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Bonuses, Then and Now

The Rain of Riches


In December, 2006, Goldman Sachs, a Wall Street financial services company, announced a sixteen and a half billion dollar bonus for its 26,500 employees, an average of $623,418 per employee. Their newly appointed CEO received a bonus of $52,000,000.

With the rain of riches falling upon Wall Street these days, the practice of distributing rewards at the top is picking up steam. CEOs and executives at Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley are receiving bonuses as high as $60 million. The manna from heaven continues to fall, and the optimists just want to let the good times roll. They see the benefits of Capitalism unending. Halleluiah! We’re on a bonus march!

The very thought of it takes your breath away and also takes you back to the days of the original bonus marchers.

In May of 1924, the US Congress voted a cash bonus to the veterans of World War I. Because the money wasn’t readily at hand, they devised a delayed bonus structure, the money to be paid out in twenty years, around 1944 and 1945.

But in the spring and summer of 1932, in the depth of the "unexpected" Great Depression, the veterans petitioned the government for part payment of their bonuses to provide some relief for those whose jobs and income took a dive as a result of the collapsed economy.

Although the Congress went along with the idea and passed a bill that would allow veterans to borrow up to 50% of the certificate value of their bonuses, then Republican President Herbert Hoover, not being a big "tax and spend" man, vetoed the bill.

This raised hell with the veterans. Led by Walter W. Waters, a former Army petty officer, 60,000 World War I vets, many with their families, descended on Washington from across the country. They massed at the Capitol building and threw together improvised camps around the city that came to be known as Hoovervilles, the largest of which was in Anacostia Flats, a swampy area not far from downtown Washington. >From these encampments they harassed the government relentlessly for payment of their bonuses.

The harassment did not last long. The Hoover Administration panicked. This was Bolshevik time and they saw the hairy hand of communism in a raised fist.

The Washington police attempted to remove some Bonus Army protesters from a federal construction site. The police fatally shot two veterans in the process and the protesters retaliated with blunt weapons, wounding several police and a riot ensued.

This made the District of Columbia commissioners very antsy. They notified Hoover that they could no longer maintain the peace, whereupon Hoover ordered federal troops in to remove the marchers from the general area.

And who were the officers to whom Hoover entrusted this job? No less than the future heroes of World War II. Under the overall command of General Douglas MacArthur, the marchers were cleared and their camps destroyed by George S. Patton, then a Major from Fort Myer, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, a member of MacArthur’s staff.

They sent in troops with tear gas and bayonets drawn. They marched their troops across the Anacostia River, into the largest of the veteran protesters’ encampments. The protesters were given the moniker of "Bonus Expeditionary Force" to lay on them some kind of pejorative image of an imperial army come to do battle. The government troops burned down the veterans’ tents and shacks, cleared and destroyed their camps. Thousands of veterans were driven out of town, many were injured, and two were killed. Two infants died from gas asphyxiation, an eleven year old boy was partially blinded by tear gas, one bystander was shot in the shoulder and one veteran’s ear was severed by a Cavalry saber. Twelve police were injured. More than 1000 men, women and children were exposed to the tear gas. This might not sound too bad for the amount of havoc that was wrought, but as much as anything else, it landed Herbert Hoover’s image in the gutter.

Hoover’s side of the story turned up, years later, in his memoir published by The Macmillan Company in 1952. Hoover says:

"many Democratic speakers in the (Presidential) campaign of 1932 implied that I had murdered veterans on the streets of Washington. As abundantly proved later on, the march was, in considerable part, organized and promoted by the Communists and included a large number of hoodlums and ex-convicts determined to raise a public disturbanceit was of interest to learn in after years from the Communist confessions that they also had put on a special battery of speakers to help Roosevelt in his campaign by use of this incident"

Sound familiar? Where have we heard that kind of rationale before? Maybe from the Bush Administration, if you substitute the word "terrorist" for "Communist"?

The operative word here may be "Capitalism". Its nature is to boom and bust.

The system allows for the kind of conditions that produced both the bonuses distributed by Goldman Sachs in December of 2006 and the fight for theirs by the veteran protesters in the bonus marches of 1932. There have been many changes in the nature of capitalism in those intervening years. If Karl Marx were alive and well today, and living in America, he might not even recognize the economic system that he critiqued and analyzed in Das Kapital, when he wrote it in 1867. It wasn’t a bad call. Starting with primitive capital accumulation to feed the Industrial Revolution, small commodity production developed. It was a snowball rolling down hill. Mergers and acquisitions were the inevitable result. Monopoly, imperialism and war followed, stimulated by the grab for raw materials from less developed areas around the world. The creation of surplus value and profit, of course, was the key to it all. Marx might not have believed the working class would have allowed it to have gotten this bad. The amount of profit being raked in by the corporate class is obscene. It certainly would have boggled his mind.

The coming world economic crisis is long past due. It wouldn’t be just a stock market crash. It would be the total collapse of the house-of-cards still called "capitalism" today. All that is needed is a single spark-like China calling in its paper-the debt that the US has accumulated to finance the Iraq war and other catastrophes.

When the collapse comes, the question is, will there be enough time and enough of the natural world left to start rebuilding a new kind of society that has been demonized for generations called "socialism".

STEPHEN FLEISCHMAN, television writer-director-producer, spent thirty years in Network News at CBS and ABC, starting in 1953. In 1959, he participated in the formation of the renowned Murrow-Friendly "CBS Reports" series. In 1983, Fleischman won the prestigious Columbia University-Dupont Television Journalism Award. In 2004, he wrote his memoir. See:, E-mail: