November 11 is Veterans Day, also known as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. November 11 has been celebrated since 1918 to commemorate the armistice that brought an end to the War to End All Wars. The belief—the idealistic hope borne from misery—was that World War I was so full of horrors, men would choose never to repeat it.
Pause to think about how wonderful that would be. Imagine if the Great War had taught mankind to settle differences peacefully, if leaders had learned that, in war, there are no real victors.
You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake. ~Jeanette Rankin
If the War to End All Wars had ended all wars, there would be no more living veterans in the United States to honor this year. The last Great War veteran passed away in 2011. Veterans Day could be retired as a holiday. The war veteran could go the way of the dodo bird. Extinct. Alive only in art, stories, and oral history.
I would love to be writing today about the extinction of war veterans. Instead, I’d like to write about a moment in American history when a group of war veterans marched on Washington, DC to protest a broken promise. This post is a small history lesson.
It happened in 1932. The soldiers were veterans of World War 1. They could not find work in a terrible economy, and they wanted Congress’ help. They weren’t beggars, not any more than a veteran seeking government help should be called a beggar today—though sometimes they are.
The Great War veterans marched to the nation’s capital because, in 1924, Congress had voted to award them bonuses. The bonuses were based on a soldier’s pay plus interest, with redemption planned for 1945. That was Congress’ intent. But in 1932, in the black hole of the Great Depression, the Great War veterans were hungry, hopeless, and desperate. Men who’d endured mustard gas and trench warfare sold apples on street corners.
The Great War veterans needed their bonuses, now, to feed themselves and their families. They couldn’t wait 13 more years. A group formed and went to Washington, DC to appeal for early redemption of the promised bonus. The group was nicknamed the Bonus Army. 17,000 soldiers plus their families and supporters eventually swelled to 45,000 people. In the summer of 1932, they squatted in a makeshift settlement in the Anacostia Flats section of Washington.
A Bonus Bill was introduced to award early payment of the bonuses, but it was defeated by the Senate. The Bonus Army had nowhere to go and no money to go there. They waited for President Hoover to act in their behalf. After all, they were veterans, not beggars.
The temporary camp was a slum of tents and campfires–like a refugee camp. Anacostia was a muddy, insect-infected swamp. There were masses of humans with no steady food supply, no plumbing, nowhere to dump garbage. The local police chief was sympathetic, but flare-ups and small altercations broke out.
Finally, President Hoover acted. He instructed the U.S. Army to evict the Bonus Army out of the city.
Now pause to think about that: a sitting President ordered an armed assault on U.S. veterans.
The eviction turned into a melee that turned into a riot. The settlement was torched. The Bonus Army was driven out of the city. Three veterans were killed, 54 injured, over 130 arrested.
It was a publicity nightmare for Hoover. A year later, after he was defeated by Franklin Roosevelt, another contingent of Bonus veterans marched. FDR did not support their demands, but he did authorize a proper campsite and delivery of meals. In 1936, a Bonus Bill was passed to award the bonuses early.
If this bit of American history is news to you, don’t feel badly. There was no 24-hour news cycle in 1932.
I like to write about small moments in American history, to remember them and reflect on what they mean. D-Day showed the world the character of America, but so did the Bonus Army. Both should be remembered, one in glory and one in shame. We cannot only remember the pretty things, particularly on Remembrance Day.