Almost nothing that occurred in Hoover's final year in the White House went well for him. The worst event from a political standpoint was the march of the Bonus Army in 1932. About fifteen thousand World War I veterans descended on Washington, D.C., in May to demand early payment of a soldiers' bonus not scheduled for distribution until 1945. The veterans, peaceable protesters except for a tiny minority, settled in abandoned buildings and in tents on the Anacostia Flats. They marched in front of the Capitol and the White House, and when the Senate voted against the bonus in June by 62 to 18, most of the veterans went home at federal expense, but about ten thousand stayed.
When the Senate voted as it did, following the advice of liberals such as Senator Norris of Nebraska and Congressman Fiorello La Guardia and Governor Franklin Roosevelt of New York, many members of Congress avoided confronting the veterans by escaping through subterranean chambers of the Capitol. Until late July, Hoover did nothing except to provide some sanitary facilities, clothing, cots, tents, and food. On 28 July some veterans were evicted from a small downtown area of government buildings. The buildings had been scheduled for demolition to make way for public works projects providing jobs for the unemployed. When a riot ensued in which a veteran died, the District of Columbia commissioners asked for help from the United States Army. General Douglas MacArthur readily obliged.
Hoover gave MacArthur specific orders to remove the veterans from the heart of the district; troops did so, wielding drawn sabers and carrying tear-gas canisters. But in direct contravention of Hoover's orders, the imperious MacArthur drove the veterans from their pitiful camp at Anacostia Flats into the Maryland countryside. No event staged for the benefit of public opinion could have seemed more cruel. Hoover reprimanded his chief of staff privately, but fearing public instability should the insubordination become known, the president took the blame. Subsequently, both men became enamored of the idea that Communists and criminals had been gaining considerable strength among the remnant of the veterans. The incident marked a turn to the political right on the part of the president and was his final political failure.
When Franklin Roosevelt, the Democratic presidential candidate, heard about the rout of the veterans, he grinned and said to his adviser, Felix Frankfurter, "Well, Felix, this will elect me." But the New Yorker, not yet widely perceived as the easy winner, left nothing to chance. He campaigned tirelessly. Yet the content of his speeches differed only modestly from the president's own views. The contrast between them, at least in 1932, was more personal than political. Roosevelt could instill a sense of security and self-confidence in the nation, qualities that came with inherited wealth. Hoover, the successful self-made engineer, was testimony to the good working order of capitalism in good times but an embarrassment in the depression. Hard times mocked everything Hoover had worked for. And he lacked the kind of deep-rooted conservatism that would allow Roosevelt as president to unite diverse factions and to sense and strengthen a community's innate equilibrium.