Many Americans reacted to the Depression with resignation or blamed themselves for economic misfortune. Others responded with protests that were at first spontaneous and uncoordinated, since unions, socialist organizations, and other groups that might have provided disciplined leadership had been decimated during the 1920s. In the spring of 1932, 20,000 unemployed World War I veterans descended on Washington to demand early payment of a bonus due in 1945, only to be driven away by federal soldiers led by the army’s chief of staff, Douglas MacArthur. Throughout the country, the unemployed demonstrated for jobs and public relief. That summer, led by the charismatic Milo Reno, a former Iowa Populist, the National Farmers’ Holiday Association protested low prices by temporarily blocking roads in the Midwest to prevent farm goods from getting to market.

Police battling “bonus marchers” in Washington, D.C., July 1932. Soon afterward, President Hoover sent federal troops to evict the marchers.

Communist Party headquarters in New York City, 1932. The banners illustrate the variety of activities the party organized in the early 1930s.

Only the minuscule Communist Party seemed able to give a political focus to the anger and despair. “The most fully employed persons I met dining the Depression,” one labor leader later recalled, “were the Communists.” They “brought misery out of hiding,” forming unemployed councils, sponsoring marches and demonstrations for public assistance, and protesting the eviction of unemployed families from their homes. The press discussed the idea that the United States was on the verge of a revolution. The insurance firm Lloyd’s of London reported an upsurge in American requests for riot insurance. The Hoover administration in 1931 opposed efforts to save money by reducing the size of the army, warning that this would “lessen our means of maintaining domestic peace and order.”

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