Remembering The ‘Bonus Army’: When Tanks Rolled Into Washington, D.C., To Roll Over Unemployed War Veterans

Tanks rolled into Washington, D.C., for Donald Trump's Fourth of July extravaganza, but they have been used in the nation's capital before.

A tank parks outside the Lincoln Memorial.
Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Tanks rolled into Washington, D.C., for Donald Trump's Fourth of July extravaganza, but they have been used in the nation's capital before.

As part of Donald Trump’s “Salute to America” Fourth of July extravaganza, military tanks appeared in Washington, D.C. In this case, a pair of two M1A2 Abrams tanks, which weigh 73 tons each, according to the United States Army, as well as Bradley tanks moved in. The appearance of the tanks marks the first time that tanks have rolled through the streets of the nation’s capital city since 1991.

The last time tanks rolled through Washington, as The Los Angeles Times reported, on June 8, 1991, came under the presidency of George H.W. Bush as part of a “victory parade” following the end of the first Iraq war. But even then, though 200,000 spectators showed up to view the military parade, some veterans found the display of military hardware inappropriate, with one telling The Times he felt that the parade was “sort of a campaign boost for Bush and the Republicans.”

The same criticism has been made of Trump’s July 4 event, at which he is scheduled to give a speech expected to be so political in nature that Slate legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick questioned whether the speech may actually be an illegal violation of the Hatch Act.

Tanks have also appeared in Washington as part of several presidential inaugurations, though not since 1961, according to USA Today, when they were paraded through the streets for the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.

But the first time that tanks appeared in Washington, D.C., they were used for a more violent purpose — to drive out a group of American military war veterans who came to Washington to protest over unpaid bonuses, as, USHistory.org chronicles, with the rout led by one of the United States’ most famous generals, Douglas MacArthur.

Douglas MacArthur salutes
U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur. Keystone / Getty Images

Following World War I, veterans who held any rank as high as major and who had served at least 60 days were granted a cash bonus by Congress of up to $500 — about $7,500 in 2019 value — depending on their length of service, according to a history by WorldWar1. But when the Great Depression hit, the fund used to pay the bonuses went deeply into debt at the same time that thousands of veterans, many of whom found themselves jobless upon returning from the war, needed the money more than ever.

Traveling by railway car, by foot, or any way they could get there, about 20,000 unemployed veterans came to Washington, D.C., in 1932, settling into “camps” where they served as “the symbol of the forgotten man,” according to historian Lucy Barber, as quoted by The Washington Post. They were described as the “Bonus Army.”

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Bonus Army marches fight police.
Washington, D.C., police attack ‘Bonus Army’ military veterans in July 1932. National Archives / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

On July 28, 1932, police had seen enough of the veterans and began an operation to drive them out of their encampments, but the veterans fought back and refused to depart. And that is when MacArthur took over, according to a history by The Washington Post.

MacArthur assembled 200 soldiers mounted on horseback as well as infantry and five tanks. The tanks and troops rolled through one of what had become three Bonus Army camps. President Herbert Hoover, while initially hesitant about MacArthur’s action, then chose to give MacArthur his full support, declaring that “a challenge to the authority of the United States Government has been met, swiftly and firmly,” as quoted by Historynet.