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The past is prologue: A 1932 demonstration in Washington DC echos today

By Curt Anderson
June 2, 2020 11:15 pm
Category: History

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What's past is prologue
There are many interesting parallels between the Bonus Army demonstrators of 1932 and the George Floyd demonstrators of 2020. Both protests happened in times of economic uncertainty and hardship. The US presidents, both Republicans, both faced re-election battles. Both of the presidents adopted a get tough, "take no prisoners" attitude.

The Bonus Army was a group of 43,000 demonstrators – made up of 17,000 U.S. World War I veterans, together with their families and affiliated groups – who gathered in Washington, D.C. in the summer before the 1932 election, to demand early cash redemption of their service certificates. The country was in the midst of the Great Depression.

President Hoover released a statement on July 28, 1932 in which he twice referred to "so-called bonus marchers," and added, "An examination of a large number of names discloses the fact that a considerable part of those remaining are not veterans; many are Communists and persons with criminal records."

President Trump on June 1, 2020 said, "I am your President of law and order, and an ally of all peaceful protesters. But in recent days, our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa, and others."

Donald Trump's Attorney General ordered demonstrators dispersed.
Peaceful protesters shot with rubber bullets, tear gassed.
Military vehicles rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Ahead of President Donald Trump's walk to St. John's Episcopal Church on Monday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered authorities to clear a crowd of protesters gathered peacefully near the White House.

The Washington Post and CNN report that Barr was personally involved in the order, which led to federal police pushing through the crowd before a 7 p.m. curfew using smoke, teargas, rubber bullets and flash-bangs, according to protesters, reporters and clergy who say the crowd was peaceful at the time.

Thousands have gathered near the White House and in dozens of cities across the country to protest systemic racism and last week's death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man pinned under a white Minneapolis police officer's knee for almost 9 minutes.

Political Reaction to the President's actions
[Episcopal News Service] Leaders from The Episcopal Church have condemned the reported use of tear gas and rubber bullets to clear clergy and protesters from the area around St. John’s Episcopal Church, across the street from the White House, so President Donald Trump could use it for an unauthorized photo op on June 1.

Trump "used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes. This was done in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country, and his action did nothing to help us or to heal us," Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in a statement.

"I am outraged," the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of Washington, told The Washington Post. "Everything [Trump] has said and done is to inflame violence. We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us."

Herbert Hoover's Attorney General ordered demonstrators dispersed.
Peaceful protestors shot with bullets, tear gassed.
Military vehicles rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue.

[Washington DC, July 28, 1932] Organizers called the [Bonus Army] demonstrators the "Bonus Expeditionary Force", to echo the name of World War I's American Expeditionary Forces, while the media referred to them as the "Bonus Army" or "Bonus Marchers". The demonstrators were led by Walter W. Waters, a former sergeant.

Many of the war veterans had been out of work since the beginning of the Great Depression. The World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 had awarded them bonuses in the form of certificates they could not redeem until 1948. Each certificate, issued to a qualified veteran soldier, bore a face value equal to the soldier's promised payment with compound interest. The principal demand of the Bonus Army was the immediate cash payment of their certificates.

On July 28, U.S. Attorney General William D. Mitchell ordered the veterans removed from all government property. Washington police met with resistance, shot at the protesters, and two veterans were wounded and later died. President Herbert Hoover then ordered the U.S. Army to clear the marchers' campsite.

Troops led by Brig. Gen. Perry L. Miles and accompanied by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. Army chief of staff, drove out the demonstrators and destroyed their encampments, using tanks and tear gas. Six M1917 light tanks commanded by Maj. George S. Patton, formed in Pennsylvania Avenue.

Political Reaction to the President's actions
Though the Bonus Army incident proved politically disastrous for Hoover, and it is considered a contributing factor to his losing the 1932 election in a landslide to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

According to historian Wyatt Kingseed, "The episode would dog President Hoover in his attempt to win a second term of office in the fall of 1932. Presidents had called out federal troops before to suppress civil unrest, but this was the first time they had moved against veterans. It left a bad taste in the mouths of voters. A letter to the Washington Daily News expressed the sentiments of many. 'I voted for Herbert Hoover in 1928,' one disgusted woman wrote. 'God forgive me and keep me alive at least till the polls open next November!'"

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