Today, Poplar Point is known mostly as a polluted stretch of empty land along the Anacostia that always seems like it’s on the brink of being developed, but for whatever reason, never quite gets there. But not many people remember that, less than a century ago, it was the site of what contemporary authorities considered a legitimate attempt to overthrow the US government.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Poplar Point was just a spit of land, covered in poplar trees and surrounded by wetlands, protruding out into the Anacostia. But the city decided that the mudflats were breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes, and in 1911 filled in the wetlands with sediment dredged from the Anacostia. (And in a nutshell, that’s why Poplar Point is so badly polluted; it was created by piling up dirt dredged from one of the most polluted waterways in the country. In some places, the Anacostia sediment is twenty feet deep, and it will all need to be removed before development there gets underway.) Though the city tried to present the newly-created land as the east side’s Rock Creek Park, the land was used mostly for dumping.
The park was barely twenty years old in 1932, when over 25,000 military veterans marched on Washington, and built a massive shantytown at Poplar Point. The group was called “the Bonus Army,” because they’d come to demand early payment of their military bonuses. Back then, ex-soldiers were given money upon discharge to make up the difference between what they made as soldiers and what they could’ve made as civilians. After World War 1, so many American soldiers were owed bonuses, that the government had to give them bonus certificates instead of cash. The certificates, worth about $8800 in today’s money, accrued compound interest, but couldn’t be cashed until 1945. This wasn’t really a problem until the Great Depression hit, and thousands of veterans found themselves jobless and broke. Hence the march.
The problem was, the total face value of all the bonus certificates was over $3 billion, a hard sum to come up with back then, even for the government. President Hoover stalled. In the meantime, the Bonus Army built a small city at Poplar Point, complete with streets, bathroom facilities, and houses made of materials scavenged from the nearby dump, and vowed not to leave until they were paid.
In June of 1932, the House passed a bill to pay the veterans early, but it failed in the Senate. The Bonus Army, who were marching daily, grew restive, and the police were sent into the Poplar Point camp. In the ensuing chaos, the police shot and killed two Bonus Army veterans. Army infantry, commanded by General MacArthur, and supported by a tank division commanded by Patton, went to the camp that afternoon. The Bonus Army members assumed they were there to defend the veterans against police attacks, and were shocked when the Army charged with bayonets and tear gas. (Patton reportedly told the troops under his command, “if they [the Bonus Army] resist, they must die.”) When President Hoover ordered a stop to the attack, MacArthur ignored him, claiming the Bonus Army were communists attempting to overthrow the government. The Poplar Point shantytown was burned down and leveled, dozens of veterans were injured, and a 12 year old child died after being caught in the tear gas.
The incident had grave consequences for almost everyone involved. The police superintendent resigned, and the optics of a president sending the army in to attack poor veterans denied Hoover re-election. The next president, FDR, still opposed paying them early, but treated them much more humanely, providing them a Virginia campsite and free meals. Though he vetoed a 1936 bill to pay the veterans early, Congress overrode his veto, and the Bonus Army finally got their money. The incident as a whole has both reassuring and sinister implications for our present political moment; on one hand, the Bonus Army proved that protests do work, albeit slowly, and perhaps only after bloodshed turns public opinion. On the other, the Poplar Point incident shows that there’s a precedent for an authoritarian president using the military against American citizens. Let’s hope we don’t end up relearning either of these lessons in the next few years.