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On July 28, 1932, President Herbert Hoover dispatched federal troops and tanks to disperse the “Bonus Army,” tens of thousands of jobless World War I veterans and their families who’d been protesting in the nation’s capital. The troops used tear gas. Two men and two infants were reported dead. As one of the first major protests in which the American government used tear gas—which is considered a weapon of war—on its own citizens, the Bonus Army incident created public outrage, ruining any chance of Hoover’s reelection. For the chemical companies trying to sell tear gas to law enforcement, however, the Bonus Army was a successful demonstration of their product.

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As protests against police brutality have spread across the U.S. in June 2020, police in at least 100 American cities have used tear gas on protestors—despite a ban on its use in international warfare. Research also indicates that tear gas may make people more susceptible to respiratory illnesses, which could include the novel coronavirus. From government claims of outside agitators, to the backdrop of widespread unemployment, to the public outcry at law enforcement’s show of force, the Bonus Army protests share many similarities with the unrest erupting across America today.

The Bonus Expeditionary Force, as the movement was officially named, arrived in Washington, D.C., in the late spring of 1932. The protest began in Portland, Oregon, where a former army sergeant named Walter W. Waters organized a group of some 250 veterans to travel to Washington and demand the immediate payout of the bonuses they were owed under the World War Adjusted Compensation Act. Passed in 1924, that law promised to compensate veterans with wages they’d lost while fighting in the war, with $1.25 per day of service for veterans stationed overseas, and $1.00 per day for domestic service.

However, the vets weren’t going to receive the money, which totaled roughly $1,000 per person, until 1945. As Waters’ group’s cross-country sojourn caught the attention of the press, veterans around the country, jobless and desperate, decided to join him—walking, hitchhiking, and hopping freight trains to get to Washington.

The first group of Bonus Army marchers arrived on May 23. Over the next two months, about 25,000 more joined them. As the historians Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen write in Washington History, the out-of-work veterans set up “racially integrated shantytowns in the midst of a segregated city.” They occupied vacant federal buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue and built shelters from scavenged lumber and scrap metal along the Anacostia Flats, muddy swampland across the Anacostia River from the capitol. They even created their own daily paper, The B.E.F. Army News, which they sold to raise money for food and cigarettes. The Anacostia Flats encampment became one of the largest “Hoovervilles,” or tent cities, in the nation, with 15,000 residents, including about 1,100 women and children.

On June 15, after a dramatic debate in which Representative Edward Eslick of Tennessee died of a heart attack on the floor while arguing in favor of the bill, the House of Representatives passed the World War Veterans Bonus Bill, which would offer immediate payouts. A few days later, however, the bill was defeated in the Senate, and about 8,000 veterans gathered in front of the Capitol to sing “America.” Waters declared that the protestors would “stay here until 1945 if necessary to get our bonus.” As John Dos Passos reported for The New Republic:

The arrival of the Bonus Army seems to be the first event to give the inhabitants of Washington any inkling that something is happening in the world outside of their drowsy sun parlor.

That “inkling” rapidly became unease. By late July, President Hoover and his administration began to fear revolt, believing that the Bonus Army was harboring communist radicals. The administration decided to evict the downtown encampments from the vacant government buildings, which were scheduled for demolition.

The Bonus Army, a demonstration largely made up of World War I veterans and their families, gathers in Washington DC to demand early cash redemption of their service certificates during the Great Depression, 1932.
The Bonus Army, a demonstration largely made up of World War I veterans and their families, gathers in Washington DC to demand early cash redemption of their service certificates during the Great Depression, 1932 Getty

On July 28, a group of police officers were sent to remove the veterans, who refused to leave and began throwing bricks at the policemen. The fight escalated, and a policeman panicked and shot two of the veterans. Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur was called to send backup, and dispatched five tanks, 200 mounted cavalry, and 300 infantrymen. Downtown Washington D.C. was soon filled with fires and black clouds of smoke from tear gas grenades.

According to the historian Donald J. Lisio, writing in The Wisconsin Magazine of History, President Hoover claimed that he had only ordered the Bonus Army’s removal from the downtown business district. It was an overeager MacArthur who defied orders and expelled all protestors from D.C., pushing them into Maryland and allegedly burning their Anacostia camp, believing that the “rioters were actually communist insurrectionists bent upon executing a well-planned, bloody coup d’etat.” Hoover assured the press that “subversive influences” had gained control of the Bonus Army and “inaugurated and organized” the riot.

Official government reports of the Bonus Army riot also claimed there was only one infant death, due to natural causes rather than asphyxiation from the tear gas. But, as the historian Anna Feigenbaum writes in Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today, the Bonus Army pushed back against what they saw as a cover-up effort, writing a satirical song called “No Undue Violence,” which included the verse:

“We used no undue violence”—
So, Baby Myers, be still!
Though it isn’t quite plain
To your little brain
You were gassed with the best of will!

Trying to mitigate a PR disaster, the administration shifted strategies. Instead of trying to prove communist infiltration of the Bonus Army, they tried to cast the group as rife with criminals. But police records indicate that there was less crime in June or July than in August, after the Bonus Army was evicted.

The violent breakup of the Bonus Army was the climax, on a very public stage, of a decade of tear gas marketing and riot-busting. Allison C. Meier, writing in this publication, notes how, during the American social unrest that followed war, such as white-led violence against African Americans during the Red Summer of 1919, “law enforcement agencies saw in tear gas an opportunity to shift control from the masses to a few police officers.”

 Overview of Bonus Army camp, 1932
Overview of Bonus Army camp, 1932 via Flickr

This “public violence,” combined with the Chemical Warfare Service’s desire to prove its relevance in peacetime, fueled the production and demand for tear gas, which the CWS had developed during the war. After the armistice, the War Department prohibited the use of tear gas against civilians, blocking the CWS from supplying tear gas grenades to federal troops. Notably, the ban was temporarily lifted when opportunities arose to demonstrate the effectiveness of tear gas in controlling labor strikes.

The historian Daniel P. Jones writes in Technology and Culture that, in August 1921, when the governor of West Virginia requested federal assistance with a coal miners’ strike that had turned violent, federal troops were dispatched along with 1,000 chloroacetophenone-filled grenades and 350 mortar shells. However, the presence of the troops caused the miners to peacefully surrender, without tear gas grenades being fired. In July 1922, the CWS again lifted its ban and authorized federal troops to use tear gas to restore order during nationwide railroad workers’ strikes.

Meanwhile, private firms run by former officers of the CWS, like the Lake Erie Chemical Company, were demonstrating and selling tear gas to police departments around the country. The CWS could send these companies small amounts of chloroacetophenone to aid in “research and development” without violating War Department rules. And they could, in turn, supply the National Guard.

Ultimately, the standoff with the Bonus Army decimated public trust in Hoover’s administration, and contributed to his resounding defeat by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in November’s election. The veterans finally got their payments in 1936, and the activism of the Bonus Army helped spur the passage of the GI Bill of Rights in 1944.

But there was another unintended consequence of the Bonus Army’s legacy. As Anna Feigenbaum writes in Tear Gas:

…for police chiefs, industrial owners, and consulates around the world, the eviction of the Bonus Army was an opportunity to demonstrate the power of their riot-control products.

The Edgewood Arsenal, a weapons factory and military research site for chemical agents in Maryland, referred to the Bonus Army protests as the “largest practical field test” of tear gas. The Lake Erie Chemical Company, which was founded by a veteran of the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service, became one of the largest postwar producers of tear gas. Lake Erie included photos of the protests in their product catalogs. The ad copy promised “an irresistible blast of blinding, choking pain” that would “produce no permanent injury.”

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Washington History, Vol. 19/20 (2007/2008), pp. 86-96
Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Autumn, 1967), pp. 37-50
Wisconsin Historical Society
Technology and Culture, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Apr., 1978), pp. 151-168
The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for the History of Technology