Home From the War: The 200-Year Struggle of Returning Soldiers for Their Rights

The next time you see one of those yellow “Support Our Troops” ribbons on a passing car think about what happens after the soldiers come home from war. They become veterans, and supporting veterans usually costs more money than a supposedly grateful nation cares to spend. This seems to happen after every war, but now it is happening during a war. We are just into a third year of war in Iraq—with more U.S. casualties in February 2005 than in February a year ago, a two-year total of more than 1,500 killed.

The long and seldom told story of early-20th-century veterans, which has been mostly ignored over the years by the news media, finally gets readably detailed attention in the stunning new book The Bonus Army—An American Epic (Walker, $27), by Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen.

Its focus is on a protest march on Washington in 1932 by thousands of World War I veterans who had been promised a meager return-home bonus. It was not due until 1945, and finally came in 1936 after a long and tragic struggle.

In the letter file of my late father, a World War I infantryman badly wounded and disabled at the Hindenburg Line in 1918 by three hits from German machine-gun fire to his face and shoulder, I found government letters awarding him $30 a month in 1919, cut to $12 a month two months later.

Both Paul Dickson, a friend and neighbor, and Tom Allen, his co-author of The Bonus Army, have written many books. Dickson’s include Sputnik—the Shock of the Century. Allen’s books include Remember Pearl Harbor, and last year, George Washington—Spymaster. We asked them to compress their Bonus Army saga for our pages to give our readers this seldom told story.

The Doughboys who came home from World War I carried a palpable sense that they had been left behind and deserved some kind of financial compensation for their service beyond the mere dollar-a-day base pay they had received. Their demands reached Congress through the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Year after year Congress debated, always holding out the promise of reward.

Finally in 1924, six years after the Armistice that ended the Great War, Congress enacted a law that granted the new generation of veterans adjusted universal compensation, which became known as a “bonus.” The legislation was passed over the veto of President Calvin Coolidge, who declared that we owed no bonus to able-bodied veterans of the World War.

Under the law, any veteran who served during the war would get a bonus of a dollar a day for domestic service and an extra 25 cents for each day spent overseas. Those entitled to $50 or less were paid immediately; the rest were to receive certificates that could not be redeemed until 1945.

Although there were periodic calls for speeding up payments, little happened until May 1929, five months before the stock market crash and the Great Depression. Freshman Representative Wright Patman, a Texas Democrat and a veteran, co-sponsored a bill calling for immediate cash payment of the bonus. The bill never made it out of committee.

Under Patman’s leadership, further attempts to get an immediate bonus payment failed as the nation slid deeper into economic despair. Millions of homeless Americans settled in communities of makeshift shacks called “Hoovervilles,” named after the president they blamed for their plight.

MARCH ON!—The bonus impasse went on until March 15, 1932, when a jobless ex-sergeant, Walter W. Waters, stood up at a veterans meeting in Portland, Oregon, and proposed that every man present hop on a freight car and head for Washington to get the money that was rightfully his. He got no takers that night, but pressed on with his idea.

Finally, on May 11, when a new version of the Patman bill was shelved in the House, some 250 veterans, with only $30 among them, rallied behind a banner reading: “A Portland Bonus March—On to Washington.” They walked to Portland’s Union Pacific Railroad freight yards.

A few hours later a freight train, emptied of livestock but still reeking of cow manure, stopped to take on about 300 men calling themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” (B.E.F. for short), a play on American Expeditionary Force, the collective name for the troops sent to France. The press dubbed them “the Bonus Army.”

 
As that vanguard headed for Washington, newspapers and radio stations told the nation about the Bonus Army on the move from Portland. Vets throughout the nation heard the news and started their own marches on Washington—from California, Texas, New England and the Deep South. They walked, hitchhiked and rode boxcars to the nation’s capital.

By June some 20,000 veterans, along with many wives and children, had arrived in Washington. In this then racially segregated city, they set up integrated shantytown camps and petitioned Congress for immediate payment of the bonus. During that long summer about 45,000 veterans would pass in and out of the city.

The House passed Patman’s bonus bill, defying President Hoover’s promised veto. But the Senate sided with Hoover, dooming the bonus. Washington expected the vets to leave, but the overwhelming majority refused to, vowing if necessary to stay until 1945, the bonus payoff year.

Although the vets had caused no trouble, jittery politicians feared a revolution; so President Herbert Hoover ordered downtown Washington cleared. General Douglas MacArthur exceeded Hoover’s orders by driving out all the veterans, using bayonets, tanks, tear gas—and a galloping, saber-swinging cavalry troop led by Major George S. Patton. The Army’s action, which was opposed by MacArthur’s aide Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, stunned America and helped elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.

When a smaller Bonus Army returned to Washington in 1933 and 1934 Roosevelt, like the four presidents preceding him, led the opposition to the bonus. In late 1934, the last remnants of the Bonus Army were sent off to “veterans’ rehabilitation camps” in Florida, where they worked for a dollar a day.

On Labor Day of 1935, the most severe hurricane ever to strike America smashed into the camps in the Florida Keys, killing more than 250 vets. Finally, shocked by the deaths, Congress overrode Roosevelt’s veto in 1936 and authorized immediate payment of the bonus.

MORE PROTESTS—Early in 1944 leaders of veterans’ organizations and members of Congress began looking at how to keep another Bonus Army from mobilizing at war’s end. Their efforts produced the G.I. Bill of Rights.

Racist politicians opposed transforming this idea into legislation because it would “put money in the pockets of black vets.” And some elitist educators opposed higher education as a benefit. “Colleges and universities,” warned Robert M. Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, “will find themselves converted into educational hobo jungles.”

But on June 22, 1944, President Roosevelt, putting aside his longstanding opposition to “privileges” for veterans, signed the G.I. Bill into law. By 1956, the bill had helped produce 450,000 engineers, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, and more than a million other college-trained men and women. And 11 million of the 13 million houses built in the 1950s were financed with G.I. Bill loans.

The G.I. Bill thus helped to create a well-educated, well-housed American middle class whose consumption patterns fueled the prosperous postwar economy.

By marching on Washington veterans of World War I were eventually able to move the nation to an awareness of the social contract between warriors and the nation that sends them to war.

THE HISTORY—Victorious war veterans have vexed politicians since the days of Caesar’s legions. Returning warriors have been both a potential power bloc and a threat—men who marched off to serve the state in war and then straggled back in peacetime, brewing discontent and looking for rewards.

In colonial America’s earliest days, recognition was given to wounded soldiers. In a proclamation in 1636, the leaders of the Plymouth Colony of Massachusetts declared: “If any person shall be sent forth as a soldier and shall return maimed he shall be maintained competently by the Colony during his life.”

Early in the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress provided pensions for both disabled veterans and the dependents of soldiers killed in battle. The last surviving dependent of the Revolutionary War continued to receive benefits until 1911.

After the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, rumors spread throughout the ranks that the Continental Army would be demobilized without being paid. In June 1783, a small band of soldiers from the unit known as the Pennsylvania Line marched on the capital of the new nation, then in Philadelphia, demanding the back pay owed them. They surrounded the State House and poked their bayonet-tipped muskets through the windows at the assembled Congress, which included James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

Fearing a coup d’état, Congress quit the building, pushed through the jeering armed mob, and headed to Princeton, New Jersey.

For weeks the soldiers held their ground. They grew into a mutinous mob of 400, making daily demands on the government and terrorizing the citizens of Philadelphia. Finally, after weeks of the renegade soldiers’ daily demonstrations and threats, General George Washington sent a force of 1,500 Continental soldiers to compel the men to return to their homes. Two of the leaders of the mutiny were sentenced to be shot, led out to be executed, and set before a line of soldiers with loaded guns. At the last minute, they were pardoned by Congress. Other leaders were whipped before being released.

 
The Revolutionary War mutinies were not about power or ideology but simply about being paid for services rendered. Although most Revolutionary War veterans were not paid for years, they eventually got back pay and pensions.

The mutiny had another consequence. During the Revolutionary War, on separate occasions, Congress had retreated from Philadelphia to York and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and to Baltimore, Maryland, to avoid capture by the British. The Congress had always returned. After the 1783 mutiny and the humiliating departure from Philadelphia, the members vowed never to return. They stayed in Princeton until the end of the year, then moved to Annapolis, Maryland, and then on to Trenton, New Jersey.

When the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, memories of 1783 were still so fresh in the delegates’ minds that they wrote a provision into the Constitution providing for a new kind of capital federal enclave, which would become Washington, D.C., by the turn of the century.

From the end of the Revolution to 1918, when American troops began mustering out from service in World War I, the issue of compensation and care for veterans frequently confronted Congress. By the time the Civil War began in 1861, there were already about 80,000 American pensioners whose service dated back as far as the War of 1812. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, nearly 2 million veterans were collecting pensions. Only Union veterans were eligible. The Fourteenth Amendment barred Confederate veterans from receiving federal pensions. However, Congress in 1958 authorized payment to the last surviving Confederate soldier.

After the Civil War, veterans made up about 5 percent of the population, and became a powerful voting bloc. They showed that power by forming America’s first veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.). Five Presidents were G.A.R. members, as were most Northern governors. Membership in the G.A.R. was practically a requirement for election to any public office in the North.

Thanks primarily to the G.A.R., at the height of its power in the 1870s, more than one-fifth of the national budget went toward veterans’ pensions. America evaded the problem of disgruntled veterans by paying relatively generous pensions and by expanding westward, creating jobs for homecoming veterans.

When World War I began in 1914, there were still more than 400,000 Civil War veterans collecting pensions, along with tens of thousands who had fought in the Spanish-American War. Although the original intention of pension legislation was to provide for the wounded and their survivors, by 1914 the overwhelming majority of pensioned veterans had left the Army, Marine Corps or Navy intact in mind and body. But as the power of the G.A.R. waned, so did congressional sympathy toward able-bodied veterans.

THE HOMELESS—Today many former warriors cannot really come home, because they are homeless. Homeless vets account for nearly one-third of America’s homeless men, even though the veteran population makes up only 13 percent of the nation’s adult males. Among them are veterans not only of the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also of the Gulf War and Vietnam. About 500,000 veterans are expected to become homeless this year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.).

Pat Dougherty, the V.A.’s director of homeless programs in Washington, told the Associated Press that veterans are twice as likely as other people to be chronically homeless. A vet is considered a chronic case if he or she is homeless for more than a year or homeless four times within three years.

Officially, the V.A. is the government agency responsible for caring for homeless vets, operating what it calls “the largest integrated network of homeless treatment and assistance services in the country.” Vets can quietly find a V.A. helping hand, and these are the ones you won’t see. But there are also the visible vets, such as that ragged man you see holding up a cardboard sign at the side of the road as the car with the “Support Our Troops” ribbon speeds by.

Today Congress has a chance to awaken again, responding to the shame of our homeless veterans. Congressman Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat, is working on what he called a Welcome Home Package of benefits for veterans who have served at least six months in Iraq or Afghanistan. The proposed legislation, modeled on the G.I. Bill, would guarantee returning veterans and their families the same health-care benefits they had in the military and provide $75,000 in college tuition or job training over four years. The legislation also would grant veterans a $5,000 down payment on the purchase of a home.

Another Democrat, Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey, has introduced legislation that would allow every member of Congress to hire one veteran as a staff aide for a year at a salary of $25,000—a plan designed in part to encourage vets to run for office.

Emanuel says that his plan is to help returning soldiers get back into civilian life. “It’s a show of gratitude from a thankful country.”

Somewhere, perhaps, a wounded vet of the Iraq war is watching the progress of these bills. If the bills go nowhere, perhaps he or she will organize a new march on Washington.