Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Nonfiction: Veteran's Day

The Bonus Army: An American Epic By Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen, Walker & Company, 2004

I picked up this book back in February, at an appearance by co-author Paul Dickson. That adventure can be found here. So here's the quick version - The Bonus Day - is accessible and articulate and engaging, and turns a spotlight on a part of American History that has lay in shadow for too long, and in a way that seems all-too familiar at this point in time. Go read it.

Its a complex story that at its core is about what we owe to our fellow Americans who serve in our armed forces. Our Vets from WWI not only were being shot at, gassed, and plagued with disease, they were doing it at much lower pay than they would have gotten back in the states. To try to make up for arears, Congress announced it would pay its former vets a dollar per day served (Buck-Twenty-Five for time overseas), to be paid out far in the then-future. This payment became known as the "bonus". There were two ways to get the bonus. One was to live until 1945, the supposed payout date (this was passed 1924). The other was to die, and let your heirs get the money immediately. So the bonus soon known as the "tombstone bonus."

So a lot of vets had pieces of paper promising future payment, while the soup lines of the Depression got longer and things got worse. And number of the vets, among them Walter W. Waters of Portland, decided to take their case to the Capital for an early payout. Waters was one of those crucial pieces of the puzzle, an early organizer who became a recognized leader of the Bonus Army, without whom the whole movement would not have hit critical mass.

And critical mass it soon became, and would become 45,000 men, women, and children who headed for Washington to press their case. There were attempts to stop the marchers out in the hinterlands, but most state bureaucracies preferred to see the men move through their state and not stop. Some provided trains and motorized escorts to speed them on their way.

Another key player was DC police chief Pelham Glassford, newly placed in office to clean up the department. Glassford was a vet himself, and upon hearing of the huge number of vets about to descend on Washington, made arrangements for putting them up (as opposed to turning them out). Initially some abandoned government buildings were used, but soon Waters and other organizers set up military-style camps (one named Camp Glassford, and another Camp Marks, after another friendly officer).

The marchers came, and presented their case and lost - the Bonus failed to pass the House of Representitives. And instead of packing up and leaving, the marchers chose to stay. It was as easy to be poor and homeless in Washington DC as elsewhere. And after a few tense months, the government called out the Army under Doug MacArthur to roust them out. There was gas in the air and tanks in the street as the marchers were driven out of the city. It was an image disaster, as newspaper pictures of black smoke from the burning camps curling around the Capitol dome.

The book captures the complex nature of the conflict, and its players, and notes many things that are familiar to modern readers. The Government tried to tie the bonus marchers to Communism, as anyone who protested the government was an obvious commie or commie dupe (there were Communists among the marchers, but they were kept to another camp. Indeed, it seems like Waters himself was flirting with Fascism at a couple points in his running of the Bonus Army). In addition, when the eviction came, the competitive newspapers picked up the story, while the new, hot technology (the movie newsreel) was curiously silent on the matter.

Obvious analogies can be made between that time and this, Dickson and Allen work to be non-political, instead stressing the differences between the unemployed veterans and the official bureaucrats. While Hoover gets knocked about, FDR is shown to also argue against the Bonus. When the bonus passed the Senate, Roosevelt went along with it, but even then there was one last ironic kick. Some of the marchers were sent to a New Deal work camp in the Florida Keys, and, again thanks to how bureaucracy functioned, failed to be evacuated in the face of a major hurricane.

The Bonus Army was important, not only because of its campaign for the Bonus, but for its sense of controlled and organized civil disobedience. Protesters would ring the Capitol in a continual march, a far cry from today's "Protest Zones" put out of sight and out of mind. The Bonus Army paved the way not only for the 1963 March on Washington, but for the GI Bill, which provided a better future for hundreds of thousands of Veterans (including my father, who used it to get out of the oil fields of Western PA*).

It's very important, at a time when we are facing more veterans (and less funding) than ever, that we be willing to pay the financial price for their personal sacrifice. This sets an important step in our history in place, and I highly recommend it.

More later,

*My Grandfather was an independent oilman, and Dad would work on his drilling rig. They would often hit methane pockets and natural gas while drilling. Grandad smoked a pipe. After the third time Dad's eyebrows grew back, he started thinking about college. That's the way my Dad tells the story, at least.