Friday, November 18, 2011

The Bonus Army

Well, it's not exactly Cucumber Time right now, so I'm a bit (more than a bit) behind in everything. But I thought in the spirit of Occupy Wall Street I'd do a little piece on a moment of American history that I've never heard of before, and which has become sharply relevant just now.

The Bonus Army was a group of World War I vets and their friends and families who marched on Washington in the spring and summer of 1932 to demand early payment of a bonus promised them for their service. It was not due to be paid them till 1945, but since many of them had been out of work since the beginning of the Great Depression, they were asking that this bonus be paid early. Washington, even liberal Washington, seemed not too keen on the idea.

Rachel Maddow did a very nice piece on this moment in our American past, showing the parallels to what was taking place in the Oakland version of  Occupy Wall Street.

(I've edited this to put in the audio version, because the embedded segment hasn't led to the right video clip here)

I probably would have just watched without doing much more with it except that I came across a New Yorker archive article that they've made available without subscription about E.B. White's reaction to the Bonus Army (He was sympathetic with their plight, but not so impressed with the action itself.)

Then this week,  I found that the Library of America blog was posting some reporting by John Dos Passos on the movement.

I like the way this current occupation is reflecting back echoes of American movements past. Mario Salvo and the Free Speech movement has also figured in the picture lately.  I think sometimes we don't see the importance of such moments for our common history--our human common history, not just America's--until some aspect of those moments is mirrored in our own.


  1. Seana

    The Rachel Madow video will not play in my region. It plays the ad for Pringles but not the video. Hows that for capitalism in action?

    But no what I wanted to talk about was Douglas MacArthur. Dont forget that it was him who sent in the cavalry against the unarmed vets. Its tough to know how MacArthur comes on the balance sheet of the twentieth century. On the one hand it was his genius that saved Korea but on the other hand we get the disaster of the Philippines campaign and many other strategic mistakes in WW2 as well as horrible actions like the crushing of the B.A.

  2. It's not working for me right now either, but it is sending me to the Whistler ski resort instead.

    Yes, she did mention MacArthur. I didn't get to the burning of the tents because I thought she did it better. I can't figure out how to get the video, but for anyone interested, there is an audio link here.

    What the Wikipedia article says is that the Bonus Army was responsible for Hoover being defeated for reelection and Roosevelt winning in a landslide, although this was because Roosevelt opposed the Bonus Army. What he finally offered them were positions in the Civilian Conservation Corps, despite the fact that they wouldn't have normally qualified, due to age and matrimony. It was left to Congress to actually pass the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act which authorized 2 billion in payment, but it was over the president's veto.

    It's not how I customarily think of Roosevelt's leanings, that's for sure.

  3. I'll stay on MacArthur rather than Roosevelt or Eisenhower who were both involved but from whom the good outweighed the harm. MacArthur was clearly a bit crazy thinking that the Bonus Army represented a Communist coup attempt.

    In a long career of craziness perhaps the maddest thing of all was his desperate urging that we drop nuclear weapons on Chinese cities. Truman fired him, but Eisenhower his former adjutant would have done the same.

  4. Weird. Now I have the Pringles ad, but it's followed by a piece about Rick Perry's hunting camp. I'm going to change the link up there.

    The Wikipedia piece on MacArthur seems very slanted in his favor. It seems like there was some hubris going on with the guy at the end. He had been in the military for a long time--I'd had no idea how long--and he must have thought he knew better than any of these upstart presidents.

    Fortunately for us, though not for him, it was still a democracy, not a military dictatorship.

  5. Seana

    Well it should be slanted in his favour. He saved Korea, he largely saved Japan by a fairly generous post war administration and he possibly saved Australia from a Japanese invasion (that one I find dubious), however the Bonus Army episode was hideous, his lets bomb China idea was madness and about the only good thing to come out of the Phillipines campaign was the rescue of allied POWs and the crossing of the T at Leyte. It would have been far better to bypass the islands and go straight to Tinian and Saipan.

  6. Yeah, I don't know enough about his whole record to judge it all, but if you're a general, you probably shouldn't start making noises like you are going to ignore the orders of a standing president. I would have thought the whole idea of military service was that you have pledged yourself to obey a chain of command.

    The Wikipedia article is pretty much on his side in the Bonus Army incident, at least in my reading of it.