What does it mean to be a soldier of freedom? Is patriotism in a republic to be measured with blood or money? Does a military chain of command transmit democratic values? Americans have lionized, scorned, and patronized our own troops—often during the same war. Can soldiers and civilians truly look one another in the eye?
Such questions arise from recent work on the volatile relationship between free government and its military defenders. Wars still dominate popular history, but veterans of the last century’s world wars transformed the United States quite apart from their military performance. Some did so by marching in supplication, then by studying physics and pharmacy rather than battlefield maps. Shameful mistreatment of World War I veterans helped bring the New Deal to power, though Franklin Roosevelt himself repudiated their cause. The “greatest generation” of World War II veterans created middle-class America largely from a GI Bill steeped in pork-barrel politics. Postwar segregationists inadvertently shoved returning servicemen forward in a leveling tide, while anti-government conservatives engineered lasting miracles with federal largesse.
Paradoxes abound from these misbegotten campaigns. In The Bonus Army, Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen retrieve what they call “a great American epic lost in the margins of history.” After World War I, with some four million US veterans facing stiff competition from replacement workers back home, Congress authorized retroactive military bonuses to make amends for the Army’s meager wartime wage of one dollar per day. But two presidents repeatedly vetoed the measure. “Patriotism which is bought and paid for is not patriotism,” objected Calvin Coolidge. In 1924, Congress finally overrode the veto, awarding each soldier a healthy but elusive bonus—not cashable until 1945—and the Great Depression turned this tantalizing promise into the flashpoint for instructive drama.
Dickson and Allen concentrate their tale in 1932, the third and “cruelest year” after the stock market crash. Nearly three thousand more banks had failed over the past twelve months, and half the nation’s outstanding mortgages were in default. In May, some three hundred desperate veterans hopped railway cars from Oregon on a quixotic mission to obtain advance payment of the World War I bonus certificates. They soaped the rails to impede trains that denied them free passage, but they adapted military organization to special rules—no panhandling, no violence, no extremism, no participation without valid discharge papers. Buglers sounded reveille every morning. Newspapers chronicled episodes of hardship and escape all along the eastward path, touching off a nationwide exodus of reinforcements for the ragtag “Bonus Expeditionary Force” (BEF). Some 15,000 veterans with more than a thousand wives and children converged by June to throw up squalid camps along Washington’s Anacostia Flats, forming “the largest Hooverville in the country.”
The account by Dickson and Allen recalls the subliminal force of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men with gaunt stories of character at the limits of dignity. To help their family survive, the seven-year-old Oliver twins pummeled each other for nickels in the BEF boxing marathon. Kindly Salvation Army “Sallies” ran an outdoor library from muddy tents. The faces of disciplined starvation so haunted the wealthy socialite Evalyn McLean, owner of the Hope Diamond, that she burst into her first greasy-spoon diner to demand sandwiches for relief: “I want a thousand, and a thousand packs of cigarettes.” Roy Wilkins, a reporter destined to become a staid NAACP executive, slipped from jammed tents to shock readers with news dispatches about “black toes and white toes sticking out side by side,” as the BEF squatters had discarded Jim Crow customs. Tourists flocked to see marvels wrought by common suffering. One writer called the BEF a milestone for Western culture as “the first large scale attempt to mimic Mahatma Gandhi’s passive resistance.”
Young J. Edgar Hoover, already head of the FBI, circulated rumors that misfit radicals were plotting to blow up the White House. General Douglas MacArthur, the Army chief of staff, perceived a cancerous threat from “pacifism and its bedfellow, communism.” His deputy for intelligence called the destitute veterans proof of “objectionable blood in our breed of human beings.” One newspaper demanded protection “from the criminal fringe of the invaders,” and The Washington Post, owned by Evalyn McLean’s husband “Dashing Ned,” conjured up demagogues manipulating servile hordes. Some Americans embraced the bonus soldiers as kindred souls only a pink slip away, but others recoiled. Senator James Lewis of Illinois spurned fellow veterans who came politely to solicit his vote. “Go to hell,” he told them.
A vigil of more than six thousand BEF soldiers blanketed Capitol Hill into the night of June 17, 1932, two days after the House of Representatives passed a bill to offer veterans $2.4 billion in cash for their 1924 bonus certificates. (One congressman had dropped dead during the tense debate.) Senator Hiram Johnson of California warned colleagues that “it would not be difficult for a real revolution to start in this country,” and when couriers emerged with news that a Senate vote defeated the bonus bill, reporters envisioned furious veterans storming the Congress. The BEF columns only sang “America,” however, before they filed back to Anacostia for six weeks of excruciating anticlimax.
Opponents of the bonus bill fumed that stern measures kept backfiring in public opinion. When a magistrate decreed that petitioners could not stand idle on public property, for instance, the BEF launched a perpetual “death march” around Capitol Hill. Haggard old soldiers trudged in good order until they dropped. Ex-sergeant Walter W. Waters, the goofy-looking BEF commander, beguiled the press with underdog stories about being fired from a cannery with his wife, Wilma, although the authors note that sudden fame had Waters “openly flirting with fascism,” intoxicated by the fresh spell of fellow non-coms Hitler and Mussolini. All this bizarre agitation vexed President Herbert Hoover, who refused to acknowledge or meet anyone from the bonus movement. By the end of July 1932, Hoover sent the current Army to confront the former Army.
General MacArthur flagrantly exceeded orders to seal the bonus marchers within their mudflats, away from public buildings and monuments. “Instead,” wrote the historian David M. Kennedy, “MacArthur’s troops proceeded to Anacostia and drove the marchers out of the camp with tear gas.”1 Majors Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Patton, at the time obscure Army officers, sent cavalry to rout the bewildered inhabitants and torch their flimsy huts in a giant bonfire. Two veterans died of gunshots, two infants suffocated from gas, and several hundred people fell injured. MacArthur claimed grandly to have saved the republic from insurrection, and President Hoover issued a terse statement that “a challenge to the authority of the United States Government has been met, swiftly and firmly.” But historians emphasize the adverse political reaction. “The Bonus Army episode,” David Kennedy observed, “came to symbolize Hoover’s supposed insensitivity to the plight of the unemployed.”
Dickson and Allen quote Patton’s memory of sheer relish in the mounted charge (“sabers rose and fell with a comforting smack”), and they cite the awed response of Franklin Roosevelt the next morning in his pajamas at Hyde Park. There would be, he said, no need to campaign against the incumbent president once readers saw the news. In 1933, New Deal advisers deftly guided a returning caravan of homeless veterans beyond the Potomac River to an isolated military camp, where First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt placated them with a visit. “Hoover sent the army,” said one veteran. “Roosevelt sent his wife.”
Confronting larger crises, President Roosevelt fended off the oddball veterans through the Hundred Days, but his nicer-than-Hoover style gradually lost its political magic. FDR then felt compelled to emphasize that he agreed with the flinty old Quaker on the merits. (“Opposition to the bonus,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. recalled, “was one of the virtuous issues of the day.”2 ) In October of 1933, Roosevelt faced a giant American Legion convention to reject any payout for veterans as fiscally irresponsible and unfair, declaring that “no person, because he wore a uniform, must therefore be placed in a special class of beneficiaries.” When a cash redemption bill passed both houses in 1935, the President raised the stakes by delivering his veto personally—for the first time in history—to a joint session of Congress. The Senate narrowly upheld him.
The Bonus Army describes one final element in the unlikely transformation sparked by veterans: a collision between natural disaster and national myth. The authors, pursuing their line of original research well before Hurricane Katrina, trace concerted efforts by the Roosevelt administration to divert the annual BEF siege far from Washington into a job program modeled on the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. By early 1935, federal administrators had moved seven hundred bonus marchers into Veterans Rehabilitation Camps south of Miami, where road crews were building a highway connector between the Florida Keys. The Great Depression had stripped away public order until officials talked of literally abandoning bankrupt Key West. “The city was unable to pay police, fire, and sanitation workers,” write Dickson and Allen. “80 percent of the local residents were on welfare.” In spite of grim conditions, the press attacked the Roosevelt administration for compromising its stand against special treatment. Time magazine called the work camps “playgrounds for derelicts.” A New York Times series campaigned to shut them down, branding the grizzled veterans “shell-shocked, whisky-shocked and depression-shocked.”
Then came the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, when instruments recorded the first and only sustained winds to strike the mainland at speeds above two hundred miles per hour. The authors present the storm in part through the eyes of Ernest Hemingway, who stubbornly battened his home in Key West and ventured two days later into a wasteland of horror. “Saw more dead than I’d seen in one place since the lower Piave in June of 1918,” he wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins. “…We located sixty-nine bodies where no one had been able to get in.” Bloated figures hung from debris and protruded from the earth, their skin sand-blasted away. Devastation made an empty gesture of President Roosevelt’s order for the World War I veterans to be buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery. By official guess, 408 victims were consigned instead to local mass graves or emergency cremation, and rescue workers burned their own stench-bearing clothes.
Hemingway wrote a blistering indictment—“Who Killed the Vets?”—while newspapers compared political damage to the backlash against President Hoover in 1932. The American Legion discovered that highway supervisors had moved road-building equipment to safety thirty-six hours before the hurricane, which amplified cries against Roosevelt for leaving the hapless veterans stranded on Matecumbe Key. Allegations of incompetence and criminal negligence surfaced at congressional hearings, but the ruling Democrats bottled up sensitive answers long past the 1936 elections. Dickson and Allen gained access to files sealed for fifty years at the National Archives, only to find them pilfered or bare. They describe internal investigations that had disappeared for most of the twentieth century, the last one surfacing in 2001.
Congress passed yet another cash redemption bill in tribute to the Bonus Army’s grim sacrifice, this time with more than enough votes to override Roosevelt’s veto. On June 16, 1936, postal workers delivered bonus packets worth a total of $1.9 billion to 3,518,000 World War I veterans. “They’re really DOUGHboys today!” exclaimed the Bridgeport, Connecticut, Post. Veterans’ groups savored respect after years of humiliation, while Roosevelt steered a calculated retreat. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes confided to his diary that the President suffered from “fear of the soldier vote.”3 Historian David Kennedy would pronounce the New Deal “a walking corpse” from the end of FDR’s first term.
Roosevelt made his mark thereafter as a war president, but he had learned a political lesson. In his fireside chat on July 28, 1943 (the eleventh anniversary of MacArthur’s ignominious cavalry charge), he pledged that the 11 million American soldiers in World War II must never come home “into an environment of inflation and unemployment, to a place on a bread line or a corner selling apples…. We must this time, have plans ready.” Less than a year later, on June 22, 1944, Roosevelt signed into law the GI Bill of Rights. Its future significance was obscured by the D-Day troops then battling to dislodge German forces from Cherbourg, and those who could think beyond World War II anticipated very little use for pipedream benefits under the GI Bill. One typical soldier said he no more pictured himself in college than buying a Rolls Royce. Less than 5 percent of Americans held college degrees in 1945. Fewer than two of every five US soldiers had finished high school.
The postwar rush therefore stunned practically everyone, including veterans themselves. Those who ventured first to college spread news that government clerks were opening doors for them—settling their families, paying tuition, buying books. The GI Bill covered living expenses for half the nation’s college students by 1947, and helped finance nearly 90 percent of private houses constructed in the 1950s—13 million of them. Veterans swelled enrollment at Syracuse University from three thousand at war’s end to 19,698 in 1948. Alabama Polytechnic Institute crammed eager GI students into dormitories improvised from ninety-three tugboats; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute used surplus Landing Ship Tanks, or LSTs, to float beds for six hundred veterans in the Hudson River.4 Almost eight million ex-soldiers received free job training or higher education under two GI Bill programs costing $14.5 billion (back when tuition at the best private colleges was below a thousand dollars per year).
Taxpayers eventually reaped at least sevenfold profit from the enhanced incomes, according to some studies, and consensus puts the GI Bill among the most ingenious public investments ever conceived.5 The bill was a principal catalyst for the new middle-class America—helping to spawn suburbs and to raise productivity so broadly that the wage gap between social classes reached its all-time low in 1950. Dickson and Allen close their book with a broad outline of white-collar standards absorbed into mass culture. Like most historians, they consider the GI Bill a redeeming legacy from the travail of old soldiers. “The veterans of the Bonus Army taught an American lesson to those who fretted over revolution,” they conclude. “If you have a grievance, take it to Washington, and if you want to be heard, bring a lot of people with you.”
What happened to this uplifting history? How did the exemplary GI Bill give way to a political climate tinged with cynicism about government? One explanation is that the bill’s antecedents in the Bonus Army movement are painfully convoluted. Another is a pattern of leadership so blindly selfish that several scholars have pronounced every subsequent blessing a freakish gift. The bonus we still inherit from the GI Bill was unforeseen and unintended, even contrary to a larger design.
Of the major political forces, only Roosevelt called for sweeping social change to secure the victorious economic recovery during World War II. On January 11, 1944, with the issue of postwar veterans’ benefits freshly before Congress, FDR gave what James MacGregor Burns called “the most radical speech of his life.”6 The United States urgently required “a second Bill of Rights,” Roosevelt announced, “under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station or race or creed.” He spelled out economic corollaries to James Madison’s bill of freedoms, proposing new rights to an education, a job, adequate medical care, and “a decent home,” among others.
Burns concedes that FDR’s lofty summons “fell with a dull thud.” The speech harkened back to New Deal momentum long since expired, and Roosevelt, insisting that able-bodied veterans should be folded into adjustment policies for the whole nation, rendered his administration practically irrelevant to GI politics dominated by the American Legion.7 The legion’s lobbyists drafted the comprehensive legislation for veterans; its publicist coined the nickname “GI Bill of Rights.” Led by Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the American Legion had grown since World War I into a power among the veterans’ organizations. Legionnaires had supported Herbert Hoover and FDR against the Depression-era bonus, suggesting that only losers in their ranks would stoop to protest. Now the legion marshaled the influence of three million members behind maximum benefits for all veterans—not just combat troops, the wounded, the most talented, or those with service abroad. (Fully a quarter of World War II soldiers never left the United States.)
Simultaneously, the legion blocked adjustment programs for anyone but veterans—excluding the thousands of civilians disabled in war plants, ignoring 19 million female workers who made Rosie the Riveter a heroine on the home front. A raw campaign to pass the GI Bill invoked the specter of foreign veterans who had overthrown governments across Europe after World War I. Warren Atherton, the legion’s national commander, advised Americans not to trifle with warriors coming home from unspeakable violence. “They can make our country or break it,” he threatened in a radio speech. “They can restore our democracy or scrap it.”
Meanwhile, leading educators resisted a windfall for their own schools. Harvard president James B. Conant glumly foresaw “the least capable among the war generation” infiltrating campuses to pollute traditions of knowledge refined by and for a small, mostly pedigreed elite. University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins, to his later mortification, predicted that GIs would convert universities into “educational hobo jungles.” The classroom, he added stiffly, “is not a device for coping with mass unemployment.”
In Congress, the anti–New Deal coalition labored mightily to ensure that rewards for military service did not disturb the social hierarchy. John Rankin of Mississippi, who introduced the GI Bill on behalf of the American Legion, was “one of the most openly bigoted racists and anti-Semites ever to serve in the House of Representatives,” according to the GI Bill’s chief chronicler, Michael J. Bennett.8 Nicknamed the “angry mosquito,” Rankin expunged from the veterans bill any hint of encouragement for integration. Then he tried to delete the “52–20 plan,” which allotted each unemployed GI up to fifty-two weekly subsistence payments of $20, as a breech of Mississippi’s two-tier racial wage system. “We have 50,000 negroes in the service from our State,” Rankin explained by letter, “and in my opinion…a vast majority of them would remain unemployed for at least a year.” Only a revolt forced him to restore 52–20 from the version passed by the Senate.
Rankin stood ceremoniously among sponsors of a GI Bill that would defy every obtuse prescription with liberating success. After the initial chaos, President Conant of Harvard graciously admitted that he had slandered the learning potential of soldiers, who earned better grades than ordinary students and flunked out at one tenth their rate. Rankin’s ban on interracial mandates did insulate the stupefying proliferation of subdivisions built with VA loans, such that black families by 1960 managed to buy not even one of the 82,000 homes built in archetypal Levittown, New York. Even so, the rising tide of GI beneficiaries inexorably crumbled barriers. The number of job-training facilities tripled within the first year. Accreditation skyrocketed at historically black schools. Restrictive “Jewish quotas” gave way in the Ivy League.
The GI Bill was seen for years as a historic jackpot, spilling opportunity upon survivors, bystanders, and clueless progeny alike, but then vanished so completely from public discourse that perplexed scholars now search a cold trail. For her book Soldiers to Citizens, political scientist Suzanne Mettler sent an extensive questionnaire to two thousand World War II veterans. Hoping for the usual return rate of fifteen percent, Mettler was astonished to receive completed forms from nearly three quarters of the veterans, many of whom volunteered life-changing narratives from six decades ago. She applied her data to the difficult task of isolating the effect of government benefits from other factors, such as the broadening experience of World War II duty itself, and her results confirm estimates by social scientists that the GI Bill added nearly three years to the average veteran’s education.
Mettler also compiled statistics to analyze the marginal impact on lifetime habits associated with democratic responsibility. “My central finding,” she writes, “…is that the GI Bill’s education and training provisions had an overwhelmingly positive effect on male veterans’ civic involvement.” Her approach is mostly dry and academic, but she openly regrets that the democratic surge dissipated within the working lives of GIs themselves. “Beginning in the 1970s,” Mettler concludes, “Americans began to vote less, to trust each other less, to trust government less, and to disengage from political parties and other forms of political action.”
In Over Here, the journalist Edward Humes explores the subject anecdotally, with profiles of diverse veterans who turned GI benefits into what Mettler calls “breathtaking transformation.” Humes describes Richard Koch, one of nine dirt-poor siblings on an immigrant sheep farm in North Dakota, who became a bombardier, German POW, then GI student, and now is called “Dr. PKU” for his pioneer medical treatment of children born with the insidious disease phenylketonuria. The book follows Bob Booth, a young carpenter and submarine chaser mired in odd jobs until he stumbled upon the GI Bill and came to invent a silicone substance that made possible the first reentry spacecraft by enduring 6,000-degree heat. “In this postwar world,” closes another capsule history, “[Leon] Lederman, the child of a Jewish laundry worker, could become the leading physicist of his generation.”
Humes summarizes the careers of more familiar people launched from the GI Bill, such as the filmmaker Arthur Penn and senators George McGovern and Bob Dole. Penn, the son of a Lithuanian watch repairer from Philadelphia, came home from infantry service in the Battle of the Bulge to meet ex-Marine Robert Rauschenberg at Black Mountain College with colleagues Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, and Jacob Lawrence, then created films spanning sensibility from The Miracle Worker on Helen Keller to the visionary portrait of violence Bonnie and Clyde. “I have a deep and abiding affection for the GI Bill,” Penn told Humes. “I can’t imagine what my life would have been without it.”
Both Mettler and Humes state that veterans’ benefits have been lowered steadily alongside a national decline in political optimism. Each revision of the GI Bill since World War II has raised eligibility requirements while constricting assistance. The Vietnam law of 1967 tightened modifications from the Korean War. Recently, the Bush administration has sent the least favored military units to endure more than half of all US casualties in Iraq. “Members of the National Guard receive only a third of the GI Bill benefits that regular troops receive,” Humes pointedly notes, “and no benefits at all once they leave the service.”
Despite the honorific pauses on cable news shows, Americans have degraded veterans toward the lowly status of Bonus Army forebears once huddled in Anacostia. We treat soldiers as instruments of primitive authority. In startling lament, these authors charge that modern veterans inherit a warped view of civic possibility, and both books on the GI Bill hold Ronald Reagan accountable for misrepresenting the defining journey of his peers. They cite his core dictum that national government is “the problem,” laid down without qualification from the GI Bill or the landmark civil rights laws (which he opposed). In Over Here, Edward Humes charges that Reagan corroded all of public service with self-fulfilling disdain. “The nine most terrifying words in the English language,” the President declared, “are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”
“To their credit,” Humes allows, “the veterans of World War II never labeled themselves the Greatest Generation—that fell to younger admirers….” While most of the senior veterans remained individually grateful, as noted, for the transcendent opportunities fostered by their country, they left behind a skewed judgment that democratic governance is inherently destructive and bent upon harm—better aimed at enemies than ourselves. “It is one of the great ironies of American history,” argues Humes,
that the generation that benefited from the greatest social welfare program the country has ever seen—the GI Bill—would so thoroughly undercut efforts to pass on similar, if much smaller, benefits to later generations.
The evolution of citizenship is clouded by preoccupation with wars. Many people still react for and against violence, from battlefield to cinema, without much thought to the relative strength of the ballot and sword, but some military theorists have begun to question the notion that brute force can establish power in a shrinking, interdependent world. They detect a trend since Napoleon for industrialized carnage to destroy more but govern less, and martial education often makes commanders more skeptical than civilians about the political capacity of firepower. Against ingrained urges for rule by conquest, the accountable warrior sees why bloodshed proves neither constructive nor decisive.
Like a career soldier, Martin Luther King faced extreme hatred almost daily by vocation. Late in 1967, he announced surprising plans for a cross-section of the nation’s most invisible poor people—black sharecroppers, migrant Hispanics, sequestered native Americans, white Appalachians—“to camp right here in Washington just as they did with the Bonus March, just camp here and stay here by the thousands and thousands.” To reporters, who were nonplussed by his departure from the consuming frictions of Vietnam and black power, King vowed to emulate the forgotten witness of veterans pledged to die but not to kill. “They may try to run us out,” he said. “They did it with the Bonus Marchers years ago, you remember.”
While serving his last jail sentence, King adapted the GI Bill into a proposed Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged. He said the details were less important than inducing national engagement on the issue. From his own stated faith—that “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality”—he proclaimed that lasting power advances in history not with the tide of violence but against it. Just as the Bonus Marchers were routed and abused until their petition led to miracles through the GI Bill, his trampled marchers and dog-bitten black children caused seismic shifts toward equal citizenship. King recognized patriotic logic in these wrenching, nonviolent campaigns to supplant the hegemony of clan and sword, because every vote newly honored, from ballot box to boardroom, is a small buttress in the architecture of structured consent. “The stirring lesson of this age is that nonviolent direct action is not a peculiar device for Negro agitation,” he declared. “Rather it is an historically validated method for defending freedom and democracy, and for enlarging these values for the benefit of the whole society.” With the Bonus Marchers in mind, King said that nonviolence makes the quest for democracy “self-renewing and creative.”
April 12, 2007
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 92–93. ↩
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Age of Roosevelt: The Politics of Upheaval (Houghton Mifflin, 1960), p. 10. ↩
Harold L. Ickes, The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes: The First Thousand Days, 1933–1936 (Simon and Schuster, 1953), pp. 158. ↩
Keith W. Olson, The G.I. Bill, the Veterans, and the Colleges (University Press of Kentucky, 1974), p. 76. ↩
“Through this single piece of legislation,” wrote Doris Kearns Goodwin in No Ordinary Time (Simon and Schuster, 1994, p. 513), “the educational horizons of an entire generation would be lifted.” ↩
James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), p. 424. ↩
Davis R. B. Ross, Preparing for Ulysses: Politics and Veterans During World War II (Columbia University Press, 1969), pp. 118–120, 274–278. ↩
Michael J. Bennett, When Dreams Came True: The GI Bill and the Making of Modern America (Brassey’s, 1996), p. 111. ↩