17 January 2012
Occupied Washington: 1932 and 2011
In what Reuters calls "a sign of renewed vigor," as many as "several hundred" people, including members of a persistent Occupation and sympathizers from across the country, carried out roving demonstrations and confrontations in the nation's capital today. While I credit the D.C. Occupiers for holding out for so long, thanks largely to an indulgent National Park Service, I hope I'm not setting an impossible standard by questioning whether "several hundred" people for a national event is a sign of any vigor. We're not exactly talking about the Bonus Army here, although Sally Benson's new pop history volume The Plots Against the President practically invites readers to see the 1932 occupiers as precursors to the movement of 2011-12. Benson's book is historical cheerleading for liberal Democrats, with a heroic FDR in the starring role, though the Bonus Army was not a plot against that or any other President. That episode seems to have been included for the suggestive parallel to present-day Occupations, though for all I know Benson had already finished proofing the thing before Occupy Wall Street broke out. Unlike the Occupiers, whose demands are many yet nebulous, the Bonus Army had a very specific demand: as World War I veterans, they wanted the government to pay out the bonuses originally promised for 1945 as an emergency relief measure. Reactionaries claimed alternately that the marchers were communist impostors or simply dupes manipulated by communist infiltrators. As Benson notes, Communists were involved in the movement, but the march and encampment hardly qualify as a communist conspiracy. Nevertheless, just as some congressmen would like to see happen today, the U.S. Army drove the protesters out of their encampments with horses, tanks, bayonets, swords and guns. Despite apparently widespread public support for the Bonus Army, both President Hoover and Roosevelt opposed an early bonus payment. Congress had to override an FDR veto to finally release the money in 1936. Roosevelt preferred to put the veterans to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps. At least he gave them jobs. That option would be unacceptable to the majority in the House of Representatives now. Of course, I don't suppose people yelled "Get a job!" at the Bonus marchers eighty years ago. Less than three years after the Crash of 1929, most Americans probably knew the score. What about now? I get the feeling, despite Reuters, that "Occupy" is already becoming last year's news. In Albany they have a lovely storefront that used to be an art gallery, in a far less conspicuous location than they had last fall. They can be ignored pretty easily. Is it that things today aren't as bad as in 1932, or does the average American simply care less for his fellow average Americans? You can probably answer both ways -- but for how much longer?