After the Bonus Army

The political tool of occupation is becoming more and more well-known with the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement, despite having been a tactic in the U.S. for a very long time. Activists in America have had occupations in their arsenal from the Bonus Army of the Great Depression to the May Day action during Vietnam right up to California student activists over the past couple of years. Today I wanted to highlight one of the more well-known occupations in our history.

After fighting in the Great War, veterans that had suffered through years of the Great Depression decided to take action. In 1924 they had received certificates that would not be redeemable for two decades, and with the Depression hitting them hard many demanded they get paid early. Nearly 20,000 veterans and their families, the so-called Bonus Army, descended upon Washington and occupied the Anacostia Flats. What everybody knows about the Bonus Army is that they were routed by the U.S. Army, led by Douglas MacArthur. When the army attacked the camp to evict the protesters, several veterans were wounded and a baby died, allegedly due to use of tear gas. The incident is often cited as one of several final nails in the coffin of President Hoover’s reelection campaign. But what happened afterwards?

What most text books don’t cover is that the Bonus Army returned when Roosevelt was President. During the campaign, Roosevelt had also criticized the protesters, but as president he did not resort to using force to oust them. Instead, he placated them by erecting a camp in Virginia to provide them with food and shelter. He eventually made room in the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was intended for young, unmarried men, for the veterans to find work. Eventually, Congress would overwhelmingly support an authorization to pay the veterans in 1936, overriding Roosevelt’s veto.


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