Sunday, August 12, 2012

District Comics: Interview with Tom Allen

August 7, 2012, saw the publication of the anthology District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, DC,  edited by Matt Dembicki, published by Fulcrum Books.  For the book, I wrote the story "Skip Dillon, Son of the B.E.F," illustrated by Rand Arrington. Like all the stories in District Comics, "Skip Dillon" focuses on a little-known (or in this case somewhat forgotten) piece of Washington history.  I wrote this text piece to accompany the story and give a little background:

In 1924, the U.S. Government gave a bonus to veterans of World War I to make up for pay differences between soldiers, many of whom were drafted, and men who stayed home.  However, this bonus was issued in the form of a treasury bond that wouldn't come to maturity until 1945.  After the Great Depression started, many of these veterans lost their jobs and began to seek immediate payment of the bonus in order to get their lives back together.  In May of 1932, about 300 veterans left Oregon and headed across country by hopping freight trains.  They planned to lobby the government for compensation just as corporations had.  By the time they reached Washington, word had spread across the country, and thousands of veterans and often their families had decided to join them.  Though their efforts didn't meet their expectations, they would eventually have a lasting effect on the status of veterans in the United States, most notably the GI Bill, and inspire generations of mass protests in the nation's capital.
As part of my research for the story, I read the book The Bonus Army by Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen.  Mr. Allen was kind enough to speak to me last year, and the following interview focuses on some of the elements of the Bonus March Rand and I could only hint at in our thirteen-page story.  You'll also see a couple panels from the story.

Thomas B. Allen is the author of over thirty books and has written articles for magazines and newspapers including National Geographic, Smithsonian, the New York Times Magazine, Washingtonian, and the Washington Post.  His recent books include Tories: Fighting for the King in America's First Civil War (co-authored with Todd W. Braisted), Mr. Lincoln's High-Tech War (co-authored with son Roger MacBride Allen) and Remember Valley Forge.  In 2005, he co-authored The Bonus Army with Paul Dickson.

Michael Cowgill: What initially drew you and Paul to this story?

Thomas B. Allen: Paul and I were at a dinner that a bunch of authors just getting together, nothing formal, and we don't live too far from each other, so we carpooled, and we were driving home from the dinner, and we just got talking about what each one of us was then working on, which turned out to not--we were both kind of casting around, looking for projects, and Paul mentioned the Bonus Army, which most people hadn't heard of. I knew something about just from, I don't know, sort of general knowledge about World War I, so by the time he dropped me off at my house and then drove on, we decided we'd take a shot at trying to do a book on it, and that's the way it got started.

M.C.: And this kind of leads actually into two things: the sort of accidental integration that you guys talk about a lot in the book.

T.A.: Oh, yeah. That was absolutely--the way that got started was--the main library in the District of Columbia is the Martin Luther King Library, and in that library is a section called the Washingtonian Room. It's a very large room devoted to information about the city of Washington, and we were using that as the first stop in developing research on the book. Actually what you have to do is develop research for a proposal, and so that's what we were doing, and we gathered up a lot of newspaper clippings and many of them just flaking away. There were three scrapbooks there that somebody had donated to the library, and we were using those, just Xeroxing those clippings. So those were all words, but then as we developed ideas for the book, we started collecting photographs, and the curious thing was that there would be no mention of integration in the words that we were reading, namely in the New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Evening Star, and here they were in the pictures. I mean, again and again, we saw photographs of black and white veterans standing at chow lines, in tents, getting books from the Salvation Army library that had been set up under a tent, and we thought this was an interesting phenomenon because we knew that Washington was a segregated city at that time, that blacks had to sit in a certain section in the movie houses, couldn't enter most restaurants, and so forth. So we then started looking at--there's a magazine published by the National Association for the Association of Colored People, the NAACP, called The Crisis, and sure enough, there in The Crisis was an account of integration of the Bonus Army. So that's what led us to realize that this was going on and nobody was saying anything about it.

Skip Dillon and his father meet a new friend.

So anyway, phase one is getting enough together to produce a proposal. Phase two is you get a contract, and now you're really working on the book, and when we were really working on the book, I went to the Hoover Library in Iowa, and in the library were police reports that were in the archives of the Hoover Library, D.C. Police reports, undercover reports of meetings that were being held at the time the Bonus Army was in town, and the undercover officers who infiltrated the meetings reported there being "women, Negroes, and people with Jewish features." These three categories--women, people with Jewish features, and Negroes--were cited in the reports as sort of proof that there were a lot of radicals and communists in the Bonus Army. There was that fear in the thirties that somehow the communists were reaching out to Negroes and Jews and that these were people you really got to keep your eye on, and that was reflected in the undercover reports. There were similar undercover activities by the Military Intelligence Department of the U.S. Army, the MID, and we found those in the National Archives. So we saw evidence not only of integration but evidence of police and army intelligence interest in the integration as a sign of radicalism in the Bonus Army, which turned out to not be true. I mean, these guys were all just basically veterans of a war who were trying to get the money that they felt was owed to them.

M.C.: Right, and just to refresh my memory, during World War I, the African-American soldiers were technically fighting for the French?

T.A.: Yeah. I started poking a little bit more into World War I material and found that the black soldiers who were sent to France could not fight under the American flag because they were in segregated units just to begin with, and the segregated units could not be fighting alongside the white units in the trenches in France because there was just no way to integrate them militarily. It was just too much of  essentially a logistics and personnel problem. So somebody came up with the bright idea of putting them with French Colonial troops, all of whom were black, or most of whom were black, and so that was the way they solved the problem of sending American troops who were black to France, and that's just a sort of sidebar to the reality of the Bonus Army.

We felt we made a discovery that had never been really reported before, and the integration of the Bonus Army we thought was socially and historically important to develop in the book, which we did.

M.C.: In terms of the Bonus Army itself, the whole story, do you think there's anything that makes it a particularly Washington story?

T.A.: Well, it's two things. One is that there had never been a mass demonstration that was--I take it back. Start over again. Cox's Army, which we mention in the book, had come into Washington protesting various issues, but this was the first time that there had been not just a protest but a group that was essentially lobbying.  I mean, it became the model for all of the demonstrations that came later up to and including ones that you see in the 21st Century. In other words, if you've got a grievance, go to Washington and tell people about it. So they discovered Washington as a magnet for demonstrations that would awaken Congress to some issue, and that was the whole point of it. They really said that they were lobbyists, and they were inspired by the existence of lobbyists, who among other things had managed to get money from the United States government for activities during World War I but that the ordinary soldier wasn't getting that money.

M.C.: One of the other elements that interested me when I first kind of just read a brief thing about this was all these families that were here. I guess it makes sense.

T.A.: Again, that was not something that was blown up at the time or featured at the time, and most of the focus was on these guys, but then if you looked closer, you'd find that there were women and children there, and what the members of Congress didn't seem to understand was that the families were there because these guys had no place to live. There were similar encampments that got to be named Hoovervilles all over the country. The biggest one was in New York, which was along the railroad tracks on the Hudson River, but, yeah, it was a phenomenon, again, that was not covered that much by the contemporary press, but we saw it in photographs. The photographs that we came across, many of them in the Library of Congress, were giving us more information than the words were in regards not only to integration but also to the presence of so many women and children, and then again, when we looked at it more deeply, we found that there were food donations and milk donations given to the Bonus Army because there were so many children and women in it, and then we found the twins, the two young men. They were then, I guess, eight--young boys. There was a photograph of two kids in a makeshift boxing ring, and when we tracked those two guys down, they still were around, and we were able to interview them, and again, we got a picture of the family side of the Bonus Army.

Skip watches the boxing twins.

M.C.: So I guess on a local level people responded to that and were aware of them.

T.A.: I mean, I was born in 1929. I have memories of the thirties as a little kid, and people helped each other. There was a lot of that feeling that "we're all in this together, and we better do something about it." So that was something that became an element in it. The people in Washington reached out to the Bonus Army unlike President Hoover or the officials of Washington, the exception being [Chief of Police Pelham Glassford], who became a major character in the book because he had seen the wisdom of treating these men kindly and keeping them from turning into a mob

M.C.: And it seemed like he had quite a balancing act to perform there.

T.A.: Yeah. Absolutely.

M.C.: Is there anything more you want to say about Chief Glassford?

T.A.: No, just that he was really important to keeping this thing really under control. He saw them as real Americans, not as a mob, and the administration, including MacArthur, saw them as a dangerous mob. That's the way MacArthur looked at anybody who was acting in a way that he thought was hostile to the government. Whatever you think about [Glassford], he was the main character, kept them under control.

M.C.: And sort of the organization of the camps into streets and all that, that was his?

T.A.: Yeah, because of their military background, and because he endorsed that whole idea of having everything organized.

M.C.: Right. What about Evelyn Walsh McClean (a Washington socialite and heiress), who's someone I had never heard of.

T.A.: That was again just a discovery we came across, and she became a character, too, but I think she was a rare exception of someone who was a wealthy person and an upperclass person who became interested in the Army. Most of the reaching out, the sympathetic reaching out by people in Washington was from people who were in pretty bad shape themselves.

M.C.: I got the impression from the book that there was a lot of sort of mixing between Camp Marks--

T.A.: Oh, yeah. That was the thing to do, to go down there and visit the--it was almost like a carnival.

M.C.: And then also because it was so close to Anacostia, that neighborhood, I guess, there was a lot of mixing there.

T.A.: It was a mixture of black and white at that time, and now it's become basically a black neighborhood, but there it was almost a patchwork. Some blocks were white, some blocks were black.

The view from Anacostia Park, once known as Anacostia Flats and home to Camp Marks, the largest Bonus Army encampment.  If you look closely, you can see the Washington Monument and Capitol dome.

M.C.: You already said something about MacArthur, and one of the fascinating things about the story just when you look at even a little bit about it is his presence and Eisenhower and Patton, that all of these men would become heroes of World War II were there. Do you have any more thoughts on them or their participation?

T.A.: I think that--one aspect of the story that we make allusions to--but I think the interesting thing is the characteristics of the three potential famous officers is right there. I mean, the flamboyant MacArthur, who didn't take orders from presidents, and Patton, the wild charging guy, and Eisenhower the guy who sees things politically. I mean, he's the one who says to MacArthur, "Don't go on the street. This is not something worthy of the Army Chief of Staff," and of course, MacArthur ignores him. So MacArthur is MacArthur, and Eisenhower is Eisenhower, and Patton is Patton right there in the thirties just as they would be during the war.

M.C.: And then with Patton you get that fascinating thing where Joe Angelo, the guy that saved his life in World War I, is part of the Bonus Army.

T.A.: Oh, yeah. That was a story that was played up at the time, and it's almost unbelievable that this little drama was taking place at the same time.

M.C.: And the last of these kind of people is Walter Waters, leader of the Bonus Army. I read his book, or his ghostwritten book, and you get a certain impression of him there, and then the impression I got from you guys is maybe a little bit of ambivalence about him.

T.A.: Well, what happened on a general level there was kind of a fear that this was really a big communist plot. I mean, what happens is MacArthur in the midnight press conference (after the expulsion of the Bonus Army, M.C.) that we feature in the book says, "These are crooks and communists," so that's in the height of battle and fog of war and all that, but when Hoover writes his memoirs, which are published in the 1960s, he is still saying communists and crooks--when he goddamn well knows better--because by that time the Republican party was still on the McCarthy hunt for communists in the government, so it was in keeping with that idea that the so-called communists in the Bonus Army was revisited in the sixties with the coming out of Hoover's memoirs, but what I'm getting at is that people who were the sons and daughters or grandsons and granddaughters of the Bonus Army guys were afraid to talk about it because they didn't want to have people say that they were descended from communists. I mean, it sounds silly, but we ran into that several times, and in the case of Waters, he was anti-communist to the point where they seem to have thrown a couple of communists not only out of the camp but into the Potomac River. There was a whole anti-communist movement inside the Bonus Army that I think he helped to perpetuate, and what was anti-communist then? It was pseudofascism, so he started that sort of protofascist movement that didn't get anywhere [the ominously named Khaki-Shirts -- M.C.], and they only lasted for a few months. When we finally got to talk to his son, the son didn't know what to talk about because he didn't know whether his father had been a communist or a fascist, and to top it all off, he had not been a very good husband or father, so, yeah, he's a very complex person, and at this stage of the game, it's pretty hard to get access to exactly who he was.

M.C.: Even reading his book and all his sort of quitting leadership and then agreeing  to be the leader again, it makes for strange reading.

T.A.: Yeah. He was kind of a mystery man for us. I mean, we put as much into it as we could, but he's a very complex character. He'd be a good fictional character, I think.

M.C.: Yeah, I would think so. I have one last question, but you've kind of addressed it a little bit about what's sort of the legacy of the Bonus Army in terms of D.C. but also overall.

T.A.: The legacy, I think, is pretty clearly--if you look at the phrase Bonus Army--you know, both Paul and I have asked that whole thing you do with Google saying, "Tell me if you ever see this phrase." We get a reference to Bonus Army two or three times a week sometimes, certainly no less than once a week in the last year or so because current veterans are saying, "We're getting treated like the Bonus Army." We know a guy, both Paul and I, a friend who has put in a claim about Agent Orange. He has cancer that certainly tracks back to his years in Vietnam, and he's on a waiting list for treatment at the VA that will be about 2 1/2 years. So I think that the legacy is that if you're a veteran you've got to fight for your rights, and they showed you how to do it. You go to Washington and say, "We have a grievance."

And then the ultimate legacy was the GI Bill because there were many congressmen in Congress in the forties who had been in Congress in the thirties, and when they realized that the war was gonna produce millions of veterans, they realized that they had to do something, and the GI Bill was what they came up with. So that's the big legacy of it.

M.C.: And that's quite a legacy there.

T.A.: Yep. And the connection had not been made until we made it.

I'll be back with a few more items later in the week.  For more on District Comics check out the District Comics Blog.  If you live in the D.C. area, you can find District Comics at Big Planet Comics.  You can also meet 20-plus creators at the District Comics launch signing at One More Page Books in Arlington, Virginia, Sunday August 19 from 3:00 to 5:00.  

Finally, here's a montage of stunning photographs from the time: