‘The Bonus Army’ by Felix Morrow from The New Masses. Vol. 8 No. 2. August, 1932.

Battle the cops in Anacostia.

Felix Morrow’s classic account of the extremely contradictory veteran’s Bonus March of 1932 shortly to be expanded into a pamphlet.

‘The Bonus Army’ by Felix Morrow from The New Masses. Vol. 8 No. 2. August, 1932.

“Heroes of 1917 — Bums of 1932” was a favorite slogan of the bonus marchers; but its bitter meaning was only driven home by gouging bayonets and tear gas.

The bonus army was not so much a cross section of the American working class as it was a cross section of those elements hitherto untouched by the grimmer aspects of the class struggle. Few of the veterans had ever been in any kind of strike; a large part of them came from sections of the South and West where struggle is just beginning. Many were farmers whom only total ruin had begun to jolt out of their self-centredness. Many had been but newly thrust into the ranks of the proletariat: salesmen who would never sell again, storekeepers forever separated from their counters.

There was in their anger against the government, until the last stages, a kind of plaintiveness, like that of sons against a hard father, an annoyance that it was taking him so long to meet their needs. Much of their resentment was directed against Hoover, as if he alone were responsible for their plight. Even after the police had killed William Hushka and shot and beaten scores of other veterans, in a provocative attack launched to give a semblance of excuse to the subsequent use of the military, some of the veterans spoke of the police “losing their heads.” But the infantry, the cavalry and machine gun squads did not lose their heads. They destroyed the bonus camps in military manouevres executed as calmly and cooly as if directed against so many sandbags on the parade ground. The cannon fodder of tomorrow taught the soldiers of yesterday what the state is: an instrument for the suppression of the working class.

The veterans learned to the full, in those last bitter hours, what they could expect from the state. And they went from Washington only because naked flesh had, finally, to move away from the stab of steel and the hurt of gas. They fought the cavalry and infantry at every step. They gave way by inches only when they could bear pain no longer.

As they looked up into the unformed faces of the boys riding them down, or back at the alert lads behind the bayonets, the harried veterans saw themselves, fifteen years ago, marching off to war. No doubt these boys had been told, in preparation for this dirty task, that it was part of the crusade for democracy and a better world; tomorrow, after thorough injections with the virus of 1917, brought skillfully up to date, these boys will be sent to die fighting against the Soviet Union.

A veteran, eyes burning from tear gas, cried out to the troops: “Go on, boys, do your job well, and maybe someday you’ll get a bonus.”

Bonus Marchers’ camp near Denver, Colorado.

Why, it may be asked, did the federal authorities launch a military offensive against the bonus army? Much of the political offensive against the bonus army had succeeded. The control of the main body of the B.E.F. was in the hands of Department of Justice agents and stool pigeons; concerted action by the bonus army and its sense of solidarity had been broken up for two months; as many as a third of the marchers had given up and left Washington; the remainder seemed dispirited enough and sufficiently docile to do as they were told.

But political trickery had finally run up against hard reality. Had it been a strike situation, the men would have been bamboozled into going back to work. But there was no work for them to go back to, they had no homes and food to go back to. A few nights before the attack, I talked to the men in the camp on Pennsylvania Avenue, after an airplane had flown over and dropped leaflets notifying them of the evacuation. This camp, which was to fight the first pitched battle with the police, housed about 2,000 men, all Southerners, a considerable number from Texas. They were as politically immature a bunch of men as could be found in America, ultra-patriotic Americans, jim-crowing the Negroes in their contingents. Many of them still had faith in Commander Waters; they thought his pussyfooting and cooperation with the police was part of a subtle plan of campaign (Waters, at that time, was still talking against evacuation). Some of them thought Police Superintendent General Glassford was really their friend: hadn’t he contributed some money to the commissary? But one thing was burned into their brain. They were not going to leave Washington. When they had first come to Washington, the authorities had tried to get them out to Camp Bartlett, nearly ten miles away from the Capitol. They had defeated that move, they had defeated the attempt to get them out to Camp Anacostia, the* main camp of the B.E.F., three miles from the Capitol, and they weren’t going to move now. They were going to stay right on Pennsylvania Avenue where everybody could see them.

“If I went anywhere else, I might as well have stayed in Dallas” said a gaunt Texan, and the listless men around him nodded solemnly in agreement.

A North Carolina farmer who had lost his farm added: “They’ll have to kill me to get me out of here. Anyway, then my wife’ll get the money. She’ll be better off than if I went home and we starved together.” Other men wanted to know whether, if they were killed, their families would get the money right away. The thought seemed to please them.

Bonus Army temporary headquarters, Los Angeles, 1932.

One had talked with a marine who had been in the contingent in which thirty marines had refused to guard the Capitol against the veterans; he wondered whether the rest of the army would act like that. He was answered by another who had talked with a friendly soldier. The regular army men had been sympathetic when the vets first came; but since then, all leaves had been cancelled, the boys were getting tired of sitting in the barracks, they were given daily pep talks, and were wishing the vets would leave town. The Texan, who was out of the army only three years, said heavily: “The trouble with those fellows is they get fed regular.” A Negro spoke up, timid among the Southern whites: “If we’d only stuck together and done things, they’d never gotten to the point of putting us out.” The white nodded. “What the hell, we’ve seen machine guns before,” said a former salesman from Georgia, with forced cheerfulness.

It was these men, physically weakened by years of poverty and by the horribly inadequate food and shelter they had been getting in Washington, their morale well-nigh broken by the indecisiveness of their bonus campaign, naive to the point of helplessness in the face of their enemies, who at the last would not give up their shacks until their ranks had been broken up by gun-fire and they were driven out by tear gas. Their government-controlled leadership had organized them into feebleness, but it could not organize them out of existence. After perhaps a third had left, in the demoralized days following the adjournment of Congress, new contingents began coming in to swell the ranks, and many more were on the road to Washington. And the first trickle of the unemployed had started, with countless thousands preparing to follow them. The government consummated its political offensive with a military offensive.

The veterans began streaming into Washington the latter part of May. A thousand were there when the Oregon contingent of 300 arrived on May 30th. Among its leaders was Walter W. Waters, the superintendent of a fruit canning factory who had left his well-paid job to join the bonus march. He got into Washington a day ahead of his own men, saw General Glassford, and when his contingent arrived, was in command of the situation. He had the billets, the food, and the backing of General Glassford; he became commander. As other contingents arrived, Waters gathered a group about him: H. B. Foulkrod , since exposed as a Burns agent, formerly engaged in “industrial work” in Philadelphia; Doak E. Carter, Chief of the Pennsylvania Railroad police in Cleveland during the shopmen’s strike of 1922 — there were men in camp who had been clubbed by him then; A.H. Milton, who had been a stool pigeon in the Workers Ex-Servicemen’s League; French, who was recognized by former Wobblies as a Department of Justice agent who had operated on the coast. With this group, backed by the Federal authorities, in control of the B.E.F., the betrayals of the ensuing weeks are not surprising.

The marchers had come across country in a triumphant surge. But in Washington they soon found themselves organized out of their militancy, regimented into indecisiveness. For the first two weeks most of them slept practically on the bare ground; there was no organizing of the work of building shelters. The gathering of food was sabotaged from beginning to end. A man who worked in the general commissary told me that farmers’ associations and individuals were writing in throughout the two months offering quantities of food; most of the offers were ignored, even when transportation was also offered or the food was within easy trucking distance. Truckloads of food were left on nearby roads to rot. Funds poured in with no accounting.

From the first, contingents came in who refused to go out to Anacostia flats, and instead took over lots and partly demolished buildings in the city. These had some autonomy. But in Anacostia a dictatorship was quickly set up. About 500 Military Police were picked, given clubs and police powers, and they used them. Anybody who complained about anything was run out of camp or turned over to the police as a Red. Separate kitchens were set up for the M.P.’s and for the officers and commanders. They constituted a separate class: recognizable by their air of pugnacious authority, their well-fed look, their conspicuously better dress, especially the commanders and officers, in new military clothes and shiny leather puttees.

Communist Party sponsored Workers Ex-Serviceman League to compete with the American Legion and others rightists.

The only demonstration organized by Waters was during the first week, the June 7th parade. After that, mass action was frowned on. That Waters could get away with this, shows how little the bonus army understood the implications of their march on Washington. Instead of mass pressure, a legislative committee was set up to lobby for the bonus bill, with the Burns agent, Foulkrod, as chairman.

A whole series of patriotic ceremonies was instituted, from a solemn service for bonus marchers at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier to the daily rising and lowering of the flag at Anacostia. The Red scare, with all its hoary subterfuges, was raised. Dynamite was duly found in Anacostia, “in an area which had just been vacated by members of the Workers Ex-Servicemen’s League, a Communist organization.” General Glassford exposed a Red plot to precipitate rioting. As part of the story of the June 7th parade every Washington paper carried items like this: “In the ranks were 100 Reds, designated as shock troops of the Communist forces — whose specific instructions from their leaders were to provoke ‘bloodshed by rioting and force’.” Throughout the period of the bonus march the newspapers were filled with lynch stuff; an example is the Washington Post cartoon on June 7, showing a vet beating a whiskered Red who is seeing stars from the concussions and is being told: “we have only one flag, see! The stars and stripes!” Waters issued orders that the men weed out radicals and turn them over to the police. The rank and file organization set up with the aid of the Workers Ex-Servicemen’s League to get some action for the bonus, experienced a wave of white terror. Its leaders, Pace and Eicker, were threatened with death by the head of the M.P. in Waters’ presence. Waters’ M.P.’s were surprised to learn that Reds were not, legally, free game, but their surprise did not abate their strong-arm tactics. The Red hunt was given religious sanction by Father Charles E. Coughlin, Detroit’s radio preacher of the “golden hour sermon,” who donated $5,000 to the veterans’ fund “to show that Communism is not the way out,” making a condition of his gift that Communist propaganda be kept from the camps. Twice, when other Red scares lacked, the men at Anacostia were tumbled out of bed in the middle of the night on the cry that the Reds were coming to raid their commissary.

The attempt to incite the marchers to violence against the rank and file organization was a failure; but as a manouevre to stifle any insurgent move against the Waters control, it had some success; loyalty to the B.E.F. organization was made synonymous with patriotism, and the threat of having food cut off and being thrown out of the billets, made support of the Rank and File Committee activities a hazardous affair. Incoming contingents were regimented in simple fashion. They were picked up on the road by “recruiting officers” selected by Waters, and escorted into the safe-keeping of Camp Anacostia.

Spontaneous attempts at mass action were headed off, often quite crudely. On June 18th, when the Senate defeated the Bonus Bill, more than three fourths of the 20,000 men in the bonus army turned up at the Capitol. When the news of the defeat was announced, spokesmen rose from the throng to demand a permanent picket of the Capitol. Waters was hurriedly summoned, and after praising the men for being gentlemen, led them in singing America, and told them to disperse. Still the men stayed on the Capitol steps. Then Foulkrod pleaded tearfully with the men to go back to their billets. “Don’t antagonize the police or the citizens. They are our friends. We want to keep them.”

‘Shacks, put up by the Bonus Army on the Anacostia flats, Washington, DC, burning after the battle with the military.’

Throughout the bonus army stay, the citizens were as far as possible segregated from the men. The first weeks they were ordered not to fraternize in camp “on the ground of health precautions.” Whenever a demonstration began, the police, with the aid of bonus leaders, proceeded to isolate the bonus marchers. A few days before Congress adjourned, an insurgent California group prepared to sleep on the Capitol lawn. About three thousand citizens mingled with the veterans. Police lines could do nothing, attempts to break up the crowd into small groups by running motorcycles through were unavailing. Solidarity between veterans and citizens had been thoroughly established. Women in the crowd were booing the police. There was a hurried consultation between General Glassford and Roy W. Robertson, leader of the California contingent. Robertson called for the veterans to come forward and the citizens to fall back. A police line was then established between the two groups. The enormous crowd of Washingtonians stood around aimlessly by themselves, then dispersed; the veterans, a small number by themselves were very easily handled afterward by the police.

This Robertson played a very useful role. He had left California with 2800 men and had systematically broken up the group, until he came into Washington with only about twenty of his original men; weeks later members of his first group drifted in with bitter stories. Just before coming across from Virginia, Robertson picked up enough small groups to make a hundred men. He arrived in Washington with a fanfare of suspiciously favorable publicity; a brace he wore down his back to support a broken neck helped dramatize him. He announced that he would not associate with Waters, that he wanted action and was against dictatorship. Many before him had been saying it, but for good and sufficient reasons, it was Robertson upon whom the searchlight of publicity played.

The men wanted to picket the Capitol. He led them to the Capitol and put them through as grueling an ordeal as men could bear. Instead of a two-hour daily picket, he had them marching, with little food and no shelter, for four days, night and day, Here, though they were being betrayed, one saw the calibre of the men. Here was something that seemed to them worth doing, and they did it, though they broke their health and their feet. They marched, in a single-line picket, down and up the Capitol plaza, singing, and then for long periods walking with no sound but their steps and the creaks of their broken shoes. When their shoes burned them so they could walk no longer, they took them off and marched barefooted. Each night, as it grew very late, and the people of Washington went to bed, and they marched with no one watching them, they turned to the sweet sentimental songs of their youth, things like “Oh Genevieve” and “In the Gloaming.” One saw, starkly, the grim turn in the process of American life. They had grown up to sing these songs evenings on the porches of small towns. If one closed one’s eyes, one saw the quiet scene; then one looked at the plodding line of broken hulks in torn, dirty rags.

The most brazen sell-out of these men came on July 16th, when Congress adjourned. As the news filtered through the camps that Congress was adjourning, a movement to the Capitol began. By noon the plaza was filled, the police line was rushed soon after, and the men took possession of the Capitol steps. Waters was hurriedly sent for. Meanwhile, a nurse was put up on the stand when the situation grew tense to lead the boys in singing songs. Strategically placed men lustily took up the tune. The same fellows equally lustily hailed Waters when he arrived. There was a little farcical stage play: Glassford loudly accused Waters of leading the unlawful demonstration, and arrested him, sending him to the cellar of the Capitol. The lusty voices raised a cry of “We want Waters,” and Glassford at last gracefully yielded. Waters, now placed at the head of the men, gave them a patriotic speech and announced he was going to see Speaker Garner. He returned to declare he had been given Garner’s word that Congress would not adjourn until it had reconsidered the bonus. That meant Congress would not adjourn that day. Therefore, Waters pleaded that the men disperse. At the same moment Garner was telling newspapermen he had promised Waters nothing.


Later in the day came Robertson’s turn. As it became known that Congress actually was adjourning, the men began to flock back and forth to the Capitol. Near midnight the Capitol plaza was again filled. The Rank and File Committee had announced two days before that when Congress adjourned, the picket would be moved to the White House, and the next day Robertson had made a similar announcement. So, when the light went out in the Capitol dome, signifying the adjournment of Congress, and Robertson began to march the men off Capitol Hill, the cry went up, “On to the White House!”

Royal Robertson at the march.

What happened then sounds like a nightmare. Robertson led the men farther and farther away from the White House, down to the flats near Maryland Avenue. In the pitch dark there, he announced he would hold a meeting, and ordered the men to sit down. Time passed with nothing said. A policeman on a motor- cycle drew up and told Robertson half his men were still at the Capitol. Robertson said he would go after them. He was gone twenty minutes while the men sat around uneasily. Then he came back, without the other men— as far as I could check up, he had, apparently, led them somewhere else and dispersed them — and proceeded to give a long, leisurely talk on what a fine, patriotic, gentlemanly lot the bonus marchers were. He seized upon every interruption to drag out his talk. One kind of interruption he ignored: a group had meanwhile attempted to picket the White House and been beaten up by the police: “What about picketing the White House,” came cries; but these Robertson chose not to hear. As he talked, General Glassford arrived, and Robertson turned to singing his praises, what a friend of the bonus army he was, then called for three cheers for General Glassford. Robertson ended by announcing that a conference on further action would be held the next day.

It all sounds incredible. Men had marched off Capitol Hill to picket the White House and been completely sidetracked. One must, of course, remember that here was a crowd utterly inexperienced. Here was their first lesson in misleadership, at the hands of the government itself.

Robertson had fulfilled his task. He announced, a few days later, that he would lead his men out of Washington on a tour of the country. When the appointed day came, practically none followed him; they had been led to sufficiency by the nose, but they would not be led out of Washington. Robertson left in his car with his chauffeur; he had done enough to merit a rest, anyway he had probably outlived his usefulness.

The days after the adjournment of Congress were gloomy and dispirited. During the week following, as one had expected, perhaps as many as a third of the bonus army left. The next step was to picket the White House to demand an extra session of Congress, but Waters refused to move. The men stayed around in camp, with nothing to do, stagnating, their morale oozing out of them, the food poorer than ever.

The Rank and File Committee made two attempts to picket the White House, first on July 20th and again on the 25th. They had a difficult problem. On the one hand, they were but the vanguards of the thousands who did not picket; they had to show these other thousands that something could be done toward getting the bonus. On the other hand, they had to show these other thousands that marching with the Reds did not mean suicide; it was plain from the beginning that the police would attempt to precipitate a riot and smash what militancy remained in Washington.

At every corner the police tried to gang the picket. The men in front were held up while the police pushed the men in back forward, packing them tightly. Then a policeman would seize somebody and hurl him against the crowd. But the men kept their discipline, calling out to each other, “No trouble, men,” “Keep ranks,” “Don’t give them any excuse, boys.” Someone would be arrested, and men would start forward to release him. But each time the cry went up: “Don’t give them any excuse, boys.” Neither time did the police succeed in starting a riot. The second picket the police were openly provocative. For no reason at all men were clubbed, cripples hobbling along with the aid of the sticks were brutally hurled forward. But the men continued to walk slowly, grimly determined to have their way.

Before these pickets could begin to work, a ferment among the bonus marchers as a whole, Glassford raised the question of evacuation, and the men’s attention was turned to that. Waters announced he would fight it — in court. On the last day, however, he agreed with Glassford, and asked the men in the Pennsylvania Avenue camp, the first to be evacuated, to clear out and go to Camp Bartlett, a privately owned tract ten miles from the Capitol, which had been turned over to Waters.

Though he had not at first dared to approve of the evacuation move, it fitted right in with Waters’ plan, which was nothing less than to start a Fascist Army. Some wealthy people, he said, have approached him and offered financial aid to put his army on a permanent basis, buying it a base of operations where it could be housed and raise part of its own food, its purpose: “to stand between the constitution and the forces of anarchy.” It was. Waters announced in his B.E.F. News, to be called the “Khaki Shirts.” “Inevitably such an * organization brings up comparison with the Fascisti of Italy and the Nazi of Germany. For five years Hitler was lampooned and derided. But today he controls Germany. Mussolini before the war was a tramp printer, driven from Italy because of his views. But today he is a world figure.” And why not Waters?

So General Glassford’s move to get the men out of Washington was quite satisfactory to Waters, who wanted to get them away from the influence of the rank and file. But just when everything looked so rosy, the Southerners in the Pennsylvania Avenue Camp told Waters to go to hell, put their backs to the wall and dared the police and the Federal troops to put them out. As the fighting began, Waters— a hysterical and feminine type like Hitler — ran up to General Glassford and cried: “I am not responsible for this. These men are no longer under my control.”

Rev. James R. Cox speaking.

That many of the veterans whom he betrayed will join him is doubtful; men learn under fire. These men must be warned away from Waters’ “Khaki Shirts,” from Father Cox’s “Blue Shirts” and other Fascist movements which are springing up The government which on Bloody Thursday found its troops sufficient to suppress the hungry, will tomorrow find it needs the aid of Fascist squads. The most important immediate, large-scale struggle is to win the veterans and the unemployed away from Fascist leaders and for the leadership of the revolutionary workers.

The New Masses was the continuation of Workers Monthly which began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Communist Party publication, but drawing in a wide range of contributors and sympathizers. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and The New Masses began. A major left cultural magazine of the late 1920s and early 1940s, the early editors of The New Masses included Hugo Gellert, John F. Sloan, Max Eastman, Mike Gold, and Joseph Freeman. Writers included William Carlos Williams, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Day, John Breecher, Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Rex Stout and Ernest Hemingway. Artists included Hugo Gellert, Stuart Davis, Boardman Robinson, Wanda Gag, William Gropper and Otto Soglow. Over time, the New Masses became narrower politically and the articles more commentary than comment. However, particularly in it first years, New Masses was the epitome of the era’s finest revolutionary cultural and artistic traditions.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/new-masses/1932/v08n02-aug-1932-New-Masses.pdf

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