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  • Rethinking the Bonus March:Federal Bonus Policy, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Origins of a Protest Movement
  • Stephen R. Ortiz (bio)

Their remedy, obviously, is to pool their political strength . . . and bring irresistible pressure to bear upon the politicians. Various altruistic leaders, eager for the ensuing jobs, already whoop them up to that end. I suspect that they will be heard from hereafter, and in a most unpleasant manner. We are just beginning to pay for the war.

—H. L. Mencken on the veterans' Bonus, December, 19311

In 1927, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the national organization founded in 1899 by veterans of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars, appeared destined for historical obscurity. The organization that would later stand with the American Legion as a pillar of the powerful twentieth-century veterans' lobby struggled to maintain a membership of sixty thousand veterans. Despite desperate attempts to recruit from the ranks of the nearly 2.5 million eligible World War veterans, the VFW lagged behind in membership both the newly minted American [End Page 275] Legion and even the Spanish War Veterans. The upstart Legion alone, from its 1919 inception throughout the 1920s, averaged more than seven hundred thousand members. Indeed, in 1929, Royal C. Johnson, the chairman of the House Committee on World War Veterans Legislation and a member of both the Legion and the VFW, described the latter as "not sufficiently large to make it a vital factor in public sentiment." And yet, by 1932, in the middle of an economic crisis that dealt severe blows to the membership totals of almost every type of voluntary association, the VFW's membership soared to nearly two hundred thousand veterans. Between 1929 and 1932, the VFW experienced this surprising growth because the organization demanded full and immediate cash payment of the deferred Soldiers' Bonus, while the American Legion opposed it. Thus, by challenging federal veterans' policy, the VFW rose out of relative obscurity to become a prominent vehicle for veteran political activism. As important, by doing so the VFW unwittingly set in motion the protest movement known as the Bonus March.2

In the summer of 1932, approximately twenty thousand World War I veterans descended on Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress for immediate payment on their adjusted service certificates, certificates usually referred to as the Bonus. After weeks of mounting tension, and the congressional defeat of the Bonus, the U.S. Army forcibly evicted the Bonus Marchers and their families from makeshift encampments on the Anacostia River. The Bonus March, and its pitiable denouement, figure prominently in the Depression-era historical narrative. For, in addition to capturing the social dislocation wrought by the Great Depression, the violent conclusion to the Bonus March has come to symbolize the Herbert Hoover administration's perceived disregard for the suffering of average Americans during the Depression's bleakest days. Indeed, despite persuasive evidence exculpating Hoover for the rout of the Bonus Marchers, the episode remains historical shorthand for the failure of the Hoover presidency.3

Recent studies have begun to reconsider the Bonus March more broadly. Jennifer D. Keene examines the March to advance her argument that conscription during the Great War produced a cohort of ex-soldiers with an expansive understanding of the social contract. Lucy G. Barber explores the Bonus March as part of a long tradition, beginning with Coxey's Army in 1894, of protest marches on Washington, D.C., that helped redefine the capital's public space into an accepted arena for citizens' political expression. The latest work on the Bonus March by Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen greatly expands our understanding of the Bonus Army's racially integrated nature. While these recent studies have [End Page 276] broadened the scope of inquiry, they do not alter the previous generation of scholarship's depiction of the Bonus March as a spontaneous social protest movement by unemployed veterans, sparked by the Depression yet unsupported by the major veteran organizations.4 This perspective results in large measure from an over-reliance on the American Legion national organization as the voice of organized veteran political activism—an over-reliance based on both its stature as the...


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