July 26, 2007

Pennsylvania Avenue Protests and the ‘Battle of Washington’

Bonus Army marchers gather on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on July 4, 1932. (Corbis)
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Bonus Army marchers gather on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on July 4, 1932. (Corbis)

World War I veterans camp out on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in July 1932. (Library of Congress)
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World War I veterans camp out on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in July 1932. (Library of Congress)

This Bonus Army shack was located behind a building at 336 Pennsylvania Ave. (Library of Congress)
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This Bonus Army shack was located behind a building at 336 Pennsylvania Ave. (Library of Congress)

Bonus Army members fight with local police. (National Archives and Records Administration)
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Bonus Army members fight with local police. (National Archives and Records Administration)

U.S. Army troops hurled tear gas grenades into this encampment. (Courtesy The Associated Press)
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U.S. Army troops hurled tear gas grenades into this encampment. (Courtesy The Associated Press)

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur, left, directs Bonus Army evacuation. (Library of Congress)
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Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur, left, directs Bonus Army evacuation. (Library of Congress)

Bonus Army marchers throw stones and bricks. (Courtesy The Associated Press)
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Bonus Army marchers throw stones and bricks. (Courtesy The Associated Press)

Seventy-five years ago this past week, a news story of immense proportions gripped the nation when federal authorities clashed with more than 20,000 unemployed World War I veterans who came to Washington in 1932 to seek early payment of promised wartime bonuses. For months, news organizations had covered the veterans, known as the “Bonus Army,” as they traveled across the country to the nation’s capital.

Most of the protesters arrived in early June. They camped out in tents, shanties and abandoned federal buildings, some of which were near the site of the current Newseum. The protest began peacefully, as the Bonus Army marched up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol to demand their payments. But the federal government, beset by the same Depression-era finances that motivated the marchers, refused their requests.

On July 28, after nearly two months of stalemate, the Treasury Department ordered the protesters to vacate the government buildings. As cranes with wrecking balls moved in, local police confronted the veterans, who were armed with bricks and clubs. In the melee that followed, police fatally shot two veterans.

The U.S. Army stepped in, led by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur, with two aides who later became famous, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton Jr. Tanks moved down Pennsylvania Avenue, while cavalry and infantry troops, armed with bayonets, hurled tear-gas grenades at the protesters.

Soldiers set the veterans’ shanties on fire, with smoke nearly obscuring the Capitol. Newsreel cameras filmed the wreckage and fighting, which came to be known as the “Battle of Washington.”

The demonstrators were pushed out of the city, but veterans finally received their bonuses in 1936, after Congress overruled President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth veto.

The Bonus Army is one of the many protests and processions featured in an exhibit rail on the Newseum’s Pennsylvania Avenue Terrace, which offers a panoramic view of the historic avenue.

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