In order to promote a conversation about contemporary America in a historical context, WBAI is launching a monthly commentary by contributing writers – you, me, and anyone we know…
The first contributor is Marcin Rusinkiewicz, who is a volunteer/intern working remotely with Pacifica Affiliates Coordinator Ursula Ruedenberg and on site at WBAI with Interim Development Director Andrea Katz. Marcin (pronounced “Marchine”) is a former Austinite (as in Texas), academic and labor organizer. He has written on various topics and militated on behalf of various progressive causes.
“If you don’t hang together, you aren’t worth a damn!”
– Gen. Smedley Butler
With Occupy movements popping up all around the country, working people feeling the brunt of a severe economic downturn, and a Congress woefully out of touch with the needs of the 99%, now is the time to look back at a little-celebrated moment in our history: the march of the Bonus Expeditionary Force. The parallels with our situation today are uncanny. There are lessons here to be learned by occupiers, capitalists, politicians, and indeed all of us.
In the summer of 1932, twenty thousand veterans with their families marched on the nation’s capitol and occupied what is today Section C of Anacostia Park in the District of Columbia. This undeveloped area slightly outside Washington was transformed by the able hands of trained American soldiers, sailors and marines, with a street grid, barracks, latrines and outdoor kitchens. The veterans were armed, angry, and determined to get what they had been promised. It was the tone-deafness of our politicians, police and army that led to the confrontation that followed.
Traditionally, the American Republic had drafted its citizens in time of war, with the implicit understanding that they would be paid a monetary bonus for their service upon the completion of war and the concomitant easing on the nation’s finances. The Expeditionary Force raised to fight in Europe in World War I started off no different. With the Selective Service Act of 1917, soldiers were drafted in the hundreds of thousands (volunteers had not been forthcoming under the National Defense Act of 1916). In 1924, Congress passed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act, promising a bonus to 3.6 million veterans of the war. Then as now, Congress was filled with those more interested in keeping the deficit down than in providing real assistance to the mass of patriotic Americans. Rather than paying in dollars, or even in normal Treasury Bills, the veterans were issued special bonds that could not be traded and would not mature until the veteran’s birthday in 1945.
This compromised bonus act satisfied no one, with inflation hawks still opposed to such a large outlay and veterans frustrated by the long maturity of the bonds. The first bonus was vetoed by President Warren Harding in 1922, and the Act of 1924 was only passed over the veto of Calvin Coolidge. Congress was persuaded to override by a growing and organized movement of veterans, who wanted their due. Inflation hawks then as now represent the interests of creditors and the wealthy. The banks and the 1% fear large disbursements to the poor and working classes, because the money these poor people use to pay their debts may be worth less than the money that was loaned to them.
Because of the same Nineteenth Century economics that has made a resurgence as the neo- liberalism of Reagan, Thatcher and Pinochet, the United States economy crashed, sparking a massive wave of deflation. The national debt stayed low, but the 99% of Americans who did not have interests in banking and mining suffered through what became known as the Great Depression. Encampments known as Hoovervilles in honor of our deficit-busting president began to spring up around the country. The 3.6 million families with funny loans from the government began to organize around the issue of this bonus. The maximum $1125 bonus (worth $18 000 in today’s money) would make a real difference for millions of families. The Veterans of Foreign Wars were organized in order to lobby for immediate payment.
Under the leadership of Sergeant Walter Waters, the Bonus Expeditionary Force (or simply, the “Bonus Army”) converged on Washington and began a months-long occupation. Promising not to leave until they received their bonuses, the veterans made provisions for food, sanitation and security. The powers that be panicked, first dismissing the thousands of veterans, then arguing against their demands as bad for the deficit, and finally declaring them a threat to national security. Because they were armed and near the seat of government, Hoover deployed the Army under an exception to the Posse Comitatus Act.
Events came to a head on July 28, 1932. President Hoover gave orders to clear the encampment. The series of mistakes made by the officer corps on that day changed the political climate in the country for a generation. Then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Douglas MacArthur sent in 500 infantrymen, 500 cavalry units, and 6 tanks under the command of Maj. George Patton. Using adamsite gas (a form of arsenic found today only in North Korean armories) and rubber bullets, the US Army fired on its own citizens. The latter defended themselves, and in the ensuing melee, a group of Bonus Army occupiers were cornered and two killed: William Hushka and Eric Carlson.
Having crossed the line of bloodshed, the Army changed tactics and the crackdown turned even more violent. Gen. MacArthur came to the encampment and gave the commands, drawing criticism from his own aide. Maj. Dwight Eisenhower later remarked, “I told that son-of-a-bitch not to go down there. I told him it was no place for a chief of staff.” The Bonus Army was driven across the Potomac. In addition to the two dead veterans, Bernard Myers, a twelve-week-old child, was killed by the adamsite gas, one of the veteran’s wives miscarried, 55 people were injured, and 135 were arrested.
The attack by the Army and police turned public opinion even more radically toward the Bonus Army. The Republican Party lost control of Congress and the White House for over twenty years (excepting the 80th, or “Do Nothing,” Congress). The ire of the people was then turned on the ruling Democrats. Although remembered today for his expansionary New Deal spending programs, President Franklin D Roosevelt came into office promising to keep the deficit under control. He feared that inflation hawks in Congress would not raise the debt ceiling, so he at first pursued a centrist policy.
The Bonus Army had to return to Washington, but by the summer of 1933, the political climate had changed completely. In the words of one veteran, “Hoover sent the Army; Roosevelt sent his wife.” The veterans were given a legal site for their encampment in Virginia, where they were clothed and fed. The government began talks with the occupiers, and Eleanor Roosevelt famously met with organizers. The gold standard had been abolished, allowing the government to spend strongly on a wide array of new social programs. Many veterans were given preferential access to federal jobs.
Although the White House remained opposed to immediate payment of the WWI bonus for budgetary reasons, Congress passed the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act in 1936, authorizing immediate payment to the veterans of $2 billion ($31 billion in today’s money) in fully convertible Treasury Bills. Roosevelt’s veto was overridden, and perhaps more importantly, his politics shifted leftward. The expansionary fiscal policies of the New Deal and World War II eventually lifted the US economy out of the Great Depression. The veterans of the next war came home to a G.I. Bill guaranteeing them education and healthcare, and a domestic economy with strong labor protections and rising real wages.
And yet, this result, so hugely beneficial to economic well-being of the common worker in the mid-20th Century, almost turned out very differently. The economic downturn and the popular anger at the capitalist class scared the 1%. As in Italy, Spain, and Germany, the economic aristocracy of the United States sought to confuse the uneducated and alienate the poor and working classes from their economic self- interest. Seeking a return to the gold standard, they tried to co-opt the Bonus Army and demanded that the bonus be paid in gold. Like the Koch brothers of today, barons of Wall St. like Grayson M.P. Murphy (decorated by Benito Mussolini as a member of the Command of the Crown of Italy) funded intermediary groups, like the American Foreign Legion. They understood the importance of a national organization with chapters throughout the lower levels of society, both as a street fighting force and as a propaganda outlet. In the Twenties, the American Foreign Legion was often used in order to bust strikes and spread lies and rumors about the trade unions.
Seeking to keep their identities secret, these fascists approached General Smedley Butler, an very popular Marine general of the day, with an incredible plot to usurp the government. Because of his popularity as a commander in Latin America, Asia, and Europe, the conspirators hoped Butler could take charge of the Bonus Army. He would read speeches that they wrote and be bought and paid for by the 1%. The Bonus Army could then be used to hold the government hostage and implement the reactionary policies of the 1%, or to violently seize the government and overturn the Constitution should FDR resist.
Old Gimlet Eye Butler proved himself to be a true patriot and champion of the citizenry. Having served as a Marine advisor to the Philadelphia Police Department’s organized crime division, he knew what to do. Butler led them on long enough to learn more and collected proof on the conspiracy. He turned down bribes (in one case, $18 000 cash, or $285 000 in today’s money) and power because of the courage of his convictions. As a soldier and officer, he had participated in numerous actions benefitting the capitalist classes’ pocketbooks at the cost of his men’s lives. In his later life, Butler became a noted pacifist and came to view the Armed Forces as a racket no different from the organized crime syndicates so prevalent in American cities under Prohibition. As in any racket, for the few to profit, the masses had to be deceived.
Smedley Butler chose not to play the role prepared for him by the conspirators. When he addressed the Bonus Army, he told them to stick together, and stick to their demands. He later denounced the conspiracy and gave closed-door testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Surprisingly or not, no arrests or prosecutions for treason resulted from this testimony. Rather, the story was covered up. Although rarely mentioned in history books, the interested reader may consult a fairly comprehensive reconstruction of the conspiracy in Jules Archer’s 1973 book The Plot to Seize the White House, published by Hawthorne books, reprinted in 2003.
So, why should we tell this story today? The example of Smedley Butler is instructive for any would-be leader. This modern Cincinnatus chose his country and his fellowman over narrow self-interest. The persistence, organization, and unity of the Bonus Army still serves as a model for realizing the interests of the working masses of the United States. Their methods and their will to stand up to authority are needed today if the Occupy Movement is to achieve its ambitious goals. Finally, the issues at stake – social spending in times of depression, the deficit and the national debt, freedom of assembly and to petition the government, and even the nature of fiat currency – are again central to our national dialogue. The fact that we are refighting the battles of the 1920s and 30s shows how much Progressive causes have lost, and how much the powers of Wall Street have clawed back since the New Deal and the Great Society. And hopefully, we can see a cautionary tale for how history is written. The war criminals who attacked their own people in Anacostia – MacArthur, Patton, and Eisenhower – were promoted and became the heroes of World War II, but the martyrs of that July in 1932 are largely forgotten. When the story of our own times are written, who will we remember and how?
Original post here