Golddiggers of 1933 is the best of the great Busby Berkeley musicals, with a clever script and terrific music by Harry Warren (including Ginger Rogers singing We’re in the Money — in pig latin!). The finale of the film is Forgotten Man, a bitter lament in protest of the poverty suffered by veterans of World War I during the early days of the Great Depression, performed by Joan Blondell, Etta Moten, and dozens of chorus girls and boys.
The subject of veteran’s rights and benefits was a timely and contentious one. 30,000 veterans and supporters had marched on Washington the previous summer to demand better treatment. The marchers, who called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, but were called the Bonus Army by news reports, camped in shacks near the capitol. They were asking that a veterans’ bonus, to be granted in 1945, instead be issued immediately, to help veterans left unemployed or bankrupt by the stock market crash. After police shot two of the marchers, veterans attacked with sticks and rocks, and President Hoover called in the National Guard to break up the camp.
Learning of the shooting at lunch, President Hoover ordered the army to clear out the veterans. Infantry and cavalry supported by six tanks were dispatched with Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur in command. Major Dwight D. Eisenhower served as his liaison with Washington police and Major George Patton led the cavalry.
By 4:45 P.M. the troops were massed on Pennsylvania Ave. below the Capitol. Thousands of Civil Service employees spilled out of work and lined the streets to watch. The veterans, assuming the military display was in their honor, cheered. Suddenly Patton’s troopers turned and charged. “Shame, Shame” the spectators cried. Soldiers with fixed bayonets followed, hurling tear gas into the crowd.
By nightfall the BEF had retreated across the Anacostia River where Hoover ordered MacArthur to stop. Ignoring the command, the general led his infantry to the main camp. By early morning the 10,000 inhabitants were routed and the camp in flames. Two babies died and nearby hospitals overwhelmed with casualties. Eisenhower later wrote, “the whole scene was pitiful. The veterans were ragged, ill-fed, and felt themselves badly abused. To suddenly see the whole encampment going up in flames just added to the pity” (from “The Bonus Army” on the EyeWitness to History pages).
The image of U.S. troops attacking impoverished veterans outraged a large part of the public, and was one of the many reasons that Hoover and the Republican party lost re-election. The Bonus Army succeeded in influencing legislation under the following congress, ultimately leading to the granting of an early bonus in 1936, and the enactment of the GI Bill in 1944. Their march on Washington also served as a prototype for political activists in the future.