Beyond the Bonus March and GI Bill

Beyond the Bonus March and GI Bill; How Veteran Politics Shaped the New Deal Era by Stephen Ortiz. New York University Press, 2012, pape.

Stephen Ortiz, a University of Florida graduate, has written an interesting book on the impact of World War I veterans on American political life in the 1920s and 1930s. WW I veterans – doughboys – had mostly entered the army as conscripts. After the war, they argued that they should receive compensation for their time in the armed forces, particularly since they had not benefitted from the good wages paid to American workers during the war.

Mindful of the veterans’ vote, Congress agreed, and in 1924 awarded ex-doughboys compensation for their wartime service in the form of interest-paying certificates payable in 1945. A few years later they were allowed to borrow money against those certificates (in 1931 up to 50%) and a good portion did so.

Matters changed in the early 1930s with the Great Depression. Led by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, these ex-doughboys began asking for immediate payment of their bonuses. But President Herbert Hoover, believing that the best means of getting America out of the depression was to balance the budget by reducing expenditure, argued that immediate payment of the bonus would add significantly to government spending.

A group of veterans in Oregon decided to march on Washington to demand immediate payment. The ‘Bonus March,’ or more popular ‘Bonus Army’, was not officially sanctioned by either of the two largest veterans’ organizations, the VFW or the American Legion. But soon veterans from many states were encamped on the Anacostia Flats and demonstrating daily at the Capitol. In July of 1932, Hoover entrusted Douglas MacArthur with responsibility for getting rid of their tent city of 43,000 veterans and their families. And MacArthur chose to do so with units of the army, their bayonets fixed and supported by six tanks.

The fall out on Hoover’s re-election prospects in ‘32, Oritz contends, was disastrous. His Democratic opponent, Franklin Roosevelt, had, however, avoided raising the bonus issue during the campaign. Roosevelt was also opposed to an early payment of the bonus. No American, he argued, just because he once wore a uniform, should be placed in a special class of beneficiaries of government programs. He threatened to veto any such legislation.

In his first two years of office, Roosevelt’s initial attempt to deal with the depressed American economy and unemployment was, like Hoover’s, to balance the budget. As part of that budget-balancing, he also opposed paying the bonuses.

One interesting perspective of Beyond the Bonus March is Ortiz’s views of the “New Deal Dissent.”  Senator Huey Long of Louisiana and Father Charles Coughlin, the “radio priest” from Detroit, both took up the veterans’ bonus cause and supported immediate payment. Consequently many who supported their advocacy of “sharing the wealth” were veterans. Long and Coughlin are usually portrayed as ‘extremists’ for their persistent attacks on American capitalism. Roosevelt spoke of them as a “menace” to the country and historians have mostly agreed.

A sitting president and legislators, worried about their re-election, did not want to face the wrath of the doughboys, however. So in the summer of 1936, accommodations were made. The bonus certificates could be exchanged for small-denominational government bonds, “baby bonds” that could be cashed immediately or with interest added if held for a period of time. The act was supported by both the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. Ortiz contends that Roosevelt’s cave-in on the bonus portends the ‘Second New Deal’ that followed his re-election.

Having come to terms with the bonus issue for World War I veterans, Ortiz suggests that neither Roosevelt nor Congress wanted a similar political storm following World War II. In 1944, the GI Bill of Rights passed through Congress with almost no opposition. 7.8 million veterans took advantage of the free schooling offered and 2.4 million got help with buying a home. The doughboys, mostly still around in 1945, must have been envious.


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