American Brethren and War Taxes in 1964–67

After a flurry of interest in war tax resistance in the early 1960s, things simmered down a bit just as the focus of the tax resistance movement shifted from conscientious objection against nuclear-era militarism to protesting against the U.S. war in Vietnam.

Church of the Brethren: Messenger

A letter from Mary Blocher Smeltzer and Ralph E. Smeltzer to the Director of the IRS, announcing their tax resistance, took up a page in the issue of the Messenger (source):

We are filing our Income Tax Return with our District Director of Internal Revenue, but we are refusing to pay the $21.83 balance of the tax due, for reasons of conscience.

During the years it has been our practice to accompany our return with a statement protesting and strongly opposing the use of any of our tax money for military purposes, for war, and for preparation for war, and requesting that it be used only for the peaceful nonmilitary activities of our government.

Last year we also refused to pay the balance of the tax due, for reasons of conscience.

We are both Christian pacifists. One of us is a minister employed by the General Brotherhood Board of the Church of the Brethren. The other is a public school teacher.

We enthusiastically approve and support the constructive services and peaceful programs of our government. But we conscientiously object to war and preparation for war by reason of our religious training and belief. We especially oppose our country’s present program of producing and stockpiling nuclear, chemical, biological, and other weapons of mass destruction which are now capable of destroying the human race. We equally oppose similar programs by all other nations.

We would like to designate all of our income tax for the purposes of disarmament and preparation for disarmament, for increasing the constructive services and peaceful programs of our government, and for increasing the constructive and peaceful programs of the United Nations. But the Internal Revenue Code makes no provision for such designations. We are urging our legislators to work for such provisions and amendments in the code.

Most of our income tax has been withheld by our employers and forwarded to you. We have had no control over this action by our employers who in turn must follow this procedure by law.

However, as individuals we retain the choice as to whether we will pay the balance of the tax called for by the government, or whether we will not. We have decided to protest the use of our income tax for military purposes by refusing to forward the balance of our tax called for.

We recognize that the United States government may impose penalties upon us for not paying this portion of our income tax. We are prepared to accept the consequences of our Christian conscientious objection to the payment of our tax, at least seventy-five percent of which now goes for military purposes.

We do not desire to receive any personal privilege or gain from this refusal to pay the balance of our tax. We are contributing an equivalent amount to the Brethren Service Commission… for its program of peace and relief at home and abroad. A receipt for this contribution is enclosed.

The issue brought this news:

Taxes and conscience

A roster of 360 persons, among them professors, scientists, writers, doctors, clergymen, and entertainers, made public their refusal to pay voluntary part or all of their federal income taxes.

As critics of U.S. policy in Vietnam, the signers declared that American forces there are “clearly being used in violation of the U.S. Constitution, international law, and the United Nations Charter.”

Their statement, published in newspapers this spring, deplored “the spectacle of the United States with its jet bombers, helicopters, fragmentation and napalm bombs, and disabling gas, carrying on an endless war against the hungry, scantily armed Vietnamese guerrillas and civilians” and compared such action to Italian atrocities in Ethiopia and Russia’s intervention in Hungary. It further drew parallels between “the indifference of Americans to the crimes being committed in their names, by their brothers and with their tax money” and the indifference of most Germans to the slaughter of Jews.

Two of the signers, Ralph and Mary Smeltzer, Elgin, Ill., have refused to pay voluntarily the unwithheld portion of their federal income tax for four years, opposing the use of tax moneys for military purposes. The outcome has been the government’s attaching the balance in wages.

“While only the unwithheld portion of the tax is all we have control over, we protest the sixty percent of every tax dollar used for military purposes,” said Mr. Smeltzer, who is Brotherhood director of peace and social education. “At the same time we voice approval and support for the constructive and peaceful programs of the government.

“If enough people express themselves a change in the law may be made allowing people to designate how their income tax will be used.” Mr. Smeltzer added, “or the program and policy of military expenditures may be reduced.

“Whether our actions do any good or not, we have to do what we conscientiously feel.”

This open letter from Russell F. Helstern appeared in the issue:

“I Confess I Am Deeply Troubled”

It’s tax time again! Tax paying is a privilege and a responsibility of every American citizen. To my knowledge I have never voted against a bond issue or a tax levy, nor have I ever been delinquent in the payment of my taxes. Good government and the needed community services can be secured and maintained only through the willingness of citizens to assume this civic responsibility.

Right now my desk is cluttered with income tax forms, family ledgers and accounts, scribbling paper, and a box of aspirins within easy reach. The aspirins are not alone for eyestrain and headache from long hours of juggling elusive figures but serve more as an opiate for a troubled conscience. As a Christian and a responsible world citizen I am genuinely disturbed as I sit here ready to write my income tax check.

For many years I have met the dilemma of conscience by sending with each income tax return and check a letter of protest for paying that portion of my tax that would be used for military purposes and requesting that it be allocated to humanitarian and legitimate constructive areas of service but at the same time knowing it would all go into the same till.

With poised pen ready to write the check, I become suddenly aware that last year’s income tax check helped to purchase the bombs that fell on Hanoi, tearing huge, gaping craters in residential areas quite remote from military targets, as Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times has informed us by photos and news dispatches. It was my income tax check of last year that helped purchase napalm bombs that were dropped indiscriminately on areas of South Vietnam, inflicting unimaginable suffering and death on innocent and helpless women and children who, by the remotest stretch of imagination, could not be held responsible for any part of this conflict.

It was my income tax check of last year and the year before that helped pay the cost of the defoliation of the Vietnamese rice fields and croplands, accentuating the problem of hunger and starvation in a world much of which is already locked in a grim race with death from mass starvation.

The pen is still poised and I am deeply troubled. I stand before almighty God, who holds me individually responsible for the use I make of the resources he has placed at my disposal. (The Nurenberg war criminal trials taught us that!) I am not absolved of guilt for crimes committed at my country’s insistence. And so as a Christian and one who tries to be a responsible world citizen I confess I am deeply disturbed.

I’m not sure what’s going on here. After years of frequent coverage of war tax resistance inside and outside the church, now the magazine retreats to reprinting some timid hand-wringing about being “deeply disturbed” about paying taxes for war crimes without even alluding to resistance as an option.

War tax resistance came up at the Annual Conference in as the Church voted to issue “A Call for Peace in Vietnam” (source):

One specific step urged for congregations proved to be the subject of some debate. It was a proposal that congregations should oppose legislation which would increase taxes designed specifically to support the war. One delegate was eager to have this sentence eliminated from the statement, but his amendment failed. Another delegate proposed that a sentence be added that would urge members to consider seriously whether they should continue to pay income taxes that might be used for the support of the war. This amendment also failed to gain support.

In a later issue, remarks of a Catholic observer of the Brethren conference were summarized this way: “[he] summed up the Brethren statement on Vietnam and recounted a plea by a Midwest minister urging members to consider whether they should pay income tax in light of its heavy use for war purposes. ‘The assembly listened politely to the young man and then defeated his amendment.’ ” (source)

The issue included a “Special Report” on phone tax resistance as an option for people who wanted to resist a “war tax”:

“The act is small but the meaning is large. It clearly says that this war is not our war.”

The Campaign to Hang Up on War

In its “Call for Peace in Vietnam” (see [above]) Annual Conference in urged congregations to oppose legislation which would increase taxes designed specifically to support the war in Vietnam.

One such tax already enacted (though not mentioned in the Annual Conference statement) is the ten percent federal excise tax on telephone charges. The tax, which once had been reduced to three percent and was due to be dropped entirely in , was reinstated in . Rep. Wilbur D. Mills (D., Ark.), who managed the tax legislation in the House, is quoted in the Congressional Record () as saying: “It is clear that the Vietnam and only the Vietnam operation makes this bill necessary.”

War protest: In protest to the Vietnam “operation” — particularly the mass bombings, napalming, support of the Ky government, and other aspects of U.S. military involvement — a group of several hundred persons have begun boycotting the telephone tax on the grounds that it is singularly a war tax. The refusal is treated by phone companies as a matter between the individual and the government, and phone service has not been interrupted. In fact, according to some sources, the telephone company has rather welcomed the protests, for it has long opposed the excise tax, though for a different reason.

At Staten Island, New York, the telephone company reportedly reminded a tax-refusing customer that she had neglected to withhold the tax in one payment, and it credited her account with the amount of the tax.

Sponsor: Promoted by the Committee for Non-Violent Action (5 Beekman Street, Room 1033, New York, N.Y. 10038), the campaign of telephone tax refusal has been dubbed, “Hang Up on War!” According to CNVA staff member Valerie Herres in New York, some 800 persons have made known their refusal to CNVA. Colleague Karl Meyer in Chicago says the actual number of telephone tax protesters likely exceeds 2,000, including members of at least two Church of the Brethren congregations.

In withholding the excise tax from payments, individuals are urged always to include a note explaining the omission. The CNVA asks also that protesters inform them of their stand.

In , after the Chicago Daily News carried a front-page story on the campaign, the district director of Internal Revenue within two weeks sent to the withholding parties first notices of direct assessment. However, for most of the recipients no actual collection was yet made several months later.

The CNVA makes clear to tax refusers that in the severest application of the law, under the criminal penalties act, one who “willfully fails to pay” the phone tax could possibly be charged with a misdemeanor, under Section 7203 of the Internal Revenue Code, and be imprisoned up to a year and fined up to $10,000. It is also possible that one could be charged with attempt to “evade or defeat” the phone tax, under a section carrying a stiffer penalty.

On the record: Testimony of Internal Revenue Service officials on the matter before the House Subcommittee Hearings on Appropriations for the Departments of Treasury Post Office, and Executive (as quoted in Peacemaker magazine ) went as follows:

Mr. Robison (congressman).
That is income tax. Unpaid excise taxes will be pretty small per individual, however, unless it accumulates over a period of years.
Mr. Cohen (IRS director).
If necessary we collect small amounts, and we have. I think it will be less convenient for them than it will for us.
Mr. Bacon (assistant director).
We have about eighty-five cases pending in Illinois and above thirty-five in Ohio. It is a nuisance situation because the tax is small.
Mr. Cohen.
But we do not intend to sit by. People cannot pick and choose which laws of the United States they will obey and those which they will not.
Mr. Robison.
I agree wholeheartedly, but I want to know what your policy is.
Mr. Cohen.
We intend to vigorously follow up any of these cases and collect the tax. We may let several months accumulate and do it all at once.

Exaggeration? In reflecting on the above testimony, Karl Meyer of the Chicago Workshop in Nonviolence commented to Messenger:

“This exaggerates somewhat the vigor of their determination. I have been refusing for over a year (and income taxes for seven years), and they have yet to collect a cent from me. To my knowledge they have thus far collected from only two or three of the Illinois refusers, and in those cases only the initial couple months of unpaid tax. In two cases the taxes were taken from bank accounts after unsuccessful visits from IRS agents. In one case a bank charged a fee of $10 for handling this transaction, and in the other case a bank charged $5. In a third case the tax was collected by attachment against a paycheck. Agents have visited several other refusers and have sometimes made threats of serious action, but in the three cases cited the serious action turned out to be no more than collection by seizure.”

Toward what end? What is the point of refusal? Mr. Meyer put it this way:

“The future will be different only if we change our lives. The act is small, but the meaning is large: This war is not our war, and we are willing to struggle to be on the side of life.”

From some Brethren involved in the telephone tax “hang up” came the explanation that it is one direct means, small yet tangible, of dissenting to the United States’ action in Vietnam. “It probably will not change government policy,” one member said, “but it does something to me. It lays my witness on the line.”

In light of the vote by Annual Conference delegates against amending “A Call to Peace” to express support for income tax refusal as a means of peace action, many Brethren likely would be reticent to join in telephone tax refusal.

Still, even the prospect of income tax dissent is up for study by the Brethren Service Commission. Prompted by a request last fall from the Pacific Southwest Conference board, a five-member committee has been named to explore federal income tax alternatives.

In the meantime, for those who choose, telephone tax refusal appears as a modest but viable means of voicing concern over the Vietnam war.

In response, Ethel Weddle wrote in to the issue to say that she didn’t have any reluctance in paying her taxes in spite of her disapproval of the government’s military policy. Civil disobedience is too dangerous, she thought, as it opens the door to all manner of lawbreaking: “giving those people with less than Christian ideals the go-go sign to disobey, rob, destroy, and kill” (source).

Horner M. Eby replied to this in the issue (source). Excerpt:

Ethel Weddle makes some cogent points in her letter… Withholding federal telephone excise tax is a rather picayune gesture. I am doing it. The Internal Revenue Service is not long-suffering. The IRS man has visited our home twice and has levied against our checking account both times, so that we are never more than eight months in arrears on this tiny tax.

If I really meant business, I should reduce my income enough to eliminate my income tax, which is a hundred times greater. Then, of course, I could not give to the church an amount comparable to my income tax, nor to the FOR, the AESC, the ACLU, SNCC, SCLC, SOS, the Chicago Area Draft Resisters, and the DuPage Draft Resisters.