In 1918, American veterans returning home from WWI were promised a cash bonus for their service abroad. There was just one catch: the bonus would not be payable for 27 years, until 1945.
Just over a decade later, as Great Depression unemployment was at its peak, thousands of these veterans were among the jobless and desperately needed help. In Oregon, a group of veterans had the idea to go to Washington, D.C. and ask Congress to pay their bonus early. It was 1932, a year before FDR would be elected; Herbert Hoover was still President. Armed with an American flag and a bugle, they pronounced themselves the Bonus Army, and hopped onto freight trains heading east. As they traveled, they were joined by other veterans, and soon the press picked up the story. News of the Bonus Army's "march" quickly spread, and veterans from every corner of the nation began to converge on the capital with their families in tow. Soon over 20,000 of these former soldiers had arrived to lobby Congress to pay the bonus.
The Bonus Army set up tent cities in vacant lots, and built a shanty-town (or "Hooverville" as they were mockingly called) along the Anacostia River out of any materials they could find: wood, cardboard, tin, car parts, and chicken coops. It was the biggest Hooverville in the country. The veterans organized the encampment as a city within a city; it had a library, post office, barbershop, and newspaper, and streets named after the 48 states. The encampment had strict rules, as well (no alcohol, fighting, or panhandling), and no avowed communists were allowed. The marchers wanted to affirm the same military rules and American values they had as active soldiers.
Public support of and fascination with the Bonus Army brought ample food and other necessary supplies to the camp. Local city residents would talk with the soldiers and be entertained by the impromptu musical groups that formed in the camp. A retired Marine Corps general visiting the marchers exclaimed "Take it from me, this is the greatest demonstration of Americanism we have ever had. Pure Americanism. Don't make any mistake about it: You've got the sympathy of the American people."
On June 15, 1932, less than a month after the Bonus Army occupied Washington, the House passed a bill to pay the bonus. The encampment was ecstatic, but not for long -- the Senate denied the bill and ended their session for the summer. What would the Bonus Army marchers do? Find out tomorrow in Part 2!