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Remembering the Hoovervilles of 1932

July 24, 2011|By LLOYD WATERS

It was the spring of 1932, and veterans of World War I were camped in a Hooverville (a shanty town built by the homeless and named after President Hoover) near Anacostia in a muddy field. They had constructed tents from any piece of debris they could find at a local dump and had settled in to protest the government’s refusal to pay them their promised war bonuses.

Some 17,000 veterans with their respective families and children, which inflated the number of campers to some 40,000, had arrived in Washington.

The Great Depression was under way. High unemployment rates and a poor economy plagued the land. Those war veterans who were prepared to offer up their lives many years before now wanted what they deserved.

Some members of Congress had empathy for the veterans and wanted to pay them, while President Hoover and his Republican allies opposed giving the veterans any money. In a vote on June 15, the House of Representatives supported payment of the bonuses. The senate, however, defeated the Bonus bill on June 17.

The protesting campers refused to leave their tents.

The response of President Hoover on July 28, 1932, was to send in the police to break up the campsites. Policemen shot and killed two of the World War I veterans, and afterwards, Hoover sent in the Army under the command of Gen. MacArthur and George Patton to disperse the campers.

Although Hoover would win the battle, in the end, he would lose the war when he was soundly defeated in 1932 by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was also opposed to the demands of the veterans for payment of the bonuses, but in May 1933, he did, however, send his wife Eleanor to talk to the veterans at a designated campsite he provided for the group in Virginia. Eleanor promised the group her support in securing some jobs for them in the newly created Civilian Conservation Corps.

The comments of one veteran suggested a different political approach: “Hoover sent the army, while Roosevelt sent his wife.”

President Roosevelt, true to his promise, allowed the enrollment of some 25,000 veterans into the Civilian Conservation Corps.

In 1936, Congress overrode President Roosevelt's veto and passed the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act, authorizing the immediate payment of some $2 billion in WWI bonuses.

As the notion is planted into the minds of seniors that their Social Security checks might be withheld because of the political fiasco in Washington, D.C., I can imagine a day when they might travel to Washington to protest their own treatment.  

As President Obama threatens the meager livelihood of our elders by throwing out the suggestion that Social Security checks might not go out in August, he should remember the action of President Hoover in handling the issue of bonuses with the World War I veterans.

No one wants to see an Obamaville or a Boehnerville.

Congress might also remember a lesson in 1781, when the Continental Army was demobilized without pay. Some two years later, hundreds of Pennsylvania war veterans marched on Philadelphia, which was then the capital and surrounded the State House where the U.S. Congress was in session. The Congress fled for a short time to New Jersey.

While heading into uncertain economic times, our country needs good leadership more than ever. I wish President Reagan and Tip O’Neill were still around.

Using political antics and propaganda to arouse the emotions of the populace is neither smart nor beneficial to the stability of our nation.

One should not think that our civilization in North America is insulated or immune from the protests that seem to be happening in other parts of the world.

Given the right circumstances, I suspect the Hooverville’s of yesteryear might arrive once again, but with a different name.

Lloyd “Pete” Waters is a Sharpsburg resident who writes columns for The Herald-Mail.

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