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The Bonus Army Scares Mr. Hoover | The Nation

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The Bonus Army Scares Mr. Hoover

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President Hoover's slim chance at re-election probably ended with his heavy-handed treatment of the unemployed veterans who came to Washington seeking relief.

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Washington, July 17

When Congress adjourned last midnight without having yielded to the demands of the more than 18,000 bonus-seekers assembled here many rumors that the veterans would resort to direct action were spread through the city. Earlier in the day the veterans had for a brief moment been in an ugly mood, and this led to the belief that they would get out of control as soon as they realized that Congress had quit without helping them. But apparently only the White House took these rumors seriously. Members of the House and Senate showed not the slightest concern as they left the capitol. Almost all the veterans had peacefully retired to their camps long before midnight. Only a handful remained to act upon the suggestion that the veterans transfer their picketing activities to the White House.

Hardly more than fifty of the veterans started for the White House, but the moment their approach was reported President Hoover issued orders to the police to close the gates of the grounds and to clear Pennsylvania Avenue and adjacent streets of all pedestrian and vehicular traffic. More than four hundred policemen were summoned to surround the Executive Mansion, all available police reserves were called to stations nearby, and officers who had just been relieved from duty were commanded to return to their posts. The demonstrators were quickly dispersed, three of their leaders being arrested. According to Inspector O.T. Davis of the metropolitan force, President Hoover had said that if the police could not clear the streets within a few minutes he would call out regular army troops. It would have been a rare spectacle indeed to see troops patroling Pennsylvania Avenue to protect the life of the President of the United States against a possible attack by a handful of weary, footsore, and bedraggled war veterans. Perhaps there was some danger of minor disorders in front of the White House, but in my judgment there was not the slightest possibility of any really serious trouble developing, for there is in these bonus-seekers no revolt, no fire, not even smoldering resentment; at most they are but an inchoate aggregation of frustrated men nursing a common grievance. However, the anxiety of the White House accurately reflected the increasing alarm with which high officials of the government have been viewing the presence of the bonus army -- a feeling, it must be added, that a vast majority of the residents of Washington do not share.

For several days I have watched the veterans go about their business of petitioning Congress for an additional payment on their adjusted compensation certificates. A few days ago the Communist group marched peacefully, even meekly, down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the capitol. For several days the California contingent, including five to six hundred men, has been picketing the capitol building -- their endless marching ceased only when Congress adjourned without having submitted to their silent demands. On Saturday a column of about a thousand veterans sought to break through a police line on the capitol plaza, but were quickly pacified by the officers on hand and by the persuasive tongue of Brigadier-General Pelham D. Glassford, superintendent of police. However, the veterans somehow felt that their last opportunity to frighten Congress into approving the bonus was rapidly slipping from them, and they remained in an angry mood for a few minutes. But further oratory from Glassford and from the self-appointed leaders of the Bonus Expeditionary Forces quickly changed the attitude of the veterans and converted the atmosphere of protest into that of a college football rally. So superficial, one might say, is their apparent revolt. Out in their camps they show even less spirit. Squalid, miserable, and unhealthful as these camps certainly are, life there offers more security and comforts than many of these men have known for months.

Somehow many of the veterans have come to the conclusion that their chances of wheedling a few hundred dollars per man out of the government are virtually non-existent. Their enthusiasm for the bonus, though it is still whipped into life upon occasion by their leaders, has at bottom all but disappeared. These veterans appear to sense the inadequacy of their demands both actually and in principle. A few hundred dollars will not in any case go very far. Moreover, the veterans seem to know by instinct rather than by any process of ratiocination, that there is no promise of future economic security in the bonus. They feel that the goal they are seeking is a false one, but in their confusion of mind they can think of no other goal. Lastly, the veterans are all in or beyond middle age; every one of them has been thoroughly whipped by his individual economic circumstances. There is about the lot of them an atmosphere of hopelessness, of utter despair, though not of desperation. They have come to Washington for reasons beyond their understanding; they have no enthusiasms whatever, and no stomach for fighting. People who see in the bonus army the beginning of a fascist movement or the nucleus for a successful fascist "march on Washington" are in error. Such a movement may develop among the younger unemployed, but it will not, l am certain, start with the bonus army.

This is not to belittle the social significance of the bonus army, for its implications are vast and far-reaching. There is throughout the country a stirring among the unemployed such as we have not witnessed before, certainly not in the present period of depression. Individuals and families by the thousands have taken to migrating from community to community, not necessarily to seek greener pastures, better economic opportunities, but to escape from the misery and suffering at home. They are at last reaching the point where they can no longer endure the hardships of unemployment and haphazard charity. Only a few weeks ago I saw them by the scores walking singly or in groups along the highways of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. Many were carrying the last of their worldly possessions in old suitcases or tied up in bundles. Those I stopped and talked with said they did not know where they were going, they wanted only to get away from home. It was inevitable, although essentially accidental, that the men among them who feel that they have a claim against the government for their services should concentrate upon Washington. Thus the bonus march must be considered simply a minor manifestation of the unrest spreading through the country.

If conditions at home forced this mass movement of veterans upon Washington, other circumstances here are further developing the social transmutation. The veterans believe that only by appearing as loyal and sincere patriots can they persuade the government to pay them their bonuses. Hence they have endeavored in every way possible to demonstrate their firm faith in American institutions. They raucously proclaim, or their leaders for them, that they are unyielding supporters of law and order, that they are satisfied with the existing economic and political system; and they publicly demonstrate their devotion to the flag upon every conceivable occasion. But this blatant display of patriotism has got them, and is getting them, nowhere. Indeed, neither Congress nor the police seem at all impressed by their flag-waving. In the short-lived demonstrations before the White House a veteran carrying the Stars and Stripes was knocked to the sidewalk by one policeman while three others wrested the flag from his determined grasp, and the veteran, for all his loyalty, was carted away to a cell. If patriotism will not help them, what will?

In only a few places in the United States can be found human habitations as mean and uninviting as the bonus camps. The exceptions are the "Hoovervilles" which have sprung up on the river fronts of some of our cities, communities of homeless families which have erected shelters out of packing boxes and old tin cans. Here in the bonus camps every conceivable kind of building material has been pressed into service -- discarded bricks, oil tins, lumber salvaged from buildings that are being wrecked to make room for new and palatial government offices, strips of canvas and even of clothing. A few of the veterans have tents or sections of tents in which to live; others sleep under wallless, wooden shelters, or under the open skies, on the lawns of the Congressional Library or the capitol. One group has occupied several abandoned buildings near the Naval Hospital and not far from the White House; other contingents have taken over half-wrecked buildings on lower Pennsylvania Avenue near the capitol. Since they have no permanent water supply, cleanliness is hardly to be thought of, and in general the sanitary conditions are unspeakable. Nevertheless, each unit of the bonus army has attempted to enforce some sort of order and discipline; most of the camps and living quarters are fairly well "policed"; at Camp Marks regular military latrines have been dug. Thus otherwise impossible living conditions have been made more bearable.

The lack of food presents the most difficult problem. The larger group at Anacostia, comprising probably 15,000 men, has been fed with some regularity, though the leaders of the camp usually do not know from one meal to the next where the necessary food is to be obtained. Organized panhandling on an extensive scale has helped a great deal in this respect. Several wealthy women residing in Washington have been prevailed upon to donate funds for the purchase of food. Some small merchants have voluntarily con-tributed provisions. Other donations both of food and of money have been received from other cities. The fare is none too appetizing and not always sufficient, but these men until now at least have been getting something to eat. But there has been real hunger among some of the smaller groups, particularly among the Californians, who have been sleeping on the capitol lawns, and the Communists, who are quartered on New York Avenue near the White House. These latter groups have literally been living from hand to mouth. Last Friday noon, for example, Roy Robertson, leader of the California unit, had only $5 on which to feed his five to six hundred followers.

Female camp-followers, though still few in number, have been active. Twenty-five to thirty of them may be seen entering the camps after dusk every night. How many more may slip in unobserved it is not possible to say. These women must give themselves without charge, for very few of the veterans have any ready cash. The women are of the lowest sort, and there can be little question that thus far only the lack of proper medical inspection has concealed the spread of venereal disease. There is only one medical station in any of the bonus settlements, that at Camp Marks, and even there no provision has been made for prophylactic treatment. But these things must not be mentioned publicly in Washington.

Who are the bonus-seekers and where have they come from? They are mostly farm workers, fruit pickers, itinerant factory workers, and other unskilled or semi-skilled laborers, and they come from every section of the country. I do not believe that a single State or a single industry is unrepresented here. However, a large minority of the men are skilled mechanics, white-collar workers, and even professional people. I have met an office manager, a factory foreman, two real estate dealers, a dentist, and three newspapermen in the bonus army. These men I encountered only by chance. I was shown the rosters of some of the camps and there were the names of many other representatives of the middle class, an editor, a grocer, a trucking contractor, a traffic engineer, several lawyers. It is these people who have taken charge of the Washington show and who have given the bonus army what discipline it has. Thus the movement is essentially bourgeois and not proletarian, at least in outward form. This explains in large measure the patriotism and flag-waving of the bonus-seekers. These middle-class representatives have become the leaders of the movement, and in that capacity, although they have been most outspoken in their profession of loyalty to American institutions, they have had their past records painstakingly investigated by the Department of Justice and other government agencies. Such seems to be the inevitable fate of all rebels in this country, however mild or law-abiding they may be. Nevertheless, these leaders have had a profound effect upon the rank and file of the army. Uninspiring as the man is, Walter W. Walters, commander in chief of the B.E.F., has a large and devoted following among the Anacostia men. During the demonstration on the capitol plaza Saturday, although he talked the most hollow nonsense, the veterans greeted him with tremendous applause, cheered his every word as though he alone had the power to bring them the bonus. Roy Robertson in another way demonstrated the influence he has over his several hundred followers. He was able from the time that he arrived a week ago until Con-gress adjourned on Saturday to keep his men constantly marching around the capitol plaza. They could at any time have deserted his "death watch," for he had no way of disciplining them, but they elected to remain faithful to this man with a broken neck and persuasive personality. Yet Robertson frankly admitted to me that he had no plan, no program, no philosophy whatever; he was simply bent upon keeping his picketline going until Congress had quit.

These middle-class leaders have been seeking to mold opinion also through publication of a well-edited and ably written weekly newspaper calling itself the B.E.F. News. The bonus question, of course, receives the most attention, and from the standpoint of propaganda the question is very cleverly discussed. Along with this discussion, there is editorial criticism of Mr. Hoover, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and Wall Street; all are blamed, in the order named, for the failure of the bonus drive. Moderate in tone at the start, the News has lately become more violent in its language. For example, in the most recent issue was published an editorial entitled "Are You Curs and Cowards?" This article, indeed, comes very close to calling for direct action. "Where," it asks, "is this American manhood we boast about? A dog in the gutter will fight to feed its pups. Yet millions of Americans are standing idly on street corners, or slinking up back alleys, afraid to demand what God intended them to have. . . . For three years you have been worse than the serfs and slaves of old. For three years you have cringed and fawned and begged for crumbs. And all the time you had the power within yourselves, if you only had the intelligence and courage... Why stand you thus, when all is within your power? Are you truly curs and cowards? Or are you men?"

The News sells for five cents a copy, and there are very few veterans here who can spare that much money. But the residents of Washington, particularly the government employees, must be reading the paper and its "Curs and Cowards" editorials. More than 75,000 copies of a recent number were sold on the street corners of the city.

There is no doubt that Washington officialdom from Mr. Hoover down is badly frightened by the presence of these former soldiers. The President revealed his feelings last midnight. Vice-President Curtis earlier in the week called for a company of sixty marines to guard the Senate. They were dispatched to the capitol only to be ordered back to their barracks as soon as General Glassford, the chief of police, learned of their arrival. A few weeks ago the District of Columbia commissioners sought to maneuver Glassford into the position of having to oust the veterans from the city and to assume responsibility for that action, but the orders were withdrawn when Glassford demanded that the orders be given him in writing. More recently the Capitol Police Board publicly charged that the pickets on the capitol plaza were violating the law and suggested that it was Glassford's duty to prevent such law-breaking. The officials have tried in many ways to rid the city of these "Bums of 1932," as they call themselves. They have pleaded with them, argued with them, and threatened them; jobs have been promised to a few of the leaders and "free" transportation has been offered to the entire army by act of Congress, the fare to be repaid by the veterans out of future bonus payments. But all to no avail. General Glassford quickly gave up his initial attempts to persuade the men to leave, and has since been giving virtually all his time to the men and their needs. Though not a wealthy man, he has donated several hundred dollars toward feeding the army.

But while most of the higher officials are obviously frightened, the government employees, who make up the bulk of Washington's population, are frankly in sympathy with the veterans. The reason for this is not readily apparent. It may be that the relatively lower standard of living obtaining among the government clerks has given them some understanding of the anxiety attending unemployment and loss of income. It may be that the residents of Washington, hearing every day as they do of new monster "relief" projects running into the billions of dollars for the benefit of the banks and the railroads, feel that an injustice is being done the veterans. Or it may be that their attitude is simply a natural expression of sympathy for people of their own kind and class. This sympathy reveals itself in many ways, in the comments one hears in government offices and among spectators at the various parades and demonstrations of the veterans, in letters to the daily press and to the B.E.F. News, in the numerous small donations of food and money received at the bonus camps from Washington residents. The other day about 150 of the veterans marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. A few of the marchers were shouting: "Congress must not adjourn!" A clerk in a clothing store stepped out to view the parade. He heard the shouts and in a sneering voice called out: "Oh, the damn fools; they think they can stop Congress from quitting." He retired very hurriedly under the barrage of biting comments from the crowd along the curb. The ordinary people of Washington may not be able to help the veterans, but they are ready to defend their cause.

Despite rumors floating about town that the Hoover Administration intends to oust the bonus-seekers, by force if need be, now that Congress has adjourned, I very much doubt that this will be attempted. A major part of the Republican Presidential campaign was to be based on the myth that under Mr. Hoover's able guidance the country has been free from violent disturbances and that the constituted authorities have not needed to call out troops to keep the unemployed loyal and obedient. This line of attack has been seriously compromised by Vice-President Curtis's error in calling out the marines and by Mr. Hoover's panic-stricken demand for police protection. If bayonets were now to be used against jobless men, even ex-service men bearing petitions, the political result would certainly be disastrous for Mr. Hoover. Nevertheless, the rumors persist, and upon high authority in the War Department it is said that the army, "though not looking for trouble, is, ready for this or any other emergency."

It may be that the bonus forces will disintegrate of their own accord. The Washington summer months are long and hot; the Anacostia flats are notorious for their mosquitos, and the high cost of feeding such a large group of men may ultimately make it impossible for the residents of the city to continue to carry that burden. On the other hand, a majority of the men have no homes to which to return, and if they had there would be no assurance that they would be better off there than here. In all likelihood a large number of them will remain on through the summer, starving if necessary, yet clinging hopefully to the belief that in Washington, capital of the nation and source of munificent relief for the banks and railroads, they will find the help they need. But whatever happens this summer, there is every reason to believe that the veterans and other unemployed will be here in greatly increased numbers before Congress reconvenes in December.

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