one of the most diverse spaces ever to have existed up to that point in U.S. history.  People were present from states all over the country, and the camps became a racially integrated space within a city that in those days was quite southern and heavily segregated.  (The military itself was segregated but the Bonus March camps were not.)  The Bonus Marchers put out their own newspaper, “The B.E.F. News.”  However, very much unlike today’s consciously nonhierarchical occupations — and not surprisingly given the men’s backgrounds — the main camps in 1932 were organized along military principles with a top-down command structure.  Drills were held daily.  Ex-Sgt. Waters, attired in a uniform, acted the role of Commander-in-Chief.  Waters asserted dictatorial powers over “his men” and flirted with creating a “Khaki Shirt” organization of veterans and non-veterans in imitation of the fascist black and brown-shirt movements in Europe.

As is the case now, much of the mainstream media back then disparaged the protesters, making up sensational stories about dangers to health and public order lurking in the camps.  President Hoover would later claim in his memoirs that the Bonus March was controlled by reds, hoodlums, and ex-convicts with opportunistic Democratic politicians as the other misguiding element.  Some communists — the CP had organized its own march of the hungry on the nation’s capital in late 1931 and had its own organization of ex-servicemen — were certainly present in the Bonus Army camps, trying to enlighten their fellow workers about the nature of capitalism as an inherently exploitative system.  They agitated among the rank and file for a more democratic decision-making process and organized more militant direct actions — leading thousands of veterans to occupy the Capitol steps and initiated a takeover of government buildings.  But historians are agreed that the Bonus protests took off as a spontaneous movement; they were not a “conspiracy.”  Many participants did not care for the communist presence, but some changed their minds through their own experiences with how the government in which they had once trusted let them down and through exposure to leftist ideas and by seeing how the communists were valiant fighters in the forefront of these struggles for justice.

The House did pass the legislation, but the Senate killed it and Congress soon adjourned — leaving many Bonus Army members dispirited and confused about what to do next.  Some left for home, a path supported by Waters who was by now hoping to dissolve the occupation to keep it from going in a more revolutionary direction.  Yet thousands still remained.  Waters was negotiating behind closed doors with the authorities, but decided not to share with the rank and file his info that a crackdown and forced eviction from the camps might be imminent.  Then, on July 28, Hoover ordered in the army led by the right-wing imperialist Gen. Douglas MacArthur (and including, among other officers, Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton of subsequent World War II fame) to clear the occupiers out of the buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue — using as the untrue rationale that contractors needed to have access to them.  No Gandhian passive resistance here.  The occupiers defended the buildings ferociously with bricks and clubs.  But the vets could not stand up against battle tanks, cavalry sabers, fixed bayonets, and tear gas.  On MacArthur’s own initiative, the army then turned to the Anacostia encampment which they set afire and burned.  When the smoke cleared, there were two Bonus Marchers shot dead by police and two babies expired from tear gas inhalation.

Thereupon the 1932 Bonus Expeditionary Force dissolved, with its members straggling home (if they had one to go to) as best they could, occasionally aided by sympathizers.  But, as John Dos Passos observed in his introduction to the CP’s semi-official 1934 account, Veterans on the March by Jack Douglas (pseudonym of Izzy Zolf), “One thing they did accomplish.  They gave the powers that be the scare of their lives, and set rolling the huge snowball of popular discontent that the next fall substituted the jackass for the elephant on Capitol Hill. . . .  The Bonus March in ’32 offered a cross section of the 90 percent of Americans who were not in on the big money, or even the small money.”

Less well-known, a second smaller Bonus March took place in D.C. when warmer weather returned the following year after Roosevelt had assumed the presidential office.  Hoover’s brutal treatment of the Bonus Marchers, captured on newsreel footage, had aided significantly to propel FDR into the White House on an unprecedented electoral landslide.  Expectations were high.  But FDR had campaigned for a balanced budget and there was considerable concern that he would not necessarily do the right thing himself.  He didn’t, although he did dispatch his wife Eleanor to sweet-talk the protesters rather than siccing the army.  Congress eventually passed the legislation in 1936 but only over Roosevelt’s veto.  In the meantime, to get the troublemakers out of Washington, many of the marchers had been offered and accepted work in the Civil Conservation Corps.  Some African-Americans were dispatched to build flood-control dams at CCC camps in far-off, all-white Vermont.  Walter Waters, at MacArthur’s recommendation, was rewarded with a clerical job at the War Department.  After that he faded into obscurity and took no further part in the mass movements of the Depression.

Clearly there are dissimilarities — and not only in terms of communication technologies — with the occupations taking place currently in 2011.  These occupations are not just national-specific but part of a truly internationalist movement.  While some friendly — and not-so-friendly — observers have criticized Occupy Wall Street for not putting forward a discrete set of demands, it would seem to this historian, from looking back at what came down in 1932, that taking a militant and uncompromising ethical stance rather than importuning the existing Power Structure to somehow do the right thing on this or that specific matter is a definite advantage.  If the existing Power Structure with its hollow “democracy” cannot or will not reform itself, which seems extremely unlikely, if they can’t figure out themselves that it’s broken for most of us, then just get the f–k out and let the people take over.  That from-the-bottom-up revolutionary message implicit in our current occupations is a much greater threat — or hope — than the supposed “communist coup” feared from the Bonus Army ever was — and why the 1% Ruling Elite seems set on using the means at its disposal to suppress and disperse them.

“We are the 99%!” is a wonderful slogan and motto with a broad-based populist appeal.  But today’s occupiers, at least many of them, are much more advanced in terms of their sophistication about the nature of the Power Structure, both political and economic, and how to constitute counter-power than were their predecessors (including the Reds of the 1930s and the radicals of my own Sixties-Era Generation).  Today’s occupations are beneficially influenced by post-Sixties feminist and ecological concerns and sensibilities and by non-hierarchical organizing methodologies developed by the New Left and honed by more recent anti-systemic movements.  Collective decision-making in General Assemblies and the “leaderless” — or, more precisely, everyone-is-expected-to-act-as-a-leader — character of the occupations makes it harder for particular individuals who have assumed leadership roles to turn into misleaders or sellouts and thus bring rack and ruin to a once vibrant movement.  As today’s occupiers can frequently be heard to say, “This is what democracy actually looks like.”

There are also judicious efforts among today’s occupiers — some know their history quite well — to try keeping the occupations from being drawn into that sticky quicksand trap of past social change movements named the Democratic Party and, in general, into the whole morass of electoral politics.

As an historian, I find that looking at any possible historical parallels for current events to see what lessons might be available is often quite worthwhile.  Past revolutionary or potentially-revolutionary anti-capitalist movements are always of interest; there are definitely things to be learned by examining them carefully.  If we look back at the 1932 Bonus March, we can see a number of parallels and extract some lessons.  But history with all its myriad twists and turns does not happen in the same way twice — and that’s a good thing.  In some cases, at least, we can see some genuine motion forward towards the goal of a just, equitable, and sustainable society.  Occupy Wall Street is on the move!  If some or even many of these occupations are put down in the short run, the growing power and intelligence of the people will surely detonate elsewhere.  There is no turning backward.


Jay Moore is a radical historian who lives and teaches (when he can find work) in rural Vermont.


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