Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Forgotten chapters in the story of the “Bonus Army”

Every history of the New Deal tells the story of the Bonus Army and Herbert Hoover’s response to it. (Wikipedia) It’s a melodramatic story of a heartless Republican who is swayed by the paranoid fantasies of J. Edgar Hoover and orders his power-crazed Army commander drive the poor huddled masses out of the capital of the country they fought for. People were gassed and beaten; several died.

Barricaded inside the White House, lacking the political instincts to deal with the Bonus Army in a firm but conciliatory fashion, misunderstanding popular attitudes toward it, Hoover had committed and enormous public relations blunder.
A. L. Hamby, For the Survival of Democracy
But the Good and True had their revenge. His action against the protesting veterans helped seal his fate. He loses the 1932 election to FDR and sunlight and happiness return to America.

But what of the Bonus Marchers?

Until I read Jerome Tuccille’s Hemingway and Gellhorn I did not know THE REST OF THE STORY.

This was a problem because I was a history major and covered the New Deal in at least a half-dozen undergraduate and graduate classes. Took a look at the books in my shelves to see what they said about FDR and the Bonus Marchers. From the oldest idolatry-laden volumes to new histories by historians I respect, the story is incomplete.

So here it is.

FDR was no more willing to have the Bonus Army camp out in Washington than was Herbert Hoover. When some veterans came to Washington for his inauguration, he made sure their encampment was in far away Virgina.

In 1935, FDR actually vetoed a bill to pay the Bonus early.

But FDR did play the PR game better than Hoover. He placated the veterans, sent his wife to their encampment for a photo op, and got them out of DC area as quickly as possible.

Some of the veterans were given work by Harry Hopkins’s FERA (Federal Emergency Relief Administration) and sent to worker camps in remote areas.

Hundreds of them ended up in the Florida Keys building and repairing roads.

The camps were primitive, even ramshackle.

In April 1935 an administrator in Florida wrote to Washington and asked that they build several large strong buildings at the camps. “This area is subject to hurricanes and it is our duty… to furnish a safe refuge during a storm.”

Washington ignored him and did nothing.

In September the Keys were hit with a Category Five hurricane. It killed 423 people; 259 of them were veterans who were left to die on small islands with no strong shelter.

Eleanor Roosevelt had no comment.

Ernest Hemingway was at Key West when the storm went through. He saw the devastation and the death. He had plenty of comments.

To his editor Max Perkins:

Harry Hopkins and Roosevelt who sent those poor bonus march guys down here to get rid of them got rid of them all right.
In an article titled “Who Murdered the Vets”:

Whom did they annoy and to whom was their possible presence a political danger? Who sent them down to the Florida Keys and left them there in hurricane months? Who is responsible for their deaths
So there you have the rest of the story. FDR, political expediency, and bureaucratic inertia killed many times more Bonus Marchers than did Hoover, PR ineptitude, and a heavy-handed military response.

But that rarely makes it into the history books or journalist’s hagiographies.

The 'founding fathers' of serious New Deal historiography in the 1950s and early 1960s-- James MacGregor Burns, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and William E. Leuchtenburg-- established a tone that still dominates the study of American politics in the 1930s: a near adulatory perspective, occasionally nagged by a sense that FDR was too 'conservative' to lead us entirely into the promised land of egalitarian social democracy….By and large, most professional historians, up through David Kennedy's recent spendid narrative, still work from within the viewpoint of the founding fathers, or somewhere to the left of it.
A. L. Hamby

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