Strangely, one of America’s most controversial war heroes General Douglas MacArthur is partially responsible for the 6 January 2021 Capitol Insurrection.
Like many Americans, the lack of a military response to the Capitol Insurrection shocked me. A mob stormed into the Capitol and disrupted Congress’s certification of the US Presidential election. The mob attacked and killed Capitol Police, invaded Congressional offices and threatened Congressional leaders with lynching on national TV.
The mob easily overwhelmed disorganized, outnumbered, poorly trained, and badly equipped Capitol Police. The mob lynched Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick in the Capitol. In the videos I have seen, the mob members appear to have more and better riot gear than the Capitol Police.
Yet the regular military was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the only military response was the National Guard, which arrived too late.
Where was the Military?
Had such a riot occurred in almost any other capitol such as London, Paris, or New Delhi, troops would have been on the scene almost immediately. Yet in the Capitol of the nation with the world’s greatest military, not a single Marine or Army infantryman was available to protect the seat of government.
Historically, it has not always been that way. In March 1861, General Winfield Scott deployed thousands of Regular Army Troops with artillery to ensure the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois).
Scott stationed snipers on rooftops and had canon loaded with grapeshot waiting for any Confederate thug out to disrupt the inauguration. The Confederates stayed away and Lincoln became president.
The US Army maintained a Washington garrison which deployed troops to protect the Capitol from protesters as late as the 1890s. So what happened, why did the US military abandon its Constitutionally mandated role of protecting the nation’s Capitol?
The Bonus March
To find an answer we need to go back to 1932 and examine General Douglas MacArthur’s clumsy response to a Depression Era tragedy. There is no Washington Garrison today, or troops in a position to protect the White House and the Capitol, because of MacArthur’s overreaction to the Bonus March.
In 1932, America was deep in depression with an unemployment rate of 23.6%. Tens of millions of people were out of work, millions of families faced hunger homelessness.
In response, World War I veterans began agitating for immediate payment of the cash bonus Congress had promised them for their service. The bonus payment was to be made in 1945, but in 1932 men were desperate.
To get the cash, thousands of veterans formed the Bonus Expeditionary Force and marched on Washington. The first Bonus Marchers arrived in the District of Columbia in May 1932.
By the end of June, the Bonus Expeditionary Force had swollen to over 20,000 members and tensions were running high. Congressional Democrats sensing an opportunity to hurt President Herbert Hoover (R-California) in an election year made the situation worse.
The Democrat-controlled US House of Representatives passed the Patman Veterans Bill on 15 June 1932. The Bill met the Bonus Marchers’ demand but Democrats knew the legislation was dead on arrival. Hoover had vowed to veto Patman, and Senate Republicans had promised to kill to the legislation.
On 17 June 1932, the Patman bill died in the US Senate. Patman’s defeat inspired MacArthur to act.
MacArthur vs the Bonus March
MacArthur, then US Army Chief of Staff, was a conservative who thought the Bonus March was a Communist plot. Bonus Marchers strengthened MacArthur’s suspicions by taking over empty federal buildings.
Until 28 June 1932, the situation in Washington remained peaceful but tense. On that day, some Bonus Marchers threw bricks at Capitol Police. In response, Hoover ordered the Secretary of War to “surround the affected area and clear it without delay.”
MacArthur overreacted by deploying thousands of infantrymen, tanks, and cavalry into the Capitol’s streets. Infantrymen fixed bayonets, officers drew their swords, and cavalrymen deployed their sabers. Then led by MacArthur himself, the troops began clearing the Bonus Marchers’ camps.
Some troops fired tear gas which reportedly killed a baby. Hoover did not reign in MacArthur, who ordered his troops to attack the main Bonus Army camp on the Anacostia River.
A fire broke out in the camp, which horrified spectators. MacArthur’s actions disgusted those present. Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a rising staff officer, alleged that MacArthur deliberately ignored Hoover’s orders.
The optics of the situation were horrendous. Troops attacking veterans in the nation’s Capitols. Tanks deployed against desperate men who were trying to feed their families. Newsreel cameras and news photographers captured the debacle and showed it to the nation and the world.
The Effects of the Bonus March
The damage the Bonus March inflicted on the careers of those involved was vast.
In 1932, Hoover suffered one of the worst defeats in American presidential history. The victor, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) won 472 Electoral College votes to Hoover’s 59. Hoover became an embittered has-been and a joke.
MacArthur lost his job as chief of staff and position as America’s top general. Instead, Roosevelt exiled MacArthur to the Philippines where the general tried to organize that nation’s military as it prepared for independence.
When America entered World War II, they relegated MacArthur to backwaters, such as Australia and the Philippines. Other generals with far less seniority received more important commands. Eisenhower commanded the US forces in Europe and George C. Marshall became chief of staff. World War II victories redeemed MacArthur’s military reputation, but the general’s hopes for a second career in politics were unfilled.
The Bonus March came back to haunt Eisenhower, then America’s top war hero, in his 1952 presidential campaign. Opponents dug up old news photos of the Bonus March and showed them to voters. The ploy failed as Ike became a popular president and served two successful terms.
The Long Shadow of the Bonus March
The Bonus March cast a long shadow on American politics. After the Bonus March, no American politician wanted to take the risk of deploying the military in the nation’s Capitol.
Similarly, military officers; remembering MacArthur’s fate, wanted nothing to do with riot control. Notably, the Amy abandoned its post at Fort Washington and moved the Third Battalion of the 12th Infantry out of the city in 1939. The Army stationed the Third Battalion in the Capitol for “Ceremonial duties.”
Thus Washington DC became one of the few major capitols without a permanent military presence. Although the US Army maintains a Military District of Washington which is entrusted with defense of the Capitol.
Conversely, the Military District of Washington has troops available including the 1st and 4th Battalions of the 3rd US Infantry Regiment (the Old Guard) and the 289th Military Police Company. However, they deployed none of those forces to Capitol on 6 January 2021. On the other hand, video shows some of those troops were at the Capitol for the inauguration of President Joe Biden (D-Delaware) a few weeks later.
Can America Defend the Capitol?
Americans need to face the horrendous reality that the US Capitol was defenseless on 6 January 2021.
The thought that a few hundred extra police officers could have prevented violence is wishful thinking. The videos of the 6 January catastrophe show the US Capitol Police were leaderless, and poorly equipped.
Had there been more police at the Capitol, I think there could have been a bloodbath. I think the videos show the Capitol Police have no riot training and equipment and had no plan to deal with an assault on the building.
Had there been more police there, I think circumstances would have forced the officers to fire on the crowd, possibly with semiautomatic rifles. Since members of the crowd were probably armed, somebody would have shot back, resulting in a firefight that could have killed many people in the crossfire.
Violence could have spiraled out of control if they had deployed heavily armed National Guard troops with no riot training or equipment to the Capitol. One horrendous possibility was a firefight between the National Guard and the Capitol Police. America could have experienced the nightmare of having the Vice President; or the Speaker of House, shot by the Capitol Police or the National Guard.
Does France Have the Answer?
The logical response to 6 January is to organize new police or military units with the training and equipment to deal with civil disturbances. For instance, a special riot police unit whose job is to maintain order in the Capitol.
One potential solution is to organize an American version of France’s Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS).The CRS are civilian police who receive training in anti-insurrection and anti-riot techniques. One of the CRS’s missions is to maintain law and order during protests, another is riot control.
Another French police organization to examine is the Mobile Gendarmerie, a military police force. Similarly to the CRS, the Mobile Gendarmerie provides riot control and security. The Mobile Gendarmerie is a military force that serves as part of the Ministry of the Interior in peacetime.
There is precedent for such an arrangement in America. In peacetime, the US Coast Guard is a law enforcement and rescue agency that is part of the US Department of Homeland Security. In wartime, the Coast Guard is a military force becomes part of the Navy. One possibility is to organize a Military Police Corps that operates under the Justice Department in peacetime and the Army in wartime.
The CRS and the Mobile Gendarmerie are far from perfect but they kept the 2019 gilets jaunes protests under control. The Yellow Vests did not storm the Palais du Luxembourg or the Palais Bourbon to disrupt the National Assembly.
We could address concerns about Civil Rights and fear of federal power by restricting the American CRS operations to Washington. The American CRS could be a unit of the Capitol Police.
We need to think about organizing such a unit because America could be in an age of civil unrest similar to what is happening in France. If that is the case we will need to take extraordinary steps to safeguard our democratic institutions.
We also need to prevent folk memories of an event that occurred 89 years ago from securing our Capitol from attack.