The 1930s: Challenging Times

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This year’s installment provides some historical background and highlights of important issues and events that affected disabled veterans and their families during the 1930s. The Great Depression and an often hostile political climate made the DAV’s second decade of service one of our most challenging.

During one of America’s most daunting times the government turned its back on veterans as the nation plunged into the Great Depression at the start of the 1930s.

The Disabled American Veterans of the World War, as the organization was first known, continued working through the decade to secure the well-being of disabled veterans; although these efforts were troubled by fundraising challenges and the desire of the public to put the war behind them.

While the DAVWW sought ways to raise monies to continue serving its membership, many wondered if the nation would survive. Although the United States had little history of massive social upheaval or coup attempts against the government, hunger has an ominous way of stirring those passions among any population. As bread riots and shantytowns grew in number, many began to seek alternatives to the status quo. Demonstrations in the nation’s capital increased as Americans grew ever more weary with President Hoover’s perceived inaction. The demonstration that drew the most national attention was the Bonus Army March of 1932.

President Hoover
President Hoover

Back in 1924, Congress “rewarded” World War I veterans with certificates redeemable for $1,000 each. By 1932, many of these veterans had lost their jobs and fortunes in the early days of the Depression. High unemployment also created a tax revenue problem for the government. As revenue became scarce, a crisis developed with regard to the $2.4 billion Bonus Bill. A “Bonus Army” of some 20,000 unemployed veterans hopped freight trains, drove and hiked from every corner of the country to set up camp in Washington within view of the Capitol building, vowing to stay until Congress passed a bill providing full and immediate payment of their bonus certificates. But on June 17 the Senate voted down the bill, known as the Patman Resolution.

Although President Hoover refused to address the veterans, a congressional delegation agreed to hear them out. Soon a debate began in the Congress over whether to meet the demonstrators’ demands.

As deliberations continued on Capitol Hill, the Bonus Army built a shantytown across the Potomac River in Anacostia—just a few miles from where the DAV’s National Service and Legislative Headquarters now sits. When the Senate rejected their demands, most of the veterans disappointedThe Bonus Army reportedly behaved well and spent their vigil unarmed.

But with a growing belief that the veterans posed a threat to national security, an order was given on July 28 to clear the demonstrators out of the capital.

In the shadow of the U.S. Capitol and with President Hoover watching through a window in the White House, U.S. soldiers beat veterans and burned their camp. Two men were killed as tear gas and bayonets assailed the Bonus Marchers. An Army regiment was sent into the city, under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur, complete with infantry, cavalry and six tanks. MacArthur then ordered the shanty settlements and the veterans’ belongings burned.

An estimated 20 percent of the Bonus Marchers were disabled veterans.

Corbly

As Hoover campaigned for reelection that summer, his actions turned an already sour public opinion of him even further bottomward. He was defeated in the 1932 election by Franklin D. Roosevelt in a landslide. But FDR also opposed the bonus demands.

A second, smaller Bonus March in 1933 was defused with promises instead of military action. President Roosevelt provided the marchers with a campsite in Virginia and provided them three meals a day. Roosevelt arranged for his wife, Eleanor, to visit the site unaccompanied. She broke bread with the veterans and listened to them perform songs. She reminisced about her memories of seeing troops off to World War I and welcoming them home. The most she could offer was a promise of positions in the newly created Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

“Hoover sent the Army, Roosevelt sent his wife,” a veteran was quoted telling the Washington Post. In a press conference following her visit, the First Lady described her reception as courteous and praised the marchers, highlighting how comfortable she felt despite critics of the marchers who described them as Communists and criminals.

President Roosevelt later issued an executive order allowing the enrollment of 25,000 veterans in the CCC, exempting them from the normal requirement that applicants be unmarried and under the age of 25.

Congress passed the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act in 1936 authorizing the immediate payment of the World War I bonuses. President Roosevelt vetoed it, but Congress overrode the veto and finally paid the veterans.

As the nation struggled to survive, the DAVWW’s recently established Service Fund Committee studied the possibility of creating a new trust fund. The National Organization could then use principal and interest from this fund from time to time, as needed, to maintain its nationwide service and legislative programs. But the Service Fund Committee found difficulties during its first couple of years maintaining continuity of policy and personnel. For that reason, the National Executive Committee provided the authority to form “an incorporated board of trustees and to have the DAVWW enter into a trust agreement with such incorporated board of trustees.”

In 1931, the Disabled American Veterans Service Foundation was born, the forerunner of the organization we know today as the DAV National Service Foundation. Its first board of directors included Herman H. Weimer, Millard W. Rice, Crab Corbly, William Tate and Paul M. Millikin.

At the time, the Foundation was the fundraising arm of the National Organization and its Chapters. It no longer fulfills such a comprehensive role, but its official mission remains developing financial resources in support of the goals and purpose of the DAV.

Contributions to the National Service Foundation strengthened our service programs in many ways while helping to ensure the future of those programs.

At the height of the Depression, the National Economy League was formed, which proved to be detrimental to the DAVWW. Featuring many prominent citizens in its leadership, the League was influential in Washington and received very favorable coverage in the media as it fought against instances of what it saw as “excessive spending.”

Despite the efforts of the DAVWW and other veterans’ groups, the National Economy League’s questionable statistics and tactics swayed the American public and both political parties.

DAVWW National Commander William Conley and other veterans’ leaders were angry. American Legion spokesman John Thomas Taylor charged that the League was running a “cunning and canny campaign of misrepresentation.”

Immediately after his inauguration in 1933, President Roosevelt declared a national bank holiday and called for a special session of Congress. In fewer than eight hours, emergency legislation addressing the banking crisis was rammed through the U. S. Senate and the House of Representatives.

President Roosevelt quickly submitted the next item on his agenda, a bill demanding reduction of government expenses, including cutting veterans’ pensions. President Roosevelt imposed the Economy Act of 1933, which cut veterans’ disability allowances by 25 percent.

President Roosevelt continued his economy program. Some disabled veterans, who had been supporting their families on $60 to $80 a month, were told through the mail they were no longer eligible for funds and were cut off. Thus, the New Deal became a raw deal for many disabled veterans.

The DAVWW went on the offensive, gaining the assistance of Congressman A.L. Bulwinkle to lead the fight. Telegrams went to DAVWW leaders across country, urging them to seek help from their members of Congress. The Bulwinkle motion passed, but it took until 1948 to win back what the Economy Act had taken away.

While the chaos surrounding the Bonus Bill and the Economy League occupied the newspapers, Congress recognized the DAVWW’s unique and outstanding service on June 17, 1932, issuing a federal charter to the organization.

“This document recognized the organization as the official voice of the nation’s wartime disabled veterans,” said National Adjutant Arthur H. Wilson. “The Depression was a horrible experience for the nation, but it did help disabled veterans realize that they needed the DAV.”

Douglas MacArthur&Dwight Eisenhower

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, center, and Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower, right, were assigned the task of breaking up the Bonus Army.

The DAVWW’s membership stood stable at 42,500 by the time the delegates gathered for the 1939 National Convention where Lewis J. Murphy was elected Commander. During Murphy’s administration, the DAVWW initiated what was to become the foundation of the organization’s membership stability and growth—the Life Membership Program. Under this plan, members who invested $100 had the cost of their dues covered for the rest of their lives.

The Great Depression had a traumatic effect worldwide. In response, authoritarian regimes emerged in several countries in Europe, in particular the Third Reich in Germany. Weaker states such as Ethiopia, China and Poland were invaded by expansionist world powers.

As events leading to World War II took shape, a new Selective Training and Service Bill was brought before Congress, calling for the first peacetime draft in the nation’s history. Once again, the country was preparing for war, and it wasn’t long before the DAVWW began to prepare for the inevitable human costs.