Burned in Memory

When the United States Turned Against Its Own Veterans

Photos that changed the world.

Washington D.C. police clash with Bonus Marchers, 1932. (Original photo: AP; photo courtesy National Archives)

The photo has horizontal tension — the civilians on the left struggling against the police on the right. An American flag, used as a spear, cuts through the center of the photo as a Washington, D.C., cop tackles the man thrusting it. The flag immediately indicates the horrible gravity of the situation.

In 1932, World War I veterans who had been promised a bonus for serving in the Great War petitioned Congress to pay those bonuses early. The payouts were not scheduled until 1945, but in the worst of the Depression the men could certainly use the money now. Bonuses for overseas duty would be as much as $625 (about $11,000 today.)

Veterans got nowhere with traditional petitions to the government. With little to lose, they began an epic march to Washington.

They called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, or BEF. That was a play on the name American Expeditionary Force, AEF, which they had fought under in France. The public and press mostly called them the Bonus Marchers.

Some came from the Pacific Northwest, others from the Midwest. They walked, hitched rides, hopped on trains. Many of their families went along. Ultimately, anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 marchers arrived in Washington.

With no place to stay, they built a shanty town on Anacostia Flats across the river from D.C. proper.

Homeless people across the country had built shanty towns — collections of shacks built of scrap materials and laid out like small cities. People named them “Hoovervilles” in honor of President Herbert Hoover who had done little to moderate the grief of the Depression. The Hooverville at Anacostia was within site of the U.S. Capitol.

In June, the House of Representatives approved a bill to pay the Bonus Marchers early, but the Senate refused to do the same.

The Marchers had no place to go, so they stayed at Anacostia. Hoover wanted them gone. He thought Communists had organized the march and and that the BEF “included a large number of hoodlums and ex-convicts bent on raising a public disturbance.” He wanted the Bonus Marchers gone.

Hoover ordered the Washington, D.C., police to disperse them. A riot broke out, and police killed two marchers.

Then Hoover let lose the U. S. Army— the same U.S. Army the BEF had fought for 14 years earlier. Army Chief of Staff Douglas McArthur personally commanded the force, which attacked the Hooverville itself.

They fired tear gas at the Marchers, who covered their faces and hurled the gas canisters back. The army and the police burned down the Hooverville, and the BEF finally left.

The photo above is an incredible piece of photojournalism. It captures the anger and desperation of the Marchers; the frustration of the D.C. police having to fight their own.

Look at the Marchers, standing on high ground atop a mound of broken bricks that are just right for throwing. The man in white with the straw at left center has a brick in each hand and is taking up a throwing stance. To the left of him, a man wields a length of lead pipe, elbow joints on the end giving it heft and mass. At the far left, another man gathers bricks for another salvo.

At the center, a cop’s hat is in the air; he’s either reeling from a blow or trying to dodge one. Farther to the right, another officer, blood on his face, bends over to grab a ball bat on the ground.

In the background, to the right, people stand in the shell of a building some of them had occupied. They are watching the chaos before them.

And in the center remains the flag, going into battle.

We’ve got to do better than this, folks.

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