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Vets Owe Debt to WWI's "Bonus Army"
Vets Owe Debt to WWI's "Bonus Army"

About the Authors

Paul Dickson is a founding member and former president of Washington Independent Writers and a member of the National Press Club. He is a contributing editor at Washingtonian magazine and a consulting editor at Merriam-Webster, Inc. He is represented by Premier Speakers Bureau, Inc. and the Jonathan Dolger Literary agency. He currently lives in Garrett Park, Maryland with his wife Nancy who works with him as his first line editor, and financial manager.

Paul Dickson is the author of more than 45 nonfiction books and hundreds of magazine articles. Although he has written on a variety of subjects from ice cream to kite flying to electronic warfare, he now concentrates on writing about the American language, baseball and 20th century history.

Thomas B. Allen is a frequent contributor to National Geographic Magazine and has written on such subjects as Xinjiang China, Mongolia, and Turkey. His World War II articles covered D-Day, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Eighth Air Force, and the Battle of Midway. Other articles: the search for the giant squid, the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, and the search for Cuba's sunken treasure ships. The Geographic articles have been published in the Japanese, Israeli, Greek, and Latin American editions of the Magazine. He also lectures on National Geographic Expeditions to the sites of historic events, such as Pearl Harbor and D-Day.

Prior to his work at the National Geographic Society, Allen was, from 1964 to 1965, Managing Editor, Trade Book Division, Chilton Books. From 1956 to 1963, he was a feature writer on The New York Daily News. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter and columnist for the Bridgeport (Conn.) Herald and served two years in the U.S. Navy.

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by Paul Dickson & Thomas B. Allen

WASHINGTON - Today, a new war is producing another generation of veterans who can claim benefits for their service to the nation. The benefits include up to three years of college or other training when they return to civilian life.

Few of them know that they owe a debt of gratitude to veterans of World War I, who petitioned hostile politicians for a promised reward for their service.

Veterans have vexed politicians since Caesar's legions. Returning warriors were both a potential power bloc and a threat. As Anthony J. Principi, U.S. secretary of veterans affairs, remarked in 2001, "History is littered with governments destabilized by masses of veterans who believed that they had been taken for fools by a society that grew rich and fat at the expense of their hardship and suffering."

Even so noble a cause as the American Revolution ended with a disgruntled army, menacing the politicians.

After the British surrendered at Yorktown, many in the Continental Army were mustered out without pay. In June 1783, a band of Pennsylvania soldiers marched on Philadelphia, demanding back pay. They surrounded the State House and poked their bayonet-tipped muskets through the windows at the national Congress meeting there.

Fearing a coup, Congress "quit the building," pushed through the jeering mob, and headed to Princeton, N.J. The soldiers grew into a mutinous mob of 400.

Finally, after terrifying the citizens of Philadelphia for weeks, the veterans were expelled by soldiers. Although two leaders were sentenced to be shot, at the last minute they were pardoned by Congress.

A result of this episode was that Congress created a new kind of capital -- a protected federal enclave: Washington, D.C.

And it was to Washington that 45,000 veterans of World War I marched in 1932. Jobless victims of the Great Depression, they called themselves the Bonus Army. They walked, hitchhiked and rode boxcars to the nation's capital. There, in the racially segregated city, they set up integrated shantytown camps and petitioned Congress for immediate payment of a "bonus" promised in 1924 but not due to be paid until 1945. The Senate voted it down.

The Bonus Army refused to leave, vowing to stay until 1945, if necessary. Although the vets had caused no trouble, jittery politicians feared revolution, so President Herbert Hoover ordered downtown Washington cleared. Gen. Douglas MacArthur exceeded Hoover's orders by driving out all the veterans, using bayonets, tanks and tear gas. The Army's action (opposed by MacArthur's aide, Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower) stunned America and helped defeat President Hoover.

When a smaller Bonus Army returned to Washington in 1933 and 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, like the four presidents preceding him, led the opposition to the bonus.

In late 1934, the last remnants of the Bonus Army had been sent off to "veterans' rehabilitation camps," where they worked for a dollar a day. The most severe hurricane ever to strike America smashed into camps in the Florida Keys on Labor Day of 1935, killing more than 250 vets. Finally, shocked by the deaths, Congress overrode Roosevelt's veto in 1936 and authorized immediate payment of the bonus.

Early in 1944, as General Eisenhower was planning the liberation of Western Europe and General MacArthur the liberation of the Philippines, leaders of veterans' organizations and members of Congress began looking at how to keep another Bonus Army from mobilizing at war's end. Their efforts produced the G.I. Bill of Rights.

Racist politicians opposed the provisions of the bill that would "put money in the pockets of black vets," and some elitist educators opposed higher education as a benefit. "Colleges and universities," warned Robert M. Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, "will find themselves converted into educational hobo jungles."

But on June 22, 1944, President Roosevelt, putting aside his longstanding opposition to "privileges" for veterans, signed the G.I. Bill into law. By 1956, the bill had helped produce 450,000 engineers, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, and more than a million other college-trained men and women. And 11 million of the 13 million houses built in the 1950s were financed with G.I. Bill loans.

The G.I. Bill thus helped create a well-educated, well-housed American middle class, whose consumption patterns fueled the prosperous postwar economy.

The legacy of the Bonus Army veterans is that they raised the bar for all veterans who came after them.

Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen's The Bonus Army: An American Epic will be published in February by Walker and Co. More information including a video on the Bonus Army appears at thebonusarmy.com

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