John Steiner: Lessons from the Bonus Army of 1932

John Steiner

What Does The Bonus Army Tell Us About Occupy Wall Street?

By Brent Cox

The AWL, October 25, 2011

They called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, or the Bonus Army or Bonus Marchers for short, and in 1932 they set-up semi-permanent encampments in Washington D.C. Nearly 80 years later, people are occupying Wall Street, and many, many other places around the country. And as loud as the shouts of deliberate mass media ignorance were a month ago, the Occupy movement is not all over everything, and it’s as difficult to avoid coverage now as it was to find it then. It seems to be a unique construct, a product of now—nonviolent, persistent and inchoate in the sense of there’s too much to say (rather than not being able to say it). But they’re walking in someone else’s footprints, whether they know it or not.

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The two movements shared an analogous backdrop. Just as Occupy Wall Street unfolds in the shadow of the fiscal crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed, the Bonus Army congregated in the full bloom of the Great Depression. Without the downturn, neither protest actually could have happened. There was even a specific federal program that inflamed each: instead of the TARP program that doled out free taxpayer money to financial institutions recently, Hoover had established the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, an entity to save the large banks and railroads through government loans, just months before the Bonus Army declared their march. So both the Bonus Army and Occupy Wall Street were set into motion in response to almost deliberately provocative federal policy, and the economic horror show that necessitated it.

And as Occupy Wall Street has current celebrities, the Susan Sarandons and Alec Baldwins, the Kanye Wests and the Jeff Mangums, stopping by, the Bonus Army had one of the more popular military figures of the time, Gen. (Ret.) Smedley Butler, then the most decorated Marine ever, visit and give a pep speech:
Men, I ran for the Senate in Pennsylvania on a bonus ticket. I got the hell beaten out of me. But I haven’t changed my mind a damned bit. I’m here because I’ve been a soldier for thirty-five years and I can’t resist the temptation to be among soldiers. Hang together and stick it out till the gates of Hell freeze over; if you don’t, you’re no damn good. Remember, by God, you didn’t win the war for a select class of a few financiers and high binders. Don’t break any laws and allow people to say bad things about you. If you slip over into lawlessness of any kind you will lose the sympathy of 120 million people in this nation.

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