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November 2013 Policy Study, Number 13-8


Herbert Hoover and the Transformational Election of 1932


The Bonus Army



Another factor that went against Hoover was the Bonus Army catastrophe which occurred in the summer of 1932. Veterans from World War I marched on Washington, D.C., to demand an early payment of their bonus for service during the Great War. The Bonus Marchers reflected the national suffering caused by the Depression. The Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF), which was the name given to the unemployed veterans, consisted of “some forty thousand” protestors.[20] The Bonus Army marched on Washington, D.C., to place pressure on President Hoover and the Congress to give in to their demands. The veterans’ bonus had been a contentious issue going back to the administrations of Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.


President Hoover, who had vetoed a bill that would allow an early bonus because of its fiscal implications on the budget, was seen as heartless and cold toward the veterans. Hoover was also preoccupied with not only fighting the Depression but also dealing with other matters of public policy such as foreign affairs. Hoover was not heartless, and he did offer support to the Bonus Marchers, as well as other philanthropic endeavors during his time in office. As Glen Jeansonne wrote:


The President treated the BEF [Bonus Expeditionary Force] humanely. He made no derogatory comments about them and did not consider them a menace. Hoover quietly instructed the army and the District National Guard to provide the men, some of whom had families, with tents, cooking utensils, food, and clothing. He concealed his generosity, lest other potential protestors expect it.[21]


Hoover also approved “two appropriations bills amounting to $125,000 to provide transportation home” for members of the Bonus Army.[22] The situation came to a boil in July when police began to clear members of the Bonus Army out of vacant buildings in Washington, D.C., and Hoover also asked the army to provide assistance.[23] The Hoover administration was also concerned about the number of communists that had infiltrated the Bonus Army in order to exploit the situation. This is an issue that is still under debate in regard to the number of communists who infiltrated the Bonus Army. Hoover argued that “the march was in considerable part organized and promoted by the Communists and included a large number of hoodlums and ex-convicts determined to raise a public disturbance.”[24]


The result was a catastrophe as then Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur exceeded his authority and the encampments of the Bonus Army were burned and the veterans were forced to flee as they were driven out. Historians agree that General MacArthur exceeded his authority, but Hoover took the responsibility. The reports and images of the Bonus Army being driven out not only solidified the public’s animosity toward the administration, but it also provided the Democrats and Roosevelt with assurance of victory.


In his Memoirs, Hoover wrote that “the greatest coup of all was the distortion of the story of the Bonus March on Washington in July, 1932.[25] Hoover also argued that the Democrats, with party operatives such as Charles Michelson, instituted a “strategy to substitute attack on me personally for attacks on my policies or even on the Republican Party.[26] In other words, Hoover argued that he was unfairly maligned by the Democrats as being the cause of the Depression. Hoover was correct because even in later political campaigns the Democrats utilized the “Hoover Depression” against Republican candidates. 


The influence of the Bonus Army on the election is still under debate, because “the conclusion of some historians who had studied the story of the BEF extensively is that its significance and its effect on the 1932 presidential campaign have been exaggerated.”[27] As Glen Jeansonne wrote:


Most national newspapers did not support the BEF cause, either before or after their expulsion from the District. What should have become a footnote to history became in some quarters a cause célèbre. Mayor James Curley of Boston, for example, claimed Hoover had ordered troops to shoot the unarmed vets ‘like dogs.’ The rout of the veterans is in no way comparable in scope to use of troops during the urban and campus riots of the 1960s, yet it remains befogged in a historical mystique created in part by the fact that the men involved were veterans. In reality, it was hardly a serious riot, certainly not a brutal assault by soldiers on innocent victims.[28]


Donald Ritchie wrote, “even after the Bonus March, political commentators were reluctant to declare the Democratic candidate a sure winner, and the oddsmakers were giving Hoover an even chance of winning reelection.”[29] Glen Jeansonne also notes that “the Democrats exploited the affair not only in the 1932 campaign but during at least four later elections.[30]


The Bonus Army is often forgotten, except in the context of the Depression and the Hoover administration, but overall it influenced future policy relating to veterans benefits:


American history is punctuated by moments and incidents that become prisms through which larger events are better understood — the Boston Tea Party, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the Alamo, John Brown’s Raid. The march of the Bonus Army belongs in such company. But its significance has been obscured by time, even to its direct beneficiaries — the millions of later veterans whose bonus would be the GI Bill and the benefits that have followed to the present day. And, its legacy is everlasting. The First Amendment of the Constitution grants America the right ‘to petition the government for redress of grievances.’ Millions of Americans have since peacefully marched on Washington in support of various causes, their way paved by the veterans of 1932.[31]


Nevertheless the Bonus Army, along with the Depression, placed the Hoover reelection campaign on the defensive. As Hoover later reflected:


By the nature of things, we were somewhat on the defensive as to certain issues, especially in view of constant misrepresentation which could be met only by painstaking exposure and dreary recital of facts. We were, however, able to take the offensive, especially on currency, tariff, the Supreme Court, and collectivist planned economy.[32]


Hoover himself stated that “we are opposed by 10 million unemployed, 10,000 Bonus Marchers, and 10 cent corn.”[33]




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