Washington tends to make history in its corridors, not in its streets. One consequential exception is said to be the Bonus Army fiasco of 1932, during which President Herbert Hoover loosed federal troops on unarmed, unemployed war veterans and their families as they demonstrated peacefully in the nation’s capital. Three months later, Hoover was booted from office, breaking a Republican hegemony dating back to the Civil War and ushering in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal which, of course, changed America forever.
Histories cite the Bonus Army episode as a turning point in the 1932 campaign. It represents, writes David Kennedy in “Freedom from Fear,” “the lowest ebb of Hoover’s political fortunes.” Roosevelt’s biographers claim the incident outraged Americans and convinced them of Hoover’s hard heart. In fact, the Bonus Army affair was one of the few things that went right for Hoover in 1932.
Some 10,000 Great War veterans had gathered in Washington in the summer of 1932 to lobby for an early payout of war service funds due them in 1945. They camped or squatted around town, unsettling the locals who were unaccustomed to the presence of so many unoccupied men. Hoover avoided the veterans but distributed food and clothing to their camps, quietly so as not to invite more to town.
On July 7, the Senate soundly defeated a bill to distribute $2.5 billion to the veterans, agreeing with Hoover that there were better forms of Depression relief. Most of the Bonus Army called it a summer and returned home. A militant minority, however, refused to leave and in the weeks that followed tensions heightened.
District of Columbia police tried to evict veterans squatting in several buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue on July 28. A riot ensued. Two marchers were shot dead. Six policemen were hospitalized. D.C. authorities asked that federal troops clear the buildings and Hoover obliged, with strict instructions that they were to be gently herded back to their main camp across the Anacostia River.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur used cavalry, tanks and tear gas to chase a ragged band of veterans over the 11th Street Bridge. Ignoring his orders, he followed them across the river and torched the entire encampment of Anacostia Flats. He then held a press conference congratulating Hoover on his firm hand: “Had the president not acted within 24 hours, he would have been faced with a very grave situation.”
As evidence of public outrage at this use of force, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s “The Crisis of the Old Order” quotes the Washington Daily News on the “pitiful spectacle [of] the mightiest government in the world chasing unarmed men, women and children with Army tanks.” David Kennedy and FDR’s biographers cite Democratic partisans Rexford Tugwell and Felix Frankfurter, who separately claimed to have been with FDR as he learned of Hoover’s armed rout. Tugwell said he was with Roosevelt in Albany on July 29: “If [he] had had any doubt about the outcome of the election, I am certain he had none after reading the Times that day.” Frankfurter said that FDR turned to him on his porch in Hyde Park and said, “Well, Felix, this will elect me.”
Schlesinger fails to note that the Washington Daily News was a cheap tabloid with no audience. The influential Washington Post applauded Hoover’s efforts to maintain order in the capital, as did the Washington Herald and The New York Times, which wrote that the Bonus marchers had been in “violent defiance of the law and the public authorities.” The Times congratulated Hoover on putting down a protest that had become “a national reproach and even [a] danger.” The Associated Press surveyed editorial comment among America’s leading papers on July 29 and found them “practically unanimous in expressing the opinion that President Hoover was justified in his course.” A Literary Digest roundup of newspaper opinion on Aug. 6 reached the same conclusion.
As for Tugwell and Frankfurter, their comments, coming decades after events, suggest faulty memories. Roosevelt could not have chuffed by the Times when the Times was vehemently pro-Hoover. Moreover, FDR, always happy to bash Hoover, was silent about the Bonus Army during the campaign. He understood that the first duty of a chief executive is to uphold the law and that the American people would applaud decisive action against anyone menacing the peace.
There is no compelling evidence that the Bonus Army was a factor in 1932. The New York Times synopsis of the major issues in the campaign omitted any mention of it. So why the misconception?
New Deal historians and Roosevelt biographers see FDR as a clean break with the past rather than an evolution in presidential leadership. By exaggerating Hoover’s supposed callousness and ineptitude, they bury his enormous efforts to right the economy and provide economic relief to stricken Americans. FDR emerges sui generis, and his vast expansion of the federal government and its relief policies appear to be necessary and sanctioned by the public when, in fact, the preponderance of evidence suggests that Hoover had gone as far as most Americans, at that time, were willing to go.
• Ken Whyte is founding editor of The National Post in Canada.