June 24, 2018
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Occupy, circa-1932

The Occupy Wall Street movement holds something in common with another movement that chose to take up residence on public property.

In 1932, 43,000 people marched on and occupied Washington, D.C., demanding an early cash payment of the bonus they were promised for serving in World War I. The so-called Bonus Army members — about 17,000 veterans, marching with their families — were due to get their bonuses in 1945, but the ravages of the Great Depression left many veterans desperate for the money.

The term Hooverville had already been coined for encampments of destitute people around the country, a shot at the unpopular Republican president Herbert Hoover who was perceived as oblivious to the struggles of the newly impoverished. After arriving in the Capitol that spring, the veterans and their families built a Hooverville in a swampy area near the Anacostia River just outside the center of the capital. The shacks were built from material found in a nearby dump.

The vets summoned their military backgrounds and laid out streets, built bathroom and trash facilities and marched daily. They allowed only vets who could prove they had been honorably discharged to join the makeshift village.

The vets assembled at the Capitol on June 17 when the Senate defeated a bill that would have issued early payment of the bonus.

Later that summer, the attorney general ordered the Bonus Army evicted from government property. The officer in charge of the eviction was Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Maj. Dwight Eisenhower, who was elected president in 1952, was one of the general’s junior aides. “I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch not to go down there,” Eisenhower later said.

In the struggle between veterans and police, two vets were shot and later died. The protesters were driven out and their camps and belongings burned.

In 1936, Congress overrode President Franklin Roosevelt’s veto of a bill to pay the vets early, and so they got their cash. But it was a dark moment in the often shameful history of the federal government’s bad treatment of those it sent into war.

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