The War against the Vets
The World War I Bonus Army during the Great Depression
Potomac Books, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2018, 264 pages
Book Review published on: November 2, 2018
Even though the late Jerome Tuccille’s final book The War against the Vets: The World War I Bonus Army during the Great Depression is a departure from his normal portfolio—Libertarian Movement topics, novels, or biographies of household names like Rupert Murdoch, Alan Greenspan, or Donald Trump’s first biography—it fits right into his firebrand style of railing against the establishment. Through successive presidential administrations, in particular, the Hoover administration, the botched handling of World War I veterans and their bonus payment became part of an overlooked story of their deplorable treatment by the government.
Nothing new really comes to light in this book, considering the Bonus Army, as they are called, has been the subject of many fine scholarly works and documentaries throughout the years. This is a nice addition to the body of knowledge that Tuccille brings to the entire saga, spanning fourteen total years. He combines his masterful storytelling with research of the events and the personalities surrounding the World War I veterans’ quest to get their wartime service bonus payout early. His descriptions—ragtag formations caravanning across the country in broken-down jalopies with no shoes—leave a vivid, almost comical, picture of the abject poverty and despair amongst men at the height of the Great Depression who are looking for a break from the government that asked for their service.
After the conclusion of World War I, the idea of passing into law a bonus for every veteran carried overwhelming support across the country. The bonus, intended to be a gift from a grateful nation, made for great political speeches but gaining passage in Congress proved to be an entirely different story. Additionally, every president from Warren Harding to Franklin Roosevelt vetoed every variant of the original bill, which would have better served the veterans. Opposition usually came down to money during an era of balanced budgets. Prior to World War II, the federal government did not borrow to make ends meet for domestic spending. Coupled with the urgency to pay off the World War I bond issues, no president had the appetite to take on more debt. However, the Hoover administration took it a step further, expressing open disdain for the veterans who they deemed were looking for a free handout.
The original World War I Veterans Bonus Bill, introduced in 1922 and passed in 1924, comprised of a certificate awarded by Congress to all veterans for their wartime service but with the caveat that it was not payable until 1945 or upon the death of the veteran; thus, dubbing it the Tombstone Bonus. Before the ink dried, outcries for an earlier payment could be heard in the capitol and around the Nation but to no avail.
It all changed with the stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression. Veterans, like a vast majority of Americans, found themselves jobless and in the bread lines but, unlike others, holding a certificate for a substantial amount money that was still close to fifteen years from redemption. It was not long before a groundswell of disenfranchised veterans began to raise their voices again. By 1932, veterans long out of work and with nothing better found themselves ripe for a movement. They gathered in hodgepodge groups, twenty-two in all, and began heading to Washington. One down and outer, in particular, emerged as the grand poobah, Walter W. Waters. Waters, the self-appointed leader of the Bonus Army, set off from Oregon with three hundred followers, and by the time he reached Washington with his proclaimed Bonus Army, it was more than twenty thousand strong.
Waters ineptly grabbed the leadership reigns by becoming the voice of the Bonus Army to the equally incapable Hoover administration. The army was an estimated twenty-eight thousand to fifty thousand in the summer of 1932 and occupied makeshift encampments-“tent cities” all over the National Mall and throughout the District of Columbia. And, of course, the army dominated the headlines as their demands were met by an uncaring and unyielding president, a nightmare scenario heading into an election. Hoover blinked first, calling in the U.S. Army. Several household names from soon-to-be World War II formulated a lethal force of infantry, cavalry, machine guns, and tanks to remove the veterans by presidential orders and take back the National Mall—Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who served as the Army chief of staff, led the overall operation with Maj. David D. Eisenhower who served as his aide de camp and Maj. George S. Patton who led the tanks. The convergence of the Capitol Police forces, Regular Army troops, and the Bonus Army resulted in disastrous consequences for the veterans as they were pushed out of their tent cities. Several beatings occurred with over one hundred veterans injured and two who died from random bullets fired by the police. This all but sealed Hoover’s landslide defeat. Hoover carried six states during a time when there was forty-eight states. Ironically, the Army was never called to task for its actions, clearly a violation of Posse Comitatus Act.
Tucille goes on to set the record straight, holding the Roosevelt administration accountable for the displacement and mishandling of the World War I veterans to work camps in the Florida Keys where several hundred suffered tragic loss of life and many more suffered devastation in the 1936 hurricane. Shortly thereafter, Congress overrode Roosevelt’s veto and paid the veterans their bonus.
In today’s age of omnipresent news and ubiquitous social media, and the sense of honor the American people hold for veterans, I find it hard to imagine that veterans could have been ignored by its government, beaten on grounds of our nation’s capital, and denied a helping hand. Tucille’s The War against the Vets cleared that up for me with its broad historical context and close examination of the main characters.
Book Review written by: Ronald T. Staver, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas