Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Bonus Army: The Original Occupy Wall Street

By now we have all seen or heard about Occupy Wall Street, but I am willing to bet most people don't know the OWS movement is following in someones footsteps. Let me introduce you to the Bonus Army, a movement very similar to OWS, but more importantly has left a blueprint that OWS should be following. The Bonus Army's issues are parallel to OWS, they are rooted in years of economic imbalances and political red tape that slows down what is due to the American people. Ultimately after reviewing the Bonus Army and their cause we can see that OWS is doing things all wrong. So without further delay let me present you to you, the Bonus Army.

The Bonus Army finds its origins in World War I. Men returning home from the trenches and horrors that were the WWI battlefield they were promised a bonus on top of  their guaranteed military pay. So as you can probably guess there was no bonuses paid to any of the returning veterans. Five years after the war and with all the troops home, a terrible decision was made from the White House (surprise, surprise). President Calvin Coolidge aka "Cool Cal" vetoed the bonus bill saying "patriotism... bought and paid for is not patriotism" in other words Cal didn't want to want to shell out a couple of extra bucks for the G.I.'s that just fought the "war to end all wars." However, the true red, white and blue Congress vetoed Coolidge and set up the World War Adjusted Compensation Act which created a payout system for service time. Some 3.5 million claims were filed and it would add up to 3.6 billion dollars...American. The idea was to establish a a trust fund and by 1945 the amount would have gained enough interest to pay the bonuses. Yet there was an event looming that was unforeseeable and would devastate the fund but more importantly the American economy.

"Black Tuesday" pretty much forced the United States economy into a complete stand still and collapse, and opened a new chapter in American History, the Great Depression. The Depression was brought on by the amount of money being spread around and speculation that didn't exactly pan out. The Roaring Twenties 1% basically did exactly what the 1% are doing today and this was visible to people in the 1930s as it is as visible to us today. So this economic collapse due to gambles made by those in places of power would completely fuel the fire that was behind the Bonus Army. After the crash the Army grew, it was no longer just angry veterans being stiffed out of their bonuses but they were now joined by the American public, which was now jobless and penniless in most cases. The time for action was now, and the Bonus Army led the way, but they did not sit on Wall Street and point the finger at big business, as they knew big business wouldn't care so they took the fight right to those in charge, those who called the shots in Washington D.C.

In the summer of 1932, the Bonus Army had officially started a war on Washington D.C. The Bonus Army marched into D.C. with some 17,000 pissed off veterans who were joined by another 45,000 unemployed Americans. The Army even set up a camp in Anacostia Flats better known as Hooverville, named after President Herbert Hoover for his part in let America continue to slip into the Depression. Even though Hooverville was a "shanty town" it was extremely well organized. The veterans established a grid like street system, public safety operations, a sanitation department, registration center and held parades and daily demonstrations in front of the White House and U.S. Capitol Building. However, Hoover didn't want the Army to gain anymore support so by the end of July he ordered that the Army be removed from D.C. Now this is were things got ugly and would result  in the beginning of the end for the Bonus Army.

So like any good protest the authorities are called in to break it up. At first it was up to the Washington D.C. Police Department under the orders of Attorney General William Mitchell. As the police began to clear the Army camps the veterans rushed the officers. During the altercation two veterans were killed, William Hushka and Eric Carlson. After the failed operation by the DCPD, Hoover ordered the U.S. Army to clear out the camp. He left this mission up to one of the most bad ass generals in American History, General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur rolled into the camp with an all star line up of military leaders, Major George S. Patton commanded the tank division under MacArthur and Major Dwight D. Eisenhower as an aide to MacArthur. The U.S. Army charged into the Bonus Army camps with fixed bayonets and used an tear gas to help in clearing the camp. The Bonus Army retreated but MacArthur pushed after them fearing that they were a red commie movement. In the end about 60 veterans were injured in the attack and about 140 were arrested. Amazingly there were only one casualty, Bernard Myers was 12 week old when he died from the effects of tear gas. After this the Bonus Army's fight was over, yet their cause would lead to change.

So how could any good come from the Bonus Army after being attacked by the U.S. Army? Two words, public opinion. First and most effected was Hoover, his image went from bad to to worse. His actions in dealing with the Bonus Army and the American economy cemented him as a one-term President. Also the film Gabriel Over the White House was released. It was set in an alternate America were the Bonus Army was praised and used to rebuild America by the President, thus helping American crawl out of the Depression. Yet perhaps the most important change caused by the Bonus Army was the election of President Franklin Roosevelt and a Democrat controlled House and Senate. During his campaign Roosevelt supported the Bonus Army's second attempt by offering a campsite, meals and assistance to those in need. His wife, Eleanor, would visit the camps and promote FDR and his plans for when he became President. It was in these camps that the Civilian Conservation Corps was founded and promoted. Once FDR was in office he passed an order enrolling 25,000 veterans into the CCC, passed the Adjusted Compensation Act of 1936 and was on his way to rebuilding America through his New Deal. It can be seen that due to the protest of the Bonus Army change was possible, but when looking at them we see who and where the change has to come from.

So it is pretty clear that OWS needs to regroup and examine the Bonus Army's tactics. OWS, like the Bonus Army did, face an economic depression, unemployment and a faulted government. Soon OWS may be able to add the large amount of veterans that fueled the protest of 1932. But what OWS needs to do is not go back to Wall Street or the financial centers of America, but to Washington D.C. and local political centers. Now why? Well because big business didn't care in 1932 and they don't care now. It is quite obvious that there is a culture of greed on Wall Street which will never go away. The Bonus Army knew this and knew change would only come from pressuring the government. The same tactics were used by those in the 1960s Civil Rights Movements and again in the Anti-Vietnam War protests. OWS needs to realize this and move their protests to the capital, pressure our law makers, force the system to change. We are after all "a government for the people, by the people," and it is time that Washington is reminded of that. It is time for America to take itself back and free itself from the grips of big business, corporate greed and payed politicians. I commend OWS for their work and ideas, but set your sights on the people who can make the change, as we saw with the Bonus Army, the fight may fail but in the end things will change because of your efforts.

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