By Cameron Hopkins
The protests grew worse, more angry, more violent. A group of laid-off miners in West Virginia broke into company stores to steal food. Dirt farmers in Oklahoma protested, demanding basic necessities, something to eat. And then it spread to the veterans. The year was 1932.
American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) veterans who had served in World War I had been promised a “war service bonus” of $1 per day served in combat, a practice dating back to 1788 when, at George Washington’s urging, Congress approved a “service bonus” for Revolutionary War vets. The AEF vets were owed the money, and by God they wanted to be paid. Now.
Congress refused, citing a 1924 act that postponed the bonus payments until 1945. The vets were having none of that, hungry and out of work in the middle of the Depression. A march ensued, gathering momentum as more and more vets joined the swelling ranks until they numbered 43,000 people. “Pay The Bonus!” became their rallying cry.
It wasn’t just the vets; their families accompanied them, all homeless anyway. Opposite the Capitol they built a camp in Anacostia Park from junk, trash, scraps of wood, anything to make shelter. “Pay The Bonus!” they chanted.
President Hoover initially tried to clear the protesters with police, but the vets fought back. A panicked officer discharged his revolver and two protesters fell dead. The police retreated as the crowd grew more hostile. Clearly this crowd was out of control. Clearly law and order must be maintained. Clearly it was time for War Plan White.
President Hoover gave the word and Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur ordered War Plan White implemented. War Plan White was the Army’s plan for dealing with a domestic insurrection. MacArthur ordered the 12th Infantry Regiment and the 3rd Cavalry to respond. Major George S. Patton was in command of the cavalry troops.
“Fix bayonets!” came the infantry command while Patton sat stonefaced on his horse. He gazed at the grimy faces of the vets, and according to his memoirs, thought to himself: Some of those men might have been under my command over there in the mud and blood of the Meuse-Argonne. Hell of a thing. Reluctantly, he uttered the command, “Draw sabers. Prepare to charge.”
Charge they did, into the crowd, pushing not slashing, driving the protesters back. Between the bayonets and the sabers, the shantytown that everyone called “Hooverville” was torn down and burned. The vets began a long walk back, but there was no home to walk back to, only another bread line or soup kitchen. “Pay The Bonus!” was over. War Plan White restored the will of Congress.
Think of it however you wish.