Eleanor Roosevelt: The Bonus Army

In 1933, when Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt became the First Family, the Great Depression was strangling the country.

The USA: 1933

After the stock market crash in October, 1929, it took some time for the economy to be seriously felt across the country. People were concerned of course, but the deep, deep troubles did not become readily apparent for several months.

Then people started losing jobs. Factories were closing. Mines were closing. Farmers, who already suffered for a decade, were failing badly, now hit by dust storms that decimated property. Unemployment was at an all-time high. Starvation threatened entire communities – literally.

The country had undergone economic troubles several times during the past century. People suffered and belts were tightened, but within a couple of years, it turned itself around.

This time was different. Belts were tightened and re-tightened. The Hoover Administration seemed paralyzed as they faced situations never seen before. There were strikes. There was violence. There was widespread unrest, with fears of anarchy and subversiveness.

FDR in car

FDR and his cheery smile!

Hard times seek change, and a cheery Franklin Delano Roosevelt provided a confident grin to assure the country we could weather the storm.

He was easily elected in 1932.

The Bonus Army

Fifteen years earlier, as the United States reluctantly entered the Great War (as it was called prior to WWII), a million soldiers signed up to fight “over there.” Thousands never made it home. Tens of thousands had been permanently injured physically and/or mentally.

In 1924, a grateful Congress voted to grant the veterans a bonus of $500-650 (depending on service), redeemable in 1945, twenty five years after the end of the war. In 1932, $500 was enough to feed a family for a year – or more. Struggling veterans who had lost their jobs clamored to have that bonus redeemed immediately – when the need was so great.

The Bonus Marchers in Washington

In 1932, more than 15,000 veterans, some with families, marched to Washington to demand those bonuses. Calling themselves the Bonus Army, or Bonus Marchers, they built a tent-city at Anacostia Flats, near the White House. President Hoover was personally sympathetic to their distress, but believing it to be a bad precedent, would not meet with them. A Congressional delegation did meet with them, debated the crisis in Congress, and passed an appropriation of around $2 billion.

The Senate rejected the demands since the country did not have that kind of money in the treasury.

As might be expected, some disturbances arose, along with suspicions that subversive interests were afoot. The military – with gas masks and tanks – was sent in to intervene and clear out the rabble, which only exacerbated the situation and left a very bad taste in everyone’s mouth. It also helped account for FDR’s overwhelming victory in November, 1932.

Mrs. FDR

Eleanor Roosevelt in her younger days.

Long before “social work” had become a profession, Eleanor Roosevelt (1883-1961) had been dedicated to helping where help was needed. As a young debutante, she volunteered at the settlement houses on New York’s Lower East Side. She loved being “useful.”

Once her children were of school age, she reactivated her socio-political interests, and joined numerous organizations where her growing political clout could be “useful.” As her husband’s focus during the 1920s was centered primarily on regaining his health, after contracting polio in 1921, it was Eleanor who kept the “Franklin Roosevelt name” in the public eye.

When FDR became Governor of New York, Eleanor was happily surprised when her husband encouraged her to be his eyes and ears. And legs. She traveled extensively, gathered fact-finding information, spoke publicly to a broad range of audiences, and was “useful.”

By the time FDR became President, Eleanor Roosevelt had found a niche – the only problem was how the country as a whole would perceive it. First Ladies were expected to be much more ladylike and not quite so “useful.”

Louis Howe and The Eleanor Visit

FDR didn’t have government money for the Bonus Army any more than Hoover did, nor did he wish to give them preference over thousands and thousands of other needy citizens, but he had perhaps a better personality. Instead of clearing them out with bayonets, he offered them jobs with the newly-created Civilian Conservation Corps. He also relocated them to a better site with decent sanitation and three meals a day. Most of the marchers went back home, but a few thousand stayed and were still bitter.

Louis Howe, indispensable friend and advisor to both Roosevelts.

Louis Howe was a New York newspaperman who first met FDR when the young patrician with a famous name was elected to the NY State Senate. Detecting latent greatness, Howe appointed himself his political “Jiminy Cricket,” and was his devoted aide for the rest of his life. FDR, detecting Howe’s own political brilliance and loyalty, was equally devoted. By the 1920s, with FDR fighting for his health, Howe began grooming and mentoring Eleanor, having detected her own considerable  – and useful – value.

Eleanor Roosevelt and the veterans.

Believing that a visit from Mrs. Roosevelt could be beneficial, The President and Howe looked to their best asset. Eleanor and Louis drove over to their camp, and he suggested she go in. Alone. Always happy to mingle freely with people, she wandered into their camp, oblivious to the mud on her shoes, and told the questioning ex-soldiers she “wanted to see how they were getting on.” She added that while she truly regretted that she could not help monetarily, she was sincerely interested in their welfare.

She stayed for an hour, toured their quarters and the makeshift hospital, and was happy to listen to their reminiscences, and sing Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and some of the other war songs that had become a part of everyone’s repertoire. She told them she would always be grateful to those who had served, and “hoped the country would never have to ask such service again.” The veterans then accompanied her back to the car, and waved as she drove off.

One veteran was reported to have said, “Hoover sent the troops, but Roosevelt sent his Missus.”

Sources:

Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990

Cook, Blanche Wiesen – Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume One 1884-1933 – Viking Press, 1992

Foster, Feather Schwartz – The First Ladies: An Intimate Portrait of the Women Who Shaped America – Sourcebooks, 2011

http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=33

https://blogs.weta.org/boundarystones/2014/09/08/eleanor-roosevelt-and-bonus-marchers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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