Oregon WWI vet led 20,000-strong Bonus Army that marched on DC, met brutal resistance in 1932
By DOUGLAS PERRY | The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. | Published: August 14, 2020
PORTLAND, Ore. (Tribune News Service) — Walter W. Waters called the mass protest “a safety valve for dissatisfaction.”
The Oregon native didn’t want revolution or anarchy. But he and millions of other Americans were desperate.
So Waters, a laconic 34-year-old who had fought in France during World War I, led a couple hundred of his fellow former servicemen on a 3,000-mile trek from Portland to Washington, D.C. It was 1932, the depths of the Great Depression. The veterans wanted the federal government to act, and they believed a good place to start would be the immediate cash payment of their World War I service certificates, or bonuses.
This was the Bonus March, and they were the Bonus Army.
The veterans rode in freight-train boxcars when they could. They walked along the sides of dusty roads. The movement grew and grew, with veterans from all over the country heading for Washington.
Around 20,000 men and their families ultimately arrived in Washington, D.C., that summer. They set up camp around a series of unoccupied buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue as well as along the Anacostia Flats across the river. They met with members of Congress and answered reporters’ questions.
Concerned about running a budget deficit, the U.S. Senate in mid-July voted down a bill that would have allowed the World War I service certificates, which were redeemable in 1945, to be paid out right away. When news of the vote arrived, observers worried that the veterans, massed near the Capitol, would try to overrun Congress. Walter Waters, at the head of the crowd, threw his hands in the air.
“Sing ‘America’!” he called out.
Some of the men near Waters began to belt out “America the Beautiful.” The tension of the moment broke, and the veterans headed back to their camps.
But even with this stinging defeat in the Senate, thousands of the bonus marchers stayed in the nation’s capital. They refused to accept the vote as the final word on the matter.
Finally, after two months of looking out from the White House at the veterans’ Pennsylvania Avenue shantytown, President Herbert Hoover had had enough. He directed Army chief of staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur to disperse the Bonus Army.
MacArthur had no problem with the order. Like Hoover, he believed the vast majority of the bonus marchers were “fakes,” his biographer William Manchester wrote. That is, he thought they were professional agitators and criminals, not veterans. MacArthur’s colleague, Major Gen. Courtney Whitney, later went further, insisting that a “secret document which was captured” showed the Bonus March to be a Communist plot that included plans for “the public trial and hanging in front of the Capitol of high government officials.”
The secret document never existed. It had been invented by the Bonus Army’s opponents. (And the U.S. Veterans Administration would later determine that some 95 percent of the marchers were veterans and their families.)
On July 28, hundreds of armed infantry and cavalry soldiers and even half a dozen tanks advanced on the veterans, but the marchers stood their ground. They booed, exhorted the soldiers to think about what they were doing, and even physically fought back. Finally, MacArthur unleashed waves of tear gas, forcing the men and their families to flee.
In the immediate aftermath, there was talk of Waters becoming a political leader, the voice of the down and out, with some critics calling him a “dictator.” Nothing came of it. He didn’t know what he was going to do next.
Ever since returning from the battlefields of France and receiving an honorable discharge as a sergeant, Waters had struggled to find a place in society. He’d worked as a mechanic, a car salesman and a baker in the 1920s, with none of the vocations sticking. He even tried to take on a new name, Bill Kinkaid, in a vain attempt “to break more decisively with the past.”
At last he latched onto a job he enjoyed, at a cannery near Portland. Then the economic cataclysm hit. He lost his position a year after the 1929 Stock Market Crash. Week after week he could come up with no means to provide for his wife and two children.
Hopelessness grew in his gut, and bitterness soon followed behind.
While making the rounds every day in search of work, he “found that a large percentage of [jobless] men in Portland were, like myself, ex-servicemen,” he later wrote. “They had fought, so they had been told a few years before, ‘to save the nation.’ They had fought, it now seemed, only in order to have a place in which to starve.”
That was when he came upon the idea, unsuccessfully put forward the previous year by a little-known Texas congressman, of cash payouts of the World War I service certificates.
“It mattered not that the Bonus was not due, legally, until 1945,” Waters wrote. “What man, having a promise to [be paid] at a later date would not ask his debtor for it in advance if he believed that the debtor could afford the money and if his own need was not only great but critical? These men felt that the Government had the money. Newspapers, which can always be picked out of trash cans in the parks and public places, published stories of extensions of credit to foreign nations. Headlines told of loans to railroads and to large corporations.”
Waters made this pitch one night in March 1932 at a veterans’ meeting in Portland, recommending they argue their case in person before Congress. Soon they had made up a banner — “Portland Bonus March: On to Washington.” Then they gave themselves a moniker, the Bonus Expeditionary Force, a nod to the name for the American army that had sailed to France 15 years earlier.
Local reporters picked up on the incipient effort, finding Waters to be both likable and quotable. The story went out on the news wires.
Many Americans embraced the veterans as they made their way to Washington from towns and cities across the U.S. Once in the nation’s capital, the marchers set up their encampments. Waters, their “commander,” demanded discipline from his men: no panhandling, no liquor — and “no radical talk.”
“I love this country,” he declared. “I’m emphatically not advocating revolution.”
The veterans created their own community within Washington, D.C., a somewhat racially integrated community — Blacks and whites living side by side, still verboten in much of the country. The camps had their own makeshift library, a school and a newspaper. Every morning started with reveille and a flag-raising ceremony.
“People in Washington were quite sympathetic [to them],” a staffer at the Smithsonian recalled years later.
But Hoover was not among the sympathetic, and he ultimately won the day.
About a thousand soldiers — led by MacArthur himself on horseback, along with his aide Major Dwight D. Eisenhower and Major George S. Patton — drove the Bonus Army out of the nation’s capital on July 28. Two marchers, both World War I veterans, died that day, shot by local police. A soldier bayoneted a 7-year-old boy who was trying to retrieve his pet rabbit from a tent in one of the camps. MacArthur’s men set the Bonus Army’s shantytowns ablaze.
“The American flag means nothing to me after this,” cried one man who witnessed the soldiers move against the veterans.
Waters couldn’t believe his own government would turn its military might against him and his brothers.
“There was murder done on ‘Black Thursday,’ July 28th,” Waters wrote in his memoir. “The methods of eviction on that day revealed a stupidity and a cupidity among Washington politicians that is almost unbelievable.”
Waters, who would later land a job as a clerk in the War Department and go on to serve in the Navy during World War II, was hardly the only one to think so.
Following these events in their local newspapers, many Americans came to view Hoover’s decision to direct active-duty soldiers against former soldiers as proof of his callousness to the average American’s plight during the Depression.
Historians widely believe that the Bonus Army confrontation played a key role in Hoover losing his reelection bid later in the year in a landslide to New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In the run-up to the election, an editorial in The Nation magazine, citing the Bonus March, criticized Hoover for attempting to make “radicalism,” rather than the economic cataclysm, the issue of the day. Wrote the magazine:
“The effort proved to be one of the deadliest boomerangs in political history.”
©2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
Visit The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) at www.oregonian.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.