Few images from the Great Depression are more indelible than the rout of the Bonus Marchers. At the time, the sight of the federal government turning on its own citizens -- veterans, no less -- raised doubts about the fate of the republic. It still has the power to shock decades later.
From the start, 1932 promised to be a difficult year for the country, as the Depression deepened and frustrations mounted. In December of 1931, there was a small, communist-led hunger march on Washington; a few weeks later, a Pittsburgh priest led an army of 12,000 jobless men there to agitate for unemployment legislation. In March, a riot at Ford's River Rouge plant in Michigan left four dead and over fifty wounded. Thus, when a band of jobless veterans, led by a former cannery worker named Walter W. Walters, began arriving in the capital in May, tensions were high. Calling themselves the "Bonus Expeditionary Forces," they demanded early payment of a bonus Congress had promised them for their service in World War I.
Source: The American Experience/PBS: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/macarthur/peopleevents/pandeAMEX89.html