The War Against the Vets: The World War I Bonus Army during the Great Depression

The War Against the Vets: The World War I Bonus Army during the Great Depression

by Jerome Tuccille


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“Who Murdered the Vets?” writer Ernest Hemingway demanded in an impassioned article about the deaths of hundreds of former soldiers. Their fate came as part of the larger and often overlooked story of veterans of the Great War and their deplorable treatment by the government they once served.

Three years earlier, under orders from President Herbert Hoover, General Douglas MacArthur led the U.S. military through the streets of the nation’s capital against an encampment of veterans and their families. The vets were suffering the ravages of the Great Depression and seeking an early payment of promised war bonuses. Tanks, troops, and cavalry burned down tents and leveled campsites in a savage and lethal effort to disperse the protesters, resulting in the murder of several demonstrators.

The administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt subsequently shipped the vets to distant work camps in the Florida Keys, where they were housed in flimsy tent cities that fell prey to a hurricane of which the authorities had been given ample warning. It was in reaction to the hundreds of bodies left in the storm’s wake that Hemingway penned his provocative words.

The War Against the Vets is the first book about the Bonus Army to describe in detail the political battles that threatened to tear the country apart, as well as the scandalous treatment of the World War I vets.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612349336
Publisher: Potomac Books
Publication date: 04/01/2018
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 1,206,343
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Jerome Tuccille (1937–2017) is the author of more than thirty books, including bestselling, highly acclaimed biographies and histories. His biography Gallo Be Thy Name was named one of the best business books of 2009 by the University of California Library System, and his biography of Donald Trump, Trump, was a New York Times bestseller. He has also written biographies of Rupert Murdoch, Alan Greenspan, Barry Diller, and others, as well as several novels.


Read an Excerpt


Making the World Safe for Democracy — and for Wall Street

A century ago Johnny came marching home again, to paraphrase a popular Civil War song penned by Patrick Gilmore. American troops returned to their homeland following a war their country had entered reluctantly, a war to make the world safe for democracy and a war to end all wars, according to President Woodrow Wilson. Would that it had been so; sadly, those sentiments have devolved into terms of derision as the world erupted in a series of devastating conflicts during the ensuing decades and has been gripped in a state of permanent warfare since September 11, 2001. But in 1918 the country took Wilson's words seriously after the armistice was signed on November 11, officially ending the First World War. American servicemen debarked by the thousands from transport ships that had carried them across the vast expanse of ocean from European battlefields to the safety of their own shores.

"We are provincials no longer," President Wilson declared. "The tragic events of the thirty months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world. There can be no turning back."

The war had exacted a heavy toll on those who fought in it and on others uprooted from their homes. France had lost three-quarters of its mobilized men between the ages of twenty and thirty-two. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, with more than 3 million killed, 8.3 million wounded, and 3.6 million taken as prisoners of war or missing in action, exacting a toll of 15 million casualties in all, not counting civilians. The U.S. count amounted to 360,000 casualties, including 126,000 dead and 234,000 wounded.

The country the American vets returned to was mired in a nasty recession — by some definitions a depression — that hit much of the world in the wake of the war. After the war ended the global economy began to decline as a severe downturn took hold. It was a prelude to the Great Depression of the 1930s, with sharp deflationary forces bringing the country and the global economy to their knees from January 1920 to July 1921. The vets faced few job prospects as they created a surge in the civilian labor force that triggered racial warfare between white and black soldiers who suddenly found themselves competing for whatever jobs were available.

But the mini-depression was short-lived compared to the one that battered the nation and the world a decade later. The economy started to grow from the middle of 1921 until 1929, although it had not yet made all the adjustments in shifting from wartime to peacetime conditions. As the economic life of the country recovered, the quality of life of most Americans improved with it, sparking a nonstop party that lasted throughout the rest of the decade romanticized in history as the Roaring Twenties. Middle-class Americans soon forgot about the war, eager to put all that unpleasantness behind them. But the vets — many jobless and desperate — remembered it all too well, still carrying with them the scars of battle and the nightmares of fallen comrades blasted into oblivion by enemy shells. Many of the vets were financially strapped and others suffered from horrors of war that would later be classified as posttraumatic stress disorder, while the rest of their countrymen danced and drank and partied throughout the night.

The plight of the vets caught the attention of a wealthy Virginia farmer named W. Bruce Shafer Jr., who had helped prevent wartime food shortages by encouraging the planting of potatoes to replace wheat and other grains, which had lower yields per acre. During a party that his father threw for local vets right after the war ended, Shafer learned that most of the vets had risked their lives for a pittance amounting to a dollar a day, and that many could not find work when they mustered out of the service. "I thought it was a darn shame that these fellows didn't have enough money to take a girl to the moving pictures," Shafer said. "They won the war that everyone else thought was going to take twice as long."

To acknowledge their service to the nation Shafer went to Washington to lobby for a doubling of servicemen's pay for those still in the military, and for a bonus of an extra year's pay for the ones who had been discharged. Shafer received a good reception at first. Within a few months following his lobbying blitz on Washington, bolstered by his support from the recently founded American Legion, hundreds of bills were introduced on the federal and state levels to increase veterans' benefits. Congress authorized a bonus of sixty dollars, amounting to an extra two months' pay instead of the year requested by Shafer. But it was a step in the right direction, with the promise of further debate on the subject in future sessions of Congress. The Veterans of Foreign Wars joined forces with Shafer and the American Legion. Together they petitioned for a package of benefits that included a bonus of a dollar a day for each month of service, a one-time payment of one hundred dollars for overseas service, and help in buying a farm or house with a federal mortgage guarantee up to one thousand dollars.

Various states followed suit with proposals to introduce an assortment of their own bonus packages. On October 16, 1920, New York asked voters to approve a measure to float bonds to cover the cost of bonus payments for its in-state vets. In support of the pending legislation fifty thousand vets, cheered on by one hundred thousand spectators, marched in solidarity up Fifth Avenue past viewing stands lined with politicians and other officials. Five hundred cars and trucks carried two thousand wounded vets up the avenue, their march resonating with the blare of dozens of brass bands and fife and drum and bugle corps, and the blast of cannons that shot pro-bonus literature over the heads of the crowd, raining the pamphlets down on the thousands lining the sidewalks. It was a glorious parade in grand New York style, heavy on bombast and drama but with little follow-through in its aftermath, as subsequent events would pan out.

Immediately resistance to the bonus as something the government could not afford began to emerge in the nation's capital, slowing down progress on the state level as well. Warren Harding had campaigned in favor of a bonus bill during the 1920 elections, but he abruptly did an about-face as soon as he was voted into office. "To float bonds ... or to meet such an additional expenditure out of taxes would present grave problems and might result in disaster," warned Treasury Secretary David E. Houston while the campaign was still in full swing. Once elected to the presidency, with the steep recession not yet over, Harding took Houston's dire comment to heart and later reversed himself on the issue.

Compounding the problem for the vets was the isolationist sentiment prevailing in the country at the time. Isolationism — resistance to getting involved in other countries' wars — had been ingrained in the American psyche since the days of our Founding Fathers, with both Washington and Jefferson voicing opposition to foreign entanglements. "Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course," Washington had said in his 1796 farewell address to the nation, while Jefferson warned against "entangling alliances." All that changed during the Spanish-American War of 1898, with American jingoism spurred on by a saber-rattling press, but when the war ended the U.S. populace returned to its isolationist roots. A significant majority of Americans believed that sending U.S. troops over to European battlefields had been a monumental mistake and that British propaganda, working in concert with U.S. bankers and arms merchants looking to profit from the engagement, had duped us into it. A Gallup poll at the time revealed that 70 percent of the American people believed that it had been a mistake for the United States to enter the war. So public opinion was not on the side of the vets in the aftermath of the Great War, leaving them to battle for themselves with the aid of a handful of their congressional allies.

Racial bigotry also reared its ugly head during the presidential campaign of 1920. Many of the returning vets were black "Buffalo Soldiers," a term bestowed on them by the Cheyenne and Comanche tribes whom the all-black regiments had fought in the plains in the early 1890s. The Indians had never seen black troops before, and they were in awe of their fighting ability and their dark skin and curly hair, which gave them the appearance of the wild buffalo that the Indians hunted across the vast sweep of the American plains. The name Buffalo Soldiers became a point of pride that the blacks wore with distinction over the decades until President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military in 1948.

Now that the Great War in Europe was over, however, white America had little use for its black warriors and resented their competing with white men for jobs at a time when work was in scant supply as America transitioned into a peacetime economy. Blacks, according to prevailing white attitudes at the time, were ill-equipped to handle lump-sum payments of cash and were likely to quit working until the money was gone, an argument that made little sense since most of the black vets — and white vets, for that matter — were out of work in the first place. The Cleveland Advocate fought back by noting that blacks who had been freed from slavery little more than a half century before had cultivated millions of acres of farmland and had demonstrated a strong work ethic while under the lash of white slave owners. Even if the money were ill-spent, the paper reasoned, it was likely to benefit white merchants who sold their goods and services to blacks at elevated prices.

But the main concern of both major political parties was the cost of the bonus at a time when the country was still reeling beneath the burden of its massive war debt. Woodrow Wilson's assistant secretary of the treasury, R. C. Leffingwell, figured the bonus would cost more than $2 billion, a staggering sum at the time. The money "is not in the treasury and available for distribution," Leffingwell was quoted in the Washington Post. The bill pending before Congress, which had been passed in the House but shelved in the Senate, was laid to rest. And Warren Harding was content to let it lie there when he assumed office in 1921, notwithstanding his rhetoric in favor of the bill during his presidential campaign.

Harding had powerful friends in the business world who were also worried about the federal government's bottom line. A bonus would make "mercenaries out of our patriotic boys," intoned George Eastman of Eastman Kodak. In response a popular humorist of the time, Will Rogers, retorted, "That old alibi about the country not being able to pay is all applesauce." "This country is not broke," Rogers wrote. "Automobile manufacturers are three months behind in their orders, and whiskey was never as high in its life. If we owed it to some Foreign Nation you would talk about honor and then pay it. ... I think the best Insurance in the World against another War is to take care of the Boys who fought in the last one. YOU MAY WANT TO USE THEM AGAIN."

The squabble continued over the next few years, with various veterans' organizations and sympathetic individuals like Rogers on the pro-bonus side of the issue, and big business and their flunkies in government posturing against it. Some corporations compelled their employees to flood their representatives with letters arguing against the passage of a bonus package, and Thomas Edison celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday by declaring, "I think we should postpone the bonus. The country is in no condition for it." The Congress was in no mood to march in lockstep with the anti-bonus lobby, however. On March 23, 1922, the House passed a bonus bill by an overwhelming margin, with 242 Republicans and 90 Democrats voting in favor. The Senate followed with an equally lopsided majority voting for passage. It then fell on the desk of President Harding, who had first been in favor, then against, and seemed to be tilting back in favor of it again. But once more he flip-flopped and vetoed the bill on September 19. The House mustered enough votes to override his veto, but the Senate came up four votes short of overturning it.

When the economy was in recession, there was some justification to deny passage on financial grounds, but the recession was well over by 1922 and the good times were starting to roll again. The argument that the country could not afford to pay the vets sounded hollower than ever at a time of renewed prosperity. But Harding was in no position to focus on the vets as his first term in office wore on. One scandal after another crippled his administration. He had fleshed out his cabinet with anassortment of cronies who appeared to be in competition to see which was the most corrupt. They raided the public till, sold the naval oil reserve at Teapot Dome and Elk Hills, stole money from the Veterans Bureau, seized confiscated liquor and sold it for personal profit, and otherwise engaged in an orgy of unfettered governmental brigandage that Harding proved incapable of reining in. The hapless Harding, whose presidency would go down as one of the most corrupt in history, was destroyed by his hand-picked advisors. He died on August 2, 1923, following a trip to Alaska.

Next up was Vice President Calvin Coolidge, who was sworn in as president in the wake of Harding's demise. No one expected Coolidge, who firmly believed that "the chief business of the American people is business," to be more favorable to a veterans bonus than his predecessor had been.

Coolidge had been an outsider within Harding's administration, a vice president whom the president and his larcenous cronies had shunted off to the sidelines. He had remained above all the wheeling and dealing that had taken place under Harding's nose, a fiscal conservative by nature who seemed to have been born with a green eyeshade affixed to his brow. He believed passionately in balanced budgets and federal government frugality, and was ideologically opposed to any expenditures that he deemed nonessential to the government's wellbeing. The veterans' bonus was a nonstarter for him. "Patriotism which is bought and paid for is not patriotism," he believed. "To attempt to make a money payment out of the earnings of the people to those who are physically well and financially able is to abandon one of our most cherished American ideals."

His sentiments, honest as they were, hardly endeared him to the thousands of impatient vets who had been clamoring for their bonuses for the past five years. In the early months of 1924 their demands reached a crescendo. Armies of protestors demonstrated for the bonus all over the country, but their entreaties engendered counter-protestors, many of them organized by big business, which denounced the bonus as a giveaway the country could not afford. Employers threatened their labor forces with the loss of their jobs if they failed to join the anti-bonus brigades in the streets of America. To his credit President Coolidge denounced the heavy-handed tactics of the business community as "utterly un-American," even though he maintained his principled stand against the bonus itself.

In an effort to defuse the explosive atmosphere New York representative Hamilton Fish III, a cousin of the Rough Rider who had been killed in action fighting with Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, rode to the rescue with a new bonus bill that he introduced in Congress on February 26, 1924. Fish crafted the bill in a way that he believed would make it acceptable to both sides of the dispute. The vets would receive a bonus, but it would not be payable until 1945 with interest accruing over the next twenty years. The vets could borrow against their policies but could not cash them in before the due date — or when they died, in which case their families would get the money. Realizing that this was the best they were likely to get from a tight-fisted Congress and president, the American Legion and the VFW organized marches in New York and other cities urging Congress to pass the bill into law. The House and Senate did exactly that and passed the legislation by overwhelming margins. But even the stretched-out payment dates were not enough to mollify the man in the White House, who was loath to saddle future generations with the ultimate cost of the bill. Coolidge was nothing if not consistent; he vetoed the bill, but this time Congress had enough votes to override the president's veto.

Media wags quickly labeled the bill "the Tombstone Bonus" for obvious reasons. But in reality it was not truly a bonus at all but rather an insurance policy, payable on death or on the due date twenty-one years in the future. Fish's bill, designed to pacify agitators on both sides of the issue, satisfied no one. These types of compromises normally leave a bitter taste in the mouths of everyone involved, who feel that opposing forces have short-changed them. Fish's legislation hardly put the issue to rest. It lay there smoldering, a campfire whose glowing embers were not fully extinguished. It was just a question of time before it flared back up into roaring flames again.


Excerpted from "The War Against the Vets"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Jerome Tuccille.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Part 1. The Great March
1. Making the World Safe for Democracy—and for Wall Street
2. From a Roar to a Whimper
3. A Motorcycle Cop Rides to the Rescue
4. American-Style Fascism Descends on Washington
5. An Unholy Alliance
6. The Smell of Revolution in the Air
7. Glassford’s Frankenstein Monster Rears His Ugly Head
8. The Death March Upstages the BEF
9. Khaki Shirts Take on the Reds
Part 2. Blitzkrieg
10. An American Caesar Crosses the Anacostia
11. Flames Light Up the Night
12. Hoover Pays the Price for His Incompetence
13. The Vets March Once Again
Part 3. The Big Blow
14. The Island of Bones
15. Paradise Lost
16. The Hurricane Makes a Direct Hit on the Camps
17. The Struggle for Survival
18. The Cover-Up
19. The Vets Finally Get Their Money
20. The Battle Continues

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