During WWI, approximately 4.2 million young Americans served as part of the US Army. About half of those were drafted. As a soldier, young men could expect to be paid about $1.00 per day of service, while friends at home working were making 10 times that. As the war drew to a close, WWI veterans thought they deserved more pay and lobbied for an additional service bonus, something they received in 1924 when Congress passed a bill that promised veterans a cash bonus that would be paid out in 1945. Perhaps this promise would have satisfied the veterans had it not been for the Great Depression.
As the depression pushed on and people were unable to provide necessities for their families, WWI veterans pushed Congress for an early payout on their bonuses. Early in 1932, Representative Wright Patman introduced a bill to Congress that would do just that. Encouraged by the bill and inspired by their First Amendment rights, WWI veterans from all over the country traveled to Washington D.C. to petition Congress to pass the bill. Within a few weeks, over 20,000 veterans had set up camp along the Anacostia River. They called themselves the Bonus Marchers.
In June 1932, the bonus bill was passed in the House and then struck down in the Senate. The government expected that the Bonus Marchers would return home. But they stayed. The Washington police were sent in to evict the marchers from their camp along the river. Unfortunately, the altercation ended in violence and two Bonus Marchers were shot.
On July 28, 1932, President Herbert Hoover sent in the US Army, led by Army chief of staff Douglas MacArthur, to break up the camp. The army marched in and began burning the camp to the ground. Bonus Marchers fled as the army attacked with tear gas. As one might imagine, the images and newsreel of this eviction did not play well with American voters. President Hoover and MacArthur looked like the villains in the Bonus Marchers’ story. A few months later, Hoover lost the presidential election to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
4 years later, in 1936, the bonus bill finally passed, and the WWI veterans finally received their promised bonuses. In 1944, the GI Bill was passed, which helps veterans receive monetary and other benefits after their service.
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