From the Desk of J.D. Tuccille: The True Story of the Bonus Army

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The following is by J.D. Tuccille, a contributing editor at Reason magazine, writing about issues of personal freedom and state power. He is the son of author Jerome Tuccille (1937–2017) who is the author of more than thirty books, including bestselling, highly acclaimed biographies and histories—and most recently, The War Against the Vets: The World War I Bonus Army during the Great Depression (April, Potomac Books).

Why write about the Bonus Army? Who even remembers those abused military veterans today?

An inveterate reader and the author of numerous biographies, histories, and other books in his own right, my father was a life-long fan of Ernest Hemingway. His research on the famous novelist for his book, Hemingway and Gellhorn, took him to that writer’s sometimes-home in Key West and brought to light the tale of the Bonus Army veterans who had been shipped off by the government to work camps and a horrible fate in that distant location. Hemingway had seen those vets in their camps, had witnessed their suffering, and had tried to hold officials to account for their actions.

“Who murdered the vets?” Hemingway demanded in an impassioned 1935 article penned after hundreds of abandoned Bonus Marchers died during a hurricane neglectful officials had been warned was barreling toward the Florida Keys. My father set himself to answering that question, and discovered that hundreds of watery graves were only the final chapter in the long story of abuse suffered by veterans of World War I who had outlived their country’s use for them. They become thorns in the sides of two presidents—Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt—by publicly asking for the bonuses they’d been promised for their military service. They camped out in the nation’s capital and embarrassed the government with their poverty and their simple presence. The veterans also became pawns for radical demagogues who sought to manipulate their discontent for personal benefit. Hoover and FDR responded by sending troops against the veterans’ tent camps, and then by shipping them to distant locations where they’d be out of the public eye, and ultimately silenced by natural disaster.

My father was led to the story by Hemingway’s outrage, but he felt a personal connection, too. He was a veteran of the Marine Corps and a long-time skeptic of government power. The overlooked story of the mistreatment of fellow veterans by officialdom naturally resonated with him. While his experience was in the peace-time military, he couldn’t help but sympathize with other men who’d put on uniforms, and with their families. And, too, he was dying from cancer. A tribute to fellow veterans was a fitting final project. He finished his manuscript just weeks before his life came to a much more peaceful end than that suffered by many of the subjects of his book.

That left me to shepherd The War Against the Vets through the publication process. While no veteran, I’m a journalist who has covered the chaos and scandals at VA hospitals. Inflicting poor medical care and falsified waiting lists on veterans isn’t quite so dramatic as sending tanks and cavalry under the command of General Douglas MacArthur against them, but such treatment demonstrates the continuing relevance of the story of the Bonus Army and of politicians’ ongoing disdain for those who fight their wars.

The Bonus Army story is one that needs to be revisited because, in important ways, it never really came to a conclusion.

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