Fifty years ago today the ragtag "bonus army" of jobless World War I veterans was driven out of Washington, an act that symbolized the depth of the Great Depression and the paralysis of the federal government in dealing with America's worst economic disaster.
It is worth recalling in order to give some perspective to the current miseries of millions of Americans. Out of that disaster half a century ago came the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which constructed the basic ribs of the economic safety net now so severely strained by Reagonomics. But one has only to look at mid-1932 to see what a different America it was before there was any safety net at all.
In 1932, unemployment averaged 23.6 percent--over 12 million jobless out of a civilian labor force of 51 million; today 9.5 percent, about 10.5 million out of well over 100 million workers, are jobless. That year over a quarter million Americans lost their homes because of mortgage foreclosures. Unemployed men sold apples for a nickle on thousands of street corners.
In such an atmosphere, the capital, as today, was the focus of protest. Father James Cox of Pittsburgh already had led one jobless march on Washington, the Communist Party another. The bonus army began in Portland, Ore., and by early summer some 20,000 vets and family members were here, calling themselves the BEF--bonus expeditionary force. The ostensible purpose was to pressure Congress into voting immediate payment of a veterans' bonus promised for 1945. Rep. Wright Patman's proposal was to have paid $1 for each day served in the United States, $1.25 for those spent overseas. The Democratic-controlled House approved, but the Republican Senate refused while thousands of the vets jammed the Capitol grounds. Thereupon they sang "America" and peacefully went back to their camps. These were shack villages thrown together at several locations, principally on the Anacostia's east bank and on Pennsylvania Avenue about where the National Gallery East Building now stands.
On June 7, as 100,000 watched, some 8,000 vets marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in what The Post called "the strangest military parade the capital has ever witnessed." By mid-July, the White House was "guarded from veterans" by "the greatest massing of policemen seen in Washington since the race riot after the world war." Inside the mansion sat a beseiged President Hoover.
Police chief Pelham D. Glassford, World War I's youngest brigadier general, wanted to feed the vets, not fight then. Evelyn Walsh McLean, who owned the Hope diamond, impulsively ordered a thousand sandwiches from a nearby Child's; Glassford himself paid for the coffee. But the District commissioners, under White House pressure, ordered evacuation of the camps.
Glassford tried persuasion to no avail. Skirmishes turned into a brawl, and then a panicky cop pulled his revolver. One vet was killed, another wounded; he died later. Hoover thereupon called on the Army to "put an end to rioting and defiance of authority." It was 4:30 in the afternoon of July 28 when Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur appeared on the Avenue, with him Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Third Cavalry troopers from Fort Myer, sabers drawn, pranced down the street under command of Maj. George S. Patton Jr., followed by infantry with fixed bayonets, a machine gun detachment, troops with tear gas canisters and six midget tanks, their treads eating into the heat-softened macadam.
Some 20,000 rush-hour spectators watched as the troops charged the vets. Tear gas spread a haze over the Avenue as spectators fled; Sen. Hiram Bingham of Connecticut was trampled in the rush. It was quickly over as the bonus marchers retreated toward Anacostia, the flames and smoke from their torched shacks framing the Capitol dome for photographers. The other camps, too, were burned. The bitter vets finally straggled out of town.
MacArthur claimed the "mob" had been "animated by the essence of revolution." Some of those involved were, indeed, would-be revolutionaries, but that was not the veterans' motivat- ing force; despair was. One veteran put it simply: "If they gave me a job, I wouldn't care about the bonus." What a far cry from that summer to this summer of discontent! Yes, some banks and savings and loans have had to merge or close, but individual depositors know that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or other similar institutions will pay them back--and promptly--dollar for dollar up to $100,000 per account. Investors know brokerage accounts are insured as high as half a million dollars.
The wild stock market speculation that preceded the "bust" of October 1929 is nowhere in sight today. Margin buying then required little collateral, while today's regulated market requires at least 50 percent to buy stocks. Sure, gamblers have found new ways to make or lose millions, or to fleece the lambs. But with a modicum of prudence, most of us are well protected.
Nearly half of today's jobless draw some form of unemployment insurance. Social Security provides a bedrock income for the elderly, and Medicare provides for health care. A web of federally inspired welfare payments, food stamps, housing supplements or subsidies, Medicaid and so on helps those on the lower economic rungs.
Yes, unemployment benefits expire, welfare payments get cut off, inflation pinches millions, bankruptcies multiply and the nation is in the worst recession since 1932. But who's to blame is not the point here. It is no comfort to the discomforted to look at the nation as a whole rather than at the pain of individuals. But we should.
And if we do so with some perspective, considering life in these United States 50 years ago, then we know, for example, that House Speaker Tip O'Neill went much too far when he charged the Reagan administration with "tearing . . . the social safety net to shreds."
Rents in the net, surely; unraveled fringes, certainly; even some holes in the net, yes. But "shreds," no, for that implies something close to total destruction. It could yet come to that, of course. But public resistance currently is strong, and this November's election should tell us whether the voters want that safety net to remain, even to be repaired, or whether President Reagan does have a mandate to unravel still more of it.