WASHINGTON, May 29.—With American flags flying before them, sixteen truckloads of war veterans came to the end of a transcontinental hitch-hike today with the avowed purpose of remaining in Washington until Congress pays their bonus in full. (NYT)

Thus, in 1932, began the encampment of the Bonus Army, which numbered some thousands of marchers, in Washington, DC.

Their story was simple: in the old days, Congress had to make special provision for the slew of veterans created each time the US had a war. In 1924 it voted those who served in the Great War a payment, or bonus, sized to the time they’d spent in uniform; a dollar a day for service in the US and $1.26 a day for service overseas, plus interest, minus discharge pay. The payments were payable at time of death, or in 1945.

With the depression deepening, a fair number of veterans thought it might be nice for Congress to pay a little early. After all, Washington had just created a special bailout fund for the banks and other major corporations like railroads (the Reconstruction Finance Corporation) and as Charles Coughlin, the radio priest and not-yet-clearly-anti-Semitic populist said,

If the government can pay $2 billion to the bankers and the railroads, why cannot it pay the $2 billion to the soldiers?

Because it would break the bank, Congress said. And the president, Herbert Hoover, thought the same. Maybe most interestingly, so did the president’s chief challenger, Franklin Roosevelt.

Hoover, as was his wont, made a bad situation worse. Rather than glad-hand the men encamped near the Mall and occasionally marching—to the cheers of a hundred thousand onlookers—Hoover spurned them, and eventually let General Douglas MacArthur run off the Bonus Army with tanks and tear gas, burning their shanties and tents. Leading a cavalry group, George Patton contemplated what a fine, “comforting” sound the sabers made hitting the marchers.

Hoping Americans might side with authority, Hoover and MacArthur explained that the fellows on the Mall weren’t really veterans at all, but a bunch of lousy Commie subversives. As MacArthur said, they were

insurrectionists … if there was one man in ten in that group today who was a veteran, it would surprise me…. They were animated by the spirit of revolution…. they were about to take over the government… had the President not acted today, had he permitted this thing to go on for twenty-four hours more, he would have been faced with a grave situation which would have caused a real battle.

Unfortunately for MacArthur and Hoover, government agencies sent to survey the encampment had already concluded otherwise, discovering that 94% of the marchers were simply out-of-luck veterans. Twenty percent were disabled. People watching the army in action on the newsreel identified with the former soldiers, not the current ones. As FDR said, reading the papers, he would feel sorry for Hoover if he didn’t feel sorry for the marchers; it didn’t look good for the president’s electoral prospects. Indeed, the picture of the out-of-work, run out of town by an unsympathetic government, “made a theme for the campaign,” Roosevelt thought.

The Bonus Army came back once Roosevelt was elected. He sent Eleanor out to have a chat with them—be sure to tell them Franklin sent you, Louis Howe instructed her—but he didn’t favor paying them their bonus. The difference in style between Hoover and Roosevelt was remarkable, and the substantive difference was non-negligible: the army under FDR didn’t kill or maim the veterans. But neither did the government under FDR pay them. Remember, FDR remained, throughout the New Deal, a fiscal conservative leery of deficits and of direct payments to citizens. In 1936—many deficits and work relief payments later—Congress passed a Veterans’ Bonus over FDR’s veto.

NPR has a story here, with a link to some newsreel footage. Here‘s a Library of Congress webcast, featuring Paul Dickson and Thomas Allen, the authors of this recent book. Roger Daniels’s Bonus March is worth your time, as is Lucy Barber’s Marching on Washington. And of course, for all things Great Depression and New Deal, this is a fine starting point.