Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Bonus Army - Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen

The Bonus Army is a look at the overall history of that movement, stemming initially from the fact that the people who went overseas to serve their country in France got the short end of the stick economically, compared to how they would have done if they'd worked in a factory in the States instead. The best they could manage was, after five years of trying, a bill that agreed that veterans were entitled to $1 a day for service at home and $1.25 for service overseas over a two-year span of 1917-1919. This came out to about a $1000 on average per soldier. There was, of course, much handwringing about how the government could afford to pay - ignoring all the money they'd been doling out to companies in the form of massive war contracts - and some representative got it set up so the bonus could not be redeemed in full until 1945. Soldier could borrow against it until then, but the only way to get all of it earlier was to die, and then your family could have it.

In the early stages of the Great Depression, this lead to veterans marching on Washington to lobby for the immediate payment of the bonus. The Chief of police, a man named Pelham Glassford, busted his ass trying to help them find places to stay, and food, and the great majority of the men (and their families) behaved themselves, set up homes as best they could in cobbled together shanties. But the longer things went, the more people in the government got nervous, and the more impatient a few of the veterans got, and someone called the Army in, and that's how you get Army troops - commanded by Douglas MacArthur - firing tear gas at veterans and their families, or stabbing them with bayonets to get them moving (Patton was in charge of a cavalry group and boasted about that, because of course he did). That didn't end it, though.

I learned a lot of things I hadn't known, or had wrong. Like I thought MacArthur's troops had fired bullets, and killed people, but no, just tear gas. Two men did die, at the hands of police officers. But those officers were in the middle of being attacked and beaten by an angry mob. I still don't like MacArthur, who after driving out the veterans, held a press conference where he claimed most of the people weren't really veterans, just layabouts and bums, and Commies. Which is, of course, largely false, but you wouldn't have known it by what the Army, and men people in Herbert Hoover's office were saying.

I also didn't know that FDR tried to get the veterans into some of his Civilian Conservation Corps outfits, but in ones separated off from the rest of the population, which were mostly full of younger guys. Then a few hundred of those men died in a horrible hurricane on a Labor Day weekend, when the people who should have been getting them evacuated largely sat around twiddling their thumbs until it was too late. Just in case you thought the nation's trend of not looking after our veterans was a recent occurrence.

Anyway, there's a lot in here, as Dickson and Allen address things from the perspectives of several of the veterans, as well as government officials. They detail the efforts of some representatives to keep trying to get that bonus paid, and the maneuvering other politicians put in to block it without killing their election hopes. There's a lot about how the government twists facts and data, the uses the media to bolster their arguments (vastly overstating the influence of Communism among the Bonus Army). There's a bit in their about how the veterans' "Hoovervilles" in D.C. were largely integrated, despite the Army's contention that black and white soldiers couldn't serve together (a belief that was adhered to in the civilian work camps some vets would later join). If that could have been expanded on, I think it would have been good. Why it seemed to work there, but not in so many other places in the country.

'America's elected leaders were not disputing the veterans claim to back pay for wartime services. They just did not want to write the check.'


SallyP said...

We really do seem to keep making the same mistakes over and over. But hey...history is just boring...right?

CalvinPitt said...

Yeah the present day parallels are pretty striking, and depressing.