I have written previously about how Franklin D. Roosevelt was a significant change from the orthodoxies the past three presidents had followed, indeed, some of the past orthodoxies all the previous presidents had followed. Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover believed in a cooperative relationship between government and business, with the former two being more free market in their overall orientation. Franklin D. Roosevelt was interested in putting restraints on business and expanding government, effectively creating the modern federal apparatus we have today. Although many of his programs would either be held unconstitutional or be ended by Congress, FDR’s legacies remain in Social Security, the federal minimum wage, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and our country’s agricultural policies. The left loved Roosevelt (and still does) for good ideological reasons while the right despised Roosevelt and had good ideological reasons to do so. All this being said, there was an area in which Roosevelt didn’t depart from his predecessors. This issue was veterans bonus legislation, which was supported by many who also supported the New Deal.
A History of the Bonus Issue
World War I had been a horrendously destructive war, and many of the soldiers who returned home wanted immediate cash payments for some of their benefits. This measure was pushed by the American Legion, typically a conservative veterans organization. President Warren G. Harding feared that this would be a fiscal bomb and would endanger the fiscal viability of the income tax cuts he strongly supported. He had successfully made his case before the Senate against one version in 1921, but Congress passed another version in 1922, which he vetoed. This proposed measure was quite popular and opposition to it was politically costly, which disturbed Republicans who valued reelection over principle on this issue. Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, followed his lead by vetoing another bonus measure in 1924 which instead of immediate cash payments provided the veteran with a bonuses that they couldn’t redeem until 1945. Congress had become less conservative after the 1922 midterms, and overrode his veto.
The issue returned with force during the Great Depression, in which many veterans wanted a payout of their benefits to help their strained finances. This was a dreaded fiscal prospect for the federal government, which already had lost significant revenue due to decreased economic activity. The Bonus Army marched on Washington to demonstrate for a bonus, with its members camping out in tents outside of the White House. Although the House passed the Patman Bonus Bill, the Senate rejected it to the consternation of the Bonus Army. The Hoover Administration chose to pay the marcher’s costs for going home, but 2000 marchers chose to remain. The Hoover Administration’s handling of these remaining marchers ended in a PR disaster when Hoover ordered the Army to clear the campsite, with General MacArthur driving the remaining bonus marchers out. This, along with the Depression and his stance for maintaining Prohibition cost him reelection. Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected with a mandate, but the veterans were still out there and still wanted their bonuses. Roosevelt, like the leaders before him, had other ideas.
FDR and the Bonus Bill
President Roosevelt had managed to get Congress to pass the Economy Act, which intended to shore up funds for New Deal programs by, among other things, dismissing federal employees and cutting veterans benefits. One of the earliest significant fights Congress had with Roosevelt was on prioritizing New Deal funding over veterans benefits. However, when confronting the bonus marchers, FDR was more politically skillful, having the First Lady come out to meet and chat with the marchers instead of employing military force. Roosevelt feared the expensive nature of bonus legislation and that such expenses would cut into funds for his New Deal programs. On his opposition to bonus legislation, he was supported unusually by conservative Republicans and Democrats most committed to his economy program. In 1935, the American legion managed to convince Congress to vote for Congressman Wright Patman’s (D-Tex.) bill, which called for immediate payout of veterans benefits. FDR vetoed the bill, and Congress failed to override. However, as the 1936 election came closer, more people in Congress were convinced to vote for this measure. Congress was able to vote to override FDR’s second veto that year, and World War I veterans were able to collect on their benefits nine years early.
Bonus Marchers evicted by U.S. Army. History.com.
World War I Veterans Bonus Bill. U.S. House of Representatives.