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One of the most disastrous moments for Hoover’s reelection campaign came in late July 1932, when Attorney General William D. Mitchell ordered federal troops to eject a group of World War I veterans and their families from a shantytown they had built in the section of Washington, DC known as Anacostia Flats. They were there to demand the payment of bonuses that had been promised to them at the end of the war, but which they were not scheduled to receive until 1945. The previous year, thanks to the economic hardship brought on the by the Depression, Congress had passed (over Hoover’s veto) a bill that would have authorized the government to offer veterans cash advances of up to half the value of their bonuses. Some veterans, however, demanded immediate payment of the entire amount, and organized a “Bonus Army” of roughly 17,000 people that marched on Washington in June 1932 to put pressure on Congress to authorize such a payment. The House agreed, but after the bill failed in the Senate, the Bonus Army refused to leave.
Eventually the administration ordered the eviction of the Bonus Army, but the local police proved unequal to the task and called upon the federal authorities for assistance. The president, while rejecting the advice of some in his administration that he declare martial law, did authorize his secretary of war to have the protesters removed by force. On July 28, units of the U.S. Army under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur drove them out of their shanties using tanks and tear gas. The following day Hoover issued the following press statement explaining his actions.
Source: Herbert Hoover, “The President’s News Conference,” July 29, 1932. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=23189&st=&st1.
THE PRESIDENT said:
A challenge to the authority of the United States Government has been met, swiftly and firmly.
After months of patient indulgence, the Government met overt lawlessness as it always must be met if the cherished processes of self-government are to be preserved. We cannot tolerate the abuse of constitutional rights by those who would destroy all government, no matter who they may be. Government cannot be coerced by mob rule.
The Department of Justice is pressing its investigation into the violence which forced the call for Army detachments, and it is my sincere hope that those agitators who inspired yesterday’s attack upon the Federal authority may be brought speedily to trial in the civil courts. There can be no safe harbor in the United States of America for violence.
Order and civil tranquility are the first requisites in the great task of economic reconstruction to which our whole people now are devoting their heroic and noble energies. This national effort must not be retarded in even the slightest degree by organized lawlessness. The first obligation of my office is to uphold and defend the Constitution and the authority of the law. This I propose always to do.
For your own information, while I am on the subject, the National Red Cross has undertaken to send all the women and children out of the District who want to go home, and they are actively in the field this afternoon gathering them up. This is not for publication, just for your own information.
[Note: On the same day, the White House issued a text of the charge given to the grand jury by Judge Oscar R. Luhring of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. The charge, dated July 29, 1932, follows:]
The Court must take notice of the startling news appearing in the public press yesterday afternoon and this morning.
It appears that a considerable group of men, styling themselves as bonus marchers, have come to the District of Columbia from all parts of the country for the stated purpose of petitioning Congress for the passage of legislation providing for the immediate payment of the so-called bonus certificates. The number of these men has been variously estimated as from five to ten thousand.
It is reported that certain buildings in this city, belonging to the Government, were in the possession of members of this so-called bonus army, who had been requested to vacate but had declined to do so; that possession of the property by the Government was immediately necessary for the erection of new buildings which Congress had directed built; that yesterday agents of the Treasury, proceeding lawfully, went upon the premises to dispossess the bonus army, and a force of district police was present to afford protection and prevent disorder; that the bonus marchers were removed from one old building which the public contractor was waiting to demolish; that thereupon a mob of several thousand bonus marchers, coming from other quarters, proceeded to this place for the purpose of resisting the officials and of regaining possession of the Government property.
It appears that this mob, incited by some of their number, attacked the police, seriously injured a number of them, and engaged in riot and disorder. Their acts of resistance reached such a point that the police authorities were unable to maintain order and the Commissioners of the District were compelled to call upon the Federal authorities for troops to restore order and protect life and property.
It is obvious that the laws of the District were violated in many respects. You should undertake an immediate investigation of these events with a view to bringing to justice those responsible for this violence, and those inciting it as well as those who took part in acts of violence.
It is reported that the mob guilty of actual violence included few men, and was made up mainly of communists, and other disorderly elements. I hope you will find that is so and that few men who have worn the Nation’s uniform engaged in this violent attack upon law and order. In the confusion not many arrests have been made, and it is said that many of the most violent disturbers and criminal elements in the unlawful gathering have already scattered and escaped from the city, but it may be possible yet to identify and apprehend them and bring them to justice.
It is important that this matter be dealt with promptly. The United States Attorney is prepared to assist you in every way you may require.
That is all I have to say. The matter is in your hands.