The Spirit of ’32
By Michael Kleen
April 12, 2010
In the spring of 1932, thousands of veterans of the First World War and their families marched on Washington DC to demand immediate cash payment for service certificates Congress had issued to the veterans eight years earlier. The certificates were intended to mature after two decades, but in the depths of the Great Depression, with many of those veterans unemployed, the protestors (dubbed the “Bonus Army”) felt they should be able to redeem their certificates early as an emergency relief measure.
Around 15,000 men, women, and children camped out near the Capitol for months. On June 15, the House of Representatives passed a bill authorizing payment of the bonuses, but the Senate rejected it two days later. The protestors refused to leave. Another month passed, and tensions ran high. Some of President Hoover’s advisors were convinced that the marchers had become radicalized and would attempt a communist coup. In fact, the American Communist Party had attempted to infiltrate the Bonus Army, but the Bonus Army’s leader, Walter W. Waters, was a patriot and fervent anti-communist who organized his men to root out the radicals from their ranks.
Never-the-less, on July 28 President Hoover ordered the Washington DC police to evict some of the protestors from an abandoned building located on government property. A scuffle erupted and two veterans were killed. Panicked, Hoover ordered a military force under the command of General Douglas MacArthur to remove all the protestors. General MacArthur interpreted the order as blanket permission to run the Bonus Army out of the Capital. Cavalry, infantry, and tanks assaulted their encampment with teargas and fixed bayonets. When the smoke cleared, an 11-week old baby was dead, one child blinded, and hundreds of veterans were wounded.
As the Tea Party movement prepares for its own protest march on Washington DC on April 15, there is much to be learned from the tragedy of the Bonus Army. The rank-and-file of the Tea Party, like the veterans of the Bonus Army, are not radicals or revolutionaries. The Bonus Army veterans—hungry and out of work—simply wanted to redeem their service certificates a few years early. The Tea Party simply wants the Federal government to exercise fiscal responsibility and operate within the bounds of the Constitution. If, however, a perception of radicalism is allowed to fester, the consequences could be disastrous.
When communication between the Bonus Army and the government broke down, President Hoover and General MacArthur allowed their fears about a communist plot to get the better of them. Without any knowledge of how the White House viewed the situation, the veterans in the Bonus Army cheered when they saw the cavalry approach. Only later did they learn that General MacArthur believed their protest was “animated by the essence of revolution,” which “severely threatened” the institutions of government. When mounted soldiers charged with sabers drawn, spectators who understood this disconnect between perception and reality yelled, “Shame! Shame!”
To avoid any similar disconnect, Tea Party members, at rallies and protest marches, need to make the respectability of their position abundantly clear. There can be no taint of radicalism: history teaches us that the Federal government, and the American people in general, does not look favorably on radical movements. The opponents of the Tea Party understand this, and are already taking steps to infiltrate and sabotage its protests. In recent weeks, a group calling itself “Crash the Tea Party” has laid out a plan to implode it from the inside out. “Whenever possible,” their website proclaims, “we will act on behalf of the tea party in ways which exaggerate their least appealing qualities (misspelled protest signs, wild claims in TV interviews, etc.) to further distance them from mainstream America and damage the public’s opinion of them.”
While the Tea Party has attracted a wide spectrum of supporters, middle class tax payers remain its core constituency. These Americans will not be convinced by shrill sloganeering, but by witnessing respectable men and women just like them willing to take a stand against runaway government. By dressing appropriately, formulating an articulate message, and publically denouncing radical elements and spokespersons, the Tea Party can alter the media narrative and represent their broad appeal. This will also shift the focus away from the signs and the public displays of anger back to what really counts: demonstrating that millions of Americans are fed up with the irresponsible behavior of their elected officials.
While the 1932 Bonus Army worked hard to root out radical elements, they failed to carefully articulate their message to elected officials in Washington DC. If the Tea Party protestors are going to be successful and avoid the implosion of their cause, they must make it impossible for groups like “Crash the Tea Party” to infiltrate their ranks and undermine their message. On Tax Day, let television viewers see themselves in the calm but determined faces of the Tea Party protestors. That is the only avenue to success.