Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows: Part 24
The Original Big Mac Attack
This is Part 24 of a blog series titled “Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows.”
Although each entry in the series has some information and commentary that
can be of interest “standing alone,” each builds on
information, concepts, and commentary
introduced in earlier entries in the series, and thus it is most effective to
read the material sequentially from the beginning.
Click here to go to the first entry in the series, Part 1
The late 1970s saw the beginning of a long-running series of bright, cheerful ads promoting the premier hamburger sandwich of the McDonald’s menu, the Big Mac, with warnings about hungry people having “Big Mac attacks.” They were cheerfully informed that the only satisfying “cure” for this attack was to hustle to the nearest McDonald’s restaurant and order a Big Mac from the smiling employee at the counter.
This blog entry is NOT about that kind of Mac Attack. It’s about a much earlier, much darker, decidedly uncheerful situation. With a much less satisfying solution.
General Douglas MacArthur had been personally overseeing the preparations for the sneak attack for some time. When the day came, he was at the Front, watching over the progress of the tanks and the troops relentlessly moving forward in gas masks with their rifles, bayonets, swords—and tear gas grenades—at the ready. The enemy was routed in chaos before them, fleeing across the river. For a time, the General had his troops “stand down.” Word came from the President…do NOT cross the river and engage the opposition again at this time. There were too many dangers in that tactic. The president sent word twice, through leading military men… STAY WHERE YOU ARE until further orders.
But from MacArthur’s point of view, the President was not there to evaluate the situation clearly. MacArthur, infinitely sure of himself because of his long experience in the field, ignored the orders and by the end of the day his troops had crossed that river and attacked.
And we all know the ultimate outcome of that level of insubordination!
Or do we? Aren’t we speaking here of General Douglas MacArthur in 1950, in North Korea, attacking North Korean and Chinese troops, defying the directives of his Commander in Chief, President Harry S Truman?
No, we are speaking here of General Douglas MacArthur in 1932, in Washington DC, attacking over 20,000 US Army veterans of World War I…and hundreds of wives and children of some of them…defying the directives of his Commander in Chief, President Herbert Hoover.
And therein is a story many Americans are totally unfamiliar with.
Washington, D.C. Chief of Police Pelham D. Glassford [shown above in uniform] was driving south through New Jersey the night of May 21, 1932. Suddenly, a sight appeared in his headlights that he later described as “a bedraggled group of seventy-five or one hundred men and women marching cheerily along, singing and waving at the passing traffic.” One man carried an American flag and another a banner that read, “Bonus or a Job.” Glassford pulled over to have a word with the ragtag group. Atop one of the marchers’ pushcarts, he noted, an infant girl lay sleeping, nestled amid one family’s clothes, oblivious to the ruckus.
Glassford, who had been the youngest brigadier general in the Army in World War I, understood almost immediately who these wayfarers were. For two weeks or so, newspapers across the nation had begun carrying accounts of marchers bound for the nation’s capital.
The demonstrators were part of a growing delegation of veterans and their families heading to Washington to collect payment of the “bonus,” promised eight years before, in 1924, to soldiers who had served in the Great War. (That year, wrangling over the federal budget had ordained that this compensation be deferred until 1945.) Now in 1932, the men, who called themselves the Bonus Army, were dubbing the deferred payment the “Tombstone Bonus,” because, they said, many of them would be dead by the time the government paid it. [Smithsonian Magazine]
The life expectancy of males in 1924 was 58.1 years, so this wasn’t an unreasonable theory. It might pay out for the young men who were drafted into service in the Great War at age 21 or so. But by the end of that war, they were drafting men ages 18 to 45. And another 2 million men of all ages volunteered, no doubt many of them in their 30s and 40s.
Plus, of course, a bonus that far in the future would not help men in staving off starvation for their families during the Great Depression.
Such as for this family with 5 stair-step children (the son way in back is pushing an infant in a baby buggy, the dad pulling a toddler in a wagon), walking the 120 miles on a bleak highway from one small Oklahoma town to another where he hoped to find work, in 1938. He had lost the family farm during the severe Dustbowl drought, at the same time he was battling pneumonia. The family was not eligible for any kind of relief aid from the county where they had lived. If he was due a bonus from WW1, but had to wait until 1945, his children might well all be dead by then.
Glassford drove on to Washington.
By the time he got there, morning newspapers were carrying stories about the progress of the Bonus Army. The Washington Star reported that “One hundred unemployed World War veterans will leave Philadelphia tomorrow morning on freight trains for Washington” and that other vets were converging from as far away as “Portland, Oregon and the Middle West.” [ibid]
Started by a single veteran named Walter Waters in Oregon, the ragtag “movement” grew very swiftly by word of mouth… and newspaper…to eventually consist of well over 25,000 veterans, accompanied by over 1,000 wives and children.
Most of the men had been part of the World War 1 “American Expeditionary Force” (AEF) sent to Europe to aid the Allies. They dubbed their new effort the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” … BEF.
The chief was quick to grasp the logistical nightmare he faced.
…In 1932, nearly 32,000 businesses failed. Unemployment had soared to almost 25 percent, leaving roughly one family out of every four without a breadwinner. Two million people wandered the country in a futile quest for work.
Many of the homeless settled in communities of makeshift shacks, called “Hoovervilles” after the president they blamed for their plight. Like this huge Hooverville in Seattle.
Glassford knew he would have to create a sort of Hooverville of his own to house the Bonus Army. But where? In the end he chose a tract of land known as Anacostia Flats, at the outer reaches of the District of Columbia, which could be reached from Capitol Hill only by a wooden drawbridge spanning the Anacostia River.
Glassford oversaw the establishment of the camp as best he could, making sure that at least a certain amount of building materials—piles of lumber and boxes of nails—were supplied. [The rest was scavenged from a nearby dump…and the nearby fields of straw. Where they could get “stuffing” for mattresses to sleep on.]
The first contingent of Bonus Army marchers arrived May 23. Over the next two months, an estimated 25,000 more, many with wives and children, arrived to stake their claim to what they felt was their due.
They came on foot, or in rattle-trap autos and trucks…
Some even commandeered empty rail cars along the way.
… Evalyn Walsh McLean, 45, heiress to a Colorado mining fortune and owner of the famed Hope diamond, had heard the trucks rumbling past her Massachusetts Avenue mansion. After 1 a.m. on a night soon after the vets began pouring into the city, she drove down to the Anacostia camp, where she came upon Chief Glassford, whom she had encountered socially as she moved among Washington’s power elite, just on his way to buy coffee for the men. McLean drove with him to an all-night diner and told an awestruck counterman that she wanted 1,000 sandwiches and 1,000 packs of cigarettes. Glassford placed a similar order for coffee. “We two fed all the hungry ones who were in sight,” McLean recalled later. “Nothing I had seen before in my whole life touched me as deeply as what I had seen in the faces of the Bonus Army.” When McLean learned that the marchers needed a headquarters tent, she had one delivered along with books, radios and cots.
About 1,100 wives and children populated the main camp, making it, with more than 15,000 people, the largest Hooverville in the country. The Bonus Marchers named their settlement Camp Marks, in honor of the accommodating police captain S. J. Marks, whose precinct encompassed Anacostia. The vets published their own newspaper (the BEF News), set up a library and barbershop and staged vaudeville shows at which they sang such ditties as “My Bonus Lies Over the Ocean.”
“We used to watch them build their shanties,” says then eighth grader Charles T. Greene, now 83, a former director of industrial safety for the District of Columbia who lived just a few blocks from the camp in 1932. “They had their own M.P.s and officers in charge, and flag raising ceremonies, complete with a fellow playing bugle. We envied the youngsters because they weren’t in school. Then some of the parents set up classrooms.”
Almost daily, Chief Glassford visited the camp riding a blue motorcycle.
He arranged for volunteer physicians and medical corpsmen from a local Marine Corps reserve unit to hold sick call twice a day. All the veterans, wrote syndicated Hearst columnist Floyd Gibbons, “were down at the heel. All were slim and gaunt. . . . There were empty sleeves [arms blown off in combat] and limping men with canes.”
James G. Banks, also 82 and a pal of Greene’s, remembers that neighborhood people “took meals down to the camp. The veterans were welcomed.” Far from feeling threatened, most residents saw bonus marchers as something of a curiosity. “On Saturdays and Sundays, a lot of tourists came down here,” says Banks.
Frank A. Taylor, 99, had just gone to work that summer as a junior curator in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. (In 1964 he would become the founding director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History.) “People in Washington were quite sympathetic [to them],” Taylor remembers. “They were very orderly and came in to use the rest room. We did ask that they not do any bathing or shaving before the museum opened.”
While newspaper reporters produced almost daily dispatches on camp life, they largely missed the biggest story of all: in this Southern city, where schools, buses and movies remained segregated, Bonus Army blacks and whites were living, working, eating and playing together. Jim Banks, the grandson of a slave, looks back on the camp as “the first massive integrated effort that I could remember.” Roy Wilkins, the civil rights activist who in 1932 wrote about the camps for The Crisis, the NAACP monthly, noted that “there was one absentee [in the Bonus Army]: James Crow.” [ibid]
Organizer Walter Waters went to great efforts to organize a temporary encampment for the BEF men and families that was respectable, safe, and orderly.
The camp quickly became a local attraction. Washingtonians brought them much needed supplies, from sleeping bags to vegetables, to cigarettes, and often tossed coins to camp musicians. Soon the camp…came to resemble a small city. There were named streets, a library, a post office, and a barber shop.
Classes were set up for the children. They published their own newspaper, and staged vaudeville shows and boxing matches. Camp rules prohibited alcohol, weapons, fighting, and begging.
Some historians note that those veterans wanting to encamp with the marchers were required to register and prove they had been honorably discharged.
And since the veterans wanted their motives to be unambiguous, communists were not allowed. Dozens of American flags could be seen waving above the shacks and mud.
Marine Corps legend and retired Major General Smedley Butler turned out to praise and encourage them. It was the largest Hooverville in the nation. [Source]
In addition to Camp Marks (which ultimately held over 20,000), across the Anacostia River from the main part of DC, another 8,000 or so set up smaller camps in empty lots and in and around abandoned buildings throughout the city of Washington..
The main group of those occupied some abandoned buildings, slated for demolition, right on Pennsylvania near the Capitol building.
Although the main BEF group of marchers rejected any connection with Communist agitators, there was a small “rival” group in its own camp, also demanding their bonuses, that identified itself specifically as Communist.
But of course, all these men had arrived not just to have a huge social “camp out.” The main reason they had made the long trek to Washington was to lobby Congress to pass a measure to pay them their War Bonus.
Within days of his arrival, Walter Waters had a full-blown lobbying operation under way. On June 4, the B.E.F. marched in full force down the streets of Washington. Veterans filled their representative’s waiting rooms, while others gathered outside the Capitol building. On June 14, the bonus bill, opposed by Republicans loyal to President Hoover, came to the floor. When Congressman Edward E. Eslick (D-TN) was speaking in support of the bill, he suddenly fell dead from of a heart attack. Thousands of Bonus Army veterans marched in his funeral procession, while congress adjourned out of respect. The following day, June 15, the House of Representatives passed the bonus bill by a vote of 211 to 176.
On the 17th, about 8,000 veterans gathered at the Capitol, feeling confident that the Senate would pass the bill. Another 10,000 were stranded behind the Anacostia drawbridge, which police had raised to keep them out of the city.
Debate continued into the evening. Finally, around 9:30, Senate aides summoned Waters inside. He returned moments later to break the news to the crowd: the bill had been defeated. For a moment it looked as if the veterans would attack the Capitol. Instead, at the suggestion of a reporter, Waters asked the veterans to sing “America”. When the song was over, they slowly filed back to camp.
In the days that followed, many bonus marchers went home. But Waters and 20,000 others declared their intention “to stay here until 1945 if necessary to get our bonus.” They continued to demonstrate.
On July 13, 1932, Police Chief Glassford addressed a rally on the Capitol grounds. He asked the veterans to raise their hands if they had served in France and were 100 percent American. [ibid]
The reality was, no doubt, that many of these men HAD no “home” to go back to. And they hadn’t left jobs to make the trip. If they HAD jobs, there would have been no desperate need for the bonus. As the caption on many of the protest signs said, “Bonus OR JOBS.” If they went back to “where they came from”… where there had been no jobs in the first place…they and their families had nothing to look forward to but begging or hunger…or outright starvation. It is thus understandable why many clung on to what, in hindsight now, was a fruitless hope that if they stayed, their plight would somehow change the mind of the government.
But it didn’t.
As the weeks passed, conditions at the camp worsened. Evalyn Walsh McLean contacted Vice President Charles Curtis, who had attended dinner parties at her mansion. “Unless something is done for these men, there is bound to be a lot of trouble,” she told him. McLean’s efforts backfired. Vice President Curtis became paranoid when he saw veterans near his Capitol Hill office on the anniversary of the day the mobs stormed France’s Bastille.
President Hoover, Army Chief of Staff [Douglas] MacArthur, and Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley, increasingly feared that the Bonus Army would turn violent and trigger uprisings in Washington and elsewhere. Hoover was especially troubled by the veterans who occupied abandoned buildings downtown. [ibid]
And thus we come to that infamous scenario described in the beginning of this story.
Fed up with the stand-off, on July 28 Secretary of War Hurley ordered Police Chief Glassford to use his police force to evacuate the Bonus Army men from their encampments in and around the abandoned buildings near the Capitol. The Bonus men resisted. They had no firearms, but did start throwing rocks and bricks at the police…and, fearing for their safety, police opened fire. One veteran was killed instantly, one mortally wounded. And the situation escalated to a flash point from there on.
The police retreated, and Glassford’s superiors called the president to send federal troops to restore order. Hoover had been waiting for just such an opening. He had Hurley send the following orders to MacArthur:
“You will have United States troops proceed immediately to the scene of the disorder. Surround the affected area and clear it without delay. Any women and children should be accorded every consideration and kindness. Use all humanity consistent with the execution of this order.”
Unfortunately, General MacArthur had a bit more in mind than just briskly carrying out the limited order about clearing downtown D.C.
Not surprisingly, MacArthur now executed his orders in a manner seemingly designed to maximize media attention. In a highly unusual but characteristic decision — one purportedly against the advice of his aide, 42-year-old Major Dwight Eisenhower — he chose to oversee the operations in the field with the troops.
Military protocol called for a commanding officer to remain at headquarters. This was especially true for MacArthur, whose post was administrative rather than operational. So while he charged General Perry Miles with carrying out the eviction, MacArthur assumed the real responsibility. Although no other situation offers an exact comparison, MacArthur’s action was as if General Maxwell Taylor, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1963, had led National Guard troops to the University of Alabama to confront Alabama Governor George Wallace. [ibid]
During the military operation, Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, later the 34th president of the United States, served as one of MacArthur’s junior aides. Believing it wrong for the Army’s highest-ranking officer to lead an action against fellow American war veterans, he strongly advised MacArthur against taking any public role. [Source]
In fact, in an interview much later with historian Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower recalled the Bonus Army incident. He told Ambrose, “I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch he had no business going down there.” But of course part of MacArthur’s “business” was to put on a personal spectacle, and he couldn’t do that from a desk.
Yes, none of this was left to chance. MacArthur had actually been planning this dramatic moment for many weeks, and obviously intended to milk the drama for all it was worth.
For two months, General MacArthur, anticipating violence, had been secretly training his troops in riot control. By the time the deadly conflict commenced, MacArthur, acting on orders from the president, had already commanded troops from Fort Myer, Virginia, to cross the Potomac and assemble on the Ellipse, the grassy lawn across from the White House.
…What happened next is etched in the American memory: for the first time in the nation’s history, tanks rolled through the streets of the capital. MacArthur ordered his men to clear the downtown of veterans…
At 4:30 p.m., nearly 200 mounted cavalry, sabers drawn and pennants flying, wheeled out of the Ellipse.
At the head of this contingent rode their executive officer, George S. Patton,…
…followed by five tanks and about 300 helmeted infantrymen, brandishing loaded rifles with fixed bayonets.
The cavalry drove most pedestrians—curious onlookers, civil servants and members of the Bonus Army, many with wives and children—off the streets. Infantrymen wearing gas masks hurled hundreds of tear-gas grenades at the dispersing crowd.
The detonated grenades set off dozens of fires: the flimsy shelters veterans had erected near the armory went up in flames. Black clouds mingled with tear gas. [Source]
About that “tear gas.” We are not talking here of something that just made your eyes sting and water. Nor was it the sort of chemical used in “riot control” in the 21st century. That stuff is nasty and harmful, but can’t hold a candle to what MacArthur’s troops used on the Bonus Army veterans and their families. It was a chemical called Adamsite, or “DM.” And it was from a stockpile left over from its use in the trenches in the Great War.
Adamsite is usually dispersed as an aerosol, making the upper respiratory tract the primary site of action. Although the effects are similar to those caused by typical riot control agents (e.g. CS), they are slower in onset but longer in duration, often lasting for 12 or more hours. After a latency period of 5–10 minutes irritation of the eyes, lungs and mucous membranes develops followed by headache, nausea and persistent vomiting.
DM was produced and stockpiled by the British and the United States at the end of World War I.
In the United States, it was used against the Bonus Army who demonstrated in Washington, DC, in 1932, reportedly causing the death and serious injury of several children who had accompanied their parents on the protests. It was again used in the Vietnam War.
DM was allegedly used by Venezuelan authorities in the 2014–17 Venezuelan protests and described as “green gas” with reports of protesters vomiting following exposure and regional human rights groups condemning the usage of “green gas”, stating that its usage is “internationally banned”. [Source]
Naaman Seigle, now 76, was 6 years old that day. He remembers a detachment of cavalry passing in front of his house in southwest D.C. that morning. “We thought it was a parade because of all the horses,” he says. Later in the day, the boy and his father happened to go downtown to a hardware store. As they emerged from the shop, they saw the tanks and were hit with a dose of tear gas. “I was coughing like hell. So was my father,” Seigle recalls. [Source]
And in the midst of it all was Big Mac.
As cavalry dispersed a group of outnumbered veterans waving a U.S. flag, a shocked bystander, his face streaked with tears from the gas, accosted MacArthur as he rode along in a staff car. ‘The American flag means nothing to me after this,’ the man yelled. The general quieted him with a stern rebuke, ‘Put that man under arrest if he opens his mouth again.’ The energetic officer was in his element.
One reporter observed, ‘General MacArthur, his chest glittering with medals, strode up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, flipping a riding crop against his neatly pressed breeches.’ [Source]
Some reports put the total crowd that had been on the streets in DC that day as 8,000 spectators, and 2,000 Bonus Marchers, including some of their wives and children. By 7 PM, the crowds were totally dispersed and the encampments evacuated and the remnants of housing and possessions smashed and torched.
But all that was just the beginning. Although Mac’s orders had been to just assist the DC police in quelling the disturbance in the city and removing the squatters from the buildings and grounds along Pennsylvania Ave., he had a much more complete plan for his troops. He planned to put a total end to the Bonus Army by invading the Mark Camp across the river, driving out all the occupants, and destroying it.
By 9 PM the troops were stationed at the bridge ready to cross into the camp. Realizing what was about to happen, a veteran came dashing across the bridge waving a white shirt for a “flag of truce” and begged for time to evacuate the women and children. MacArthur granted the request…some historians say he gave them an hour. Some report it was twenty minutes. Either way, it was horrific.
Eyewitnesses, including Eisenhower, insisted that Secretary of War Hurley, speaking for the president, had forbade any troops to cross the bridge into Anacostia and that at least two high-ranking officers were dispatched by Hurley to convey these orders to MacArthur. The general, Eisenhower later wrote, “said he was too busy and did not want either himself or his staff bothered by people coming down and pretending to bring orders.” It would not be the last time that MacArthur would disregard a presidential directive—two decades later President Truman would fire him as commander of U.N. military forces in South Korea for doing just that. (Truman explicitly ordered that Chinese bases in Manchuria should not be bombed, a move that would have caused China to escalate even further its role in the Korean conflict. [Source]
And so, ignoring Hoover’s orders, Big Mac sent the troops storming over the bridge. Bayonets fixed to brandish at resisters, and lobbing tear gas as they pushed forward through the camp. Panic ensued as the veterans were routed, and their makeshift Hooverville, with all their pathetic personal possessions was torched.
By morning virtually nothing was left.
That morning one of the veterans returned to the barren site, where Patton was inspecting the grounds. His name was Joe Angelo.
Angelo was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during the Meuse-Argonne offensive on September 26, 1918, as an orderly with 304th Tank Brigade, commanded by future General George S. Patton, Jr.
During the battle, in an exposed position Patton was seriously wounded by a machine gun. Showing great courage under enemy fire, Angelo dragged Patton to safety. He had thus saved the life of the man who would one day become an American legend.
In the spring of 1919, an interview appeared in American newspapers in which Patton declared Angelo “without doubt the bravest man in the American Army. I have never seen his equal.” [Source]
Evidently Patton changed his mind. That morning in July, 1932, Angelo approached him on the Anacostia Flats, and all Patton could do was turn to an aide and say, “I do not know this man. Take him away and under no circumstances permit him to return.”
He later admitted privately that indeed he DID remember Angelo, and he and his mother had even helped Angelo financially at times in the past, but it “wouldn’t have looked good” if headlines and stories about the meeting between the two of them at the scene of the ignominious Bonus Army horror had hit the newspapers.
The aftermath was mixed.
Senators Hugo Black (D-Alabama), William Borah (R-Idaho), and Hiram Johnson (R-California) were outraged at the Army’s behavior.
Representative Fiorello LaGuardia (R-New York) sent a telegram to Hoover, in which he stated:
“Soup is cheaper than tear gas bombs and bread is better than bullets in maintaining law and order in these times of Depression, unemployment, and hunger.”
In Albany, Eleanor Roosevelt [FDR was NY governor at the time] read the reports of the Army’s assault on the Bonus Marchers with horror. Professor Rexford G. Tugwell, a Roosevelt confidante, was spending the night in the Governor’s Mansion. Roosevelt called him into the governor’s bedroom. Roosevelt confessed that he had once promoted Hoover for president, and now regretted that act. “There is nothing inside the man but jelly,” Roosevelt angrily said.
“Why didn’t Hoover offer the men coffee and sandwiches instead of turning Pat Hurley and Doug MacArthur loose?” Roosevelt said he might feel sorry for the spineless Hoover if he didn’t feel worse for the Bonus Army men and their families now tramping on the roads and railways.
Most newspapers, like the New York Times, supported Hoover and MacArthur’s actions. MacArthur was praised for averting revolution but never firing a shot. Yet, the Washington News declared: “If the Army must be called out to make war on unarmed citizens, this is no longer America.”
…The next day, the War Department declared that almost none of the Bonus Marchers had been veterans. Hoover later described the Bonus Army as a mixture of “hoodlums, ex-convicts, [and] Communists”. The angry Governor of Pennsylvania said that this was an out-right lie: Nearly all of them were veterans, and two-thirds had served overseas during the Great War. Over the next few weeks, the B&O Railroad—which had once denied travel to the Bonus Army—now helped disperse them across the country again. [Source]
Later investigations did conclude that the vast majority of the men were just what they claimed to be…veterans of the Great War, down on their luck and needing a helping hand in the form of the bonus that they felt their service to the nation had earned. As they often pointed out, in 1918 they had come home heroes, but in 1932 they were just cast-offs. In 1918… “nothing was too good for them” to show the country’s gratitude for their sacrifice. In 1932, nothing…was what they got.
Notice Hoover’s explanation above. He brought out the Communist Ogre once again. From his perspective, all the hubbub of the Bonus Army was just “invented” by the Commies to threaten US Democracy. It couldn’t be that tens of thousands of veterans were at their wit’s end how to keep their families from starving. It couldn’t be that they really DID just want the bonuses they had earned in the trenches of Europe in the Great War, to help them through the devastation of a Great Depression that they had done nothing themselves to create.
No, according to Hoover, and many conservatives in the government, that was just a ruse. They really wanted to overthrow the government in a Bolshevik-style revolution. Yes. Such a threat! 25,000 or so emaciated, exhausted, disheartened men with almost no belongings, and no weapons other than rocks and stones. Against the fully-equipped military might of the United States Army. (About the only thing the military didn’t do was fly over the Anacostia Camp in WW1 biplanes dropping dynamite bombs. Or worse.)
Quite a devilishly clever Communist plot, eh?!
Were there some Communist agitators more than willing to show up and “stir the pot” in this situation? Of course there were. But once again, as in the First Red Scare of the post-WW1 era, the answer to fending off their efforts at persuasion would have been for the US government and American industry to actually be honestly, openly working toward immediate solutions to the dire poverty and starvation in the country. And honestly and openly working on creative, long term solutions to solve the economic problems that led to the Stock Market crash and the Depression in the first place.
The effective answer to incursions by Communist ideas should not have been mostly turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the suffering all around, putting the blame for bad publicity on “the Communists,” spouting platitudes about things “turning around” soon—evidently by some miraculous “unseen hand” of the marketplace intervening. Or something…
But that is what Hoover chose to do. And that approach lost him the 1932 election four months after the rout of the Bonus Army.
During his presidential campaign in 1928, Republican Party campaign literature claimed that if Herbert Hoover won there would be “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”
That election was less than a year before the Stock Market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. It wasn’t long before the reality was that many Americans found their cars repossessed, and eventually their homes and garages too. As for the chickens…for millions of Americans, the only time they had chicken was when lining up for chicken soup at the soup kitchens that sprang up everywhere during those desperate times.
By the summer of 1932 Hoover had had almost three years to do something, anything, to relieve the crushing, mind-numbing, relentless poverty and despair in the country. The evidence was that he had no workable ideas at all. Just pious platitudes… like this one:
During his tenure in office, Hoover had a favorite catch phrase: “Rugged individualism.” It was a significant part of his answer to the crisis of the Depression. It refers to the idea that there is no need at all for government intervention in the economic lives of individuals, nor in the economics of the nation. Each individual should be able to help themselves out. But the Bonus Army fiasco made it painfully obvious that in a complex, huge society like the USA, there were times when no matter how rugged many individuals were, there was no way for them to “go it alone.” Many of those veterans of the Bonus Army were very rugged individuals. They had survived fighting in the trenches of the most horrific war in history. Most wanted nothing more than a chance to work hard at a job. ANY job. But they were unable to make jobs appear out of thin air.
So the Republican Party’s efforts in public relations to attempt to get Herbert re-elected were pretty pitiful. As you can see by these campaign buttons from that year.
There is no question that the ideas of Franklin Roosevelt for dealing with the Depression through introducing a New Deal in the coming years would end up being very controversial in some circles. But coming up to the election of 1932, a majority of the voting public became convinced anything would be better than Hoover and his Hoovervilles. FDR got 23 million votes to Hoover’s 16 million. And he pretty much swept the electoral college as you can see by this map.
As for the Bonus Army men…FDR chose a different way to deal with some of the same men in the first year of his presidency.
Just months into FDR’s first term, in March 1933, bonus marchers began drifting back into Washington. By May, some 3,000 of them were living in a tent city, which the new president had ordered the Army to set up in an abandoned fort on the outskirts of Washington. There, in a visit arranged by the White House, the nation’s new first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, braved mud and rain to join the vets in a sing-along.
“Hoover sent the Army; Roosevelt sent his wife,” said one vet. By June 1933, about 2,600 vets had accepted FDR’s offer of work in a New Deal public works program called the Civilian Conservation Corps…[Source]
The reason I share this Bonus Army story at this point in this blog series is to provide a vivid example of the dark realities of the Great Depression. And to show how the specter of the “threat of Communism,” promoted by the government and the mass media, made its way from the period of the Red Scare of 1919, past the relatively prosperous Roaring Twenties, and on into the depths of the economic disaster of the 1930s. Because it is ultimately this focus on the Russian-birthed Communist Ogre that leads us onward down the path to the coalescing of the religious group that has formed around the 45th president that I have dubbed “Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows.”
As I have mentioned in earlier entries, it is a circuitous, winding path. At this point, it may seem an odd claim to make, given the reality that the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, and the threat of a Communist revolution taking place in the United States is no longer given much credence anywhere. But the path should become clearer as we inspect the circumstances leading onward from the Great Depression.
The next stretch of the path will turn from a focus on the victims of the Depression, the Okie migrants of the Dustbowl, the unemployed men in the bread lines and soup kitchen lines, the bedraggled veterans in the Bonus Army. It will shift focus instead toward a group that you would think would have been at the top of most folks’ list in the 1930s as those “responsible” for that Depression…the titans of banking and industry. The Stock Market crash obviously didn’t happen because of choices made by common laborers and the poor. Factories didn’t drastically cut back production and employment, or close, because those common laborers were too lazy to work. They closed for reasons enmeshed within decisions made “up at the top” of a complex, systemically-flawed economic reality in the country.
Those titans, including the CEOs of America’s biggest corporations, were faced with a public relations problem of vast proportions by the mid-1930s. They had been operating for a long, long time on the theory of the pre-eminence of the principle of unfettered capitalism. Its prime directive was: “If big government would just leave big business alone we would soon arrive at utopia.”
That theory worked beautifully for the Roaring Twenties. In 1930…not so much.
But it was the only theory that most industrialists and bankers had to work with. When FDR made it into the White House, and made it clear that he had different Prime Directives, they panicked. The threat of government intervention in such issues as labor relations, banking rules, taxes and fees, industrial oversight—made them cringe. It would appear from many of the writings of the time that a large proportion of these titans were convinced that none of what had happened was their fault. The hunger and starvation wasn’t their fault. The repossession of homes, the default in consumer credit loans… all of it was someone else’s fault.
It would appear that for many, it was easier to blame the victims of a deeply flawed economic and social system for much of their own plight (like Hoover and his “rugged individualism theory), and to look to evil outside influences…a manufactured ogre like communism, leftists, bleeding heart liberals…as the source of the failings of the system.
But convincing the struggling, hungry masses that this was so was not an easy job. It was, to put it mildly, a public relations disaster. They needed a new public relations “slant.”
And they found it. We’ll explore their amazing solution in the upcoming next entry in this series,
THE BAPTISM OF CAPITALISM
But before you leave…if you would like to see amazing 1932 newsreel footage of the actual Bonus Army and its rout by Big Mac and his forces, check out this short (6 minute) documentary.