In , the Washington Monthly carried a story about war tax resisters written by Kennett Love, himself a signer of the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge.
“We believe that the right of conscientious objection to war belongs to all the people, not just to those of draft age,” says a pamphlet now being sent out across the country from a littered, poster-bright office on New Yorks Lower East Side. It carries a radical call to the citizenry to come out against the war in Vietnam by refusing to pay taxes that finance the war.
Such tax resistance is now gathering adherents outside traditional pacifist circles. Although it is still far from a major headache to the government, Internal Revenue Service men are being assigned to locate bank accounts of resisters and to seize the sums due — plus six per cent interest. Out of the frustration of the anti-Vietnam-war segment of the population, which is growing rapidly according to the polls; out of dashed hopes raised by peace promises and peace gestures from the Nixon and Johnson Administrations alike; and out of a feeling that orthodox democratic forms of protest — elections and demonstrations — have been ignored, an increasing number of otherwise law-abiding people are following their consciences into what Gandhi called the last stage of civil disobedience by openly refusing to pay part or all of their federal taxes.
The chief targets of the tax-resistance movement are the income tax, particularly the 10 per cent war surtax imposed last year, and the 10 per cent federal excise tax on telephone service. Other federal taxes have been rejected either as too complicated to resist, such as the liquor tax, which is collected at the wholesale level before individual purchase, or as earmarked for such non-war uses as highway construction. One pacifist, imprisoned for draft refusal and therefore lacking income to refuse taxes on, gave up smoking because the cigarette tax brings the government more revenue than any other single consumer-commodity tax.
The telephone tax is the most popular one to resist, partly because it was the first to be specifically linked to the war in Vietnam and partly because the American Telephone and Telegraph Company has proven courteous in its handling of tax resisters. The telephone tax was due to be reduced to three per cent in . In approving the White House request for its extension of the 10 per cent level, Chairman Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.) of the House Ways and Means Committee said: “It is clear that the Vietnam and only the Vietnam operation makes this bill necessary.”
Resistance to the telephone tax began soon afterward. Karl Meyer of Chicago, a former Congressman’s son and a free-lance writer immersed in pacifist causes, conceived the idea and proposed it to Maris Cakars of the War Resisters League in New York. Meyer drafted a pamphlet, “Hang Up On War!,” which has become a staple among the literature distributed by the War Resisters League through the mails and at peace booths. It explains the link between the telephone tax and the war, summarizes moral and legal objections to the war, and provides practical advice for resisters of the tax, including a candid assessment of the possible risks. Of the risks, it points out that under Section 7203 of the Internal Revenue Code, which covers both the telephone and the income tax, one who “willfully fails to pay” could be imprisoned for up to one year and fined up to $10,000. It adds that the experiences of tax resisters over the past several years show that the government is not willing to press criminal charges but, instead, acts to collect the taxes (with interest) directly, when and where it can.
AT&T records indicate that telephone tax resisters were relatively unmoved by President Johnson’s famous “abdication” speech on , but that about a quarter of them resumed payment of their telephone taxes at in the belief that President-elect Nixon would end the war. A table of the telephone company statistics follows, giving the number of telephone tax refusers at the end of each quarter :
Quarter No. of resisters to telephone tax 1,800 2,300 2,600 3,400 3,400 4,700 5,300 4,700 4,000 4,000
The figure for is not available yet, but the revived intensity of the anti-war movement, manifested in the national student moratorium on and the big demonstrations on , presage an increase.
Measured against the telephone company’s 43,459,000 residence customers, the percentage of tax resisters is minuscule. But in view of the seriousness of the act of tax resistance, the number of resisters is a source of satisfaction and encouragement to the leaders of the movement.
A spokeswoman for the telephone company told me its standing orders are to continue service to tax resisters so long as its own charges are paid. The company notifies the IRS of tax non-payments so it can do its own collecting. If a tax resister informs the local business office of the telephone company that he is deliberately omitting the tax from his payment, the office will not carry the tax charges forward to his next bill. “It would seem logical to assume that we don’t like to be a collecting agency,” she said, “but we do what we’re obliged to do.” She said that telephone tax resisters are located mainly in college communities.
Income tax resisters, although fewer than telephone tax resisters, appear to be a more stubborn breed, unmoved by political gestures and prepared to hold out until the war actually ends. An IRS spokesman in Washington gave me a statistical summary of the growth of such tax resistance. So far as he knew, it first became a public issue when Joan Baez, the singer, refused in to pay 60 per cent of her income tax in an act to dissociate herself from what she called the immoral, impractical, and stupid war in Vietnam. She refused the same proportion in and wrote the IRS: “This country has gone mad. But I will not go mad with it. I will not pay for organized murder. I will not pay for the war in Vietnam.” Joan Baez and a scattered handful of old-line pacifists, a few of whom had been refusing war taxes , were not worth keeping statistics on, so far as the IRS was concerned.
Then, in , a committee under the chairmanship of the Reverend A.J. Muste circulated a tax-refusal pledge among persons on the mailing lists of the Committee for Non-Violent Action and the War Resisters League. They obtained 370 signatures for an advertisement in The Washington Post that stated: “We believe that the ordinary channels of protest have been exhausted…” Joan Baez headed the list of signers. According to an IRS analysis, about one-quarter of the signers had no taxable income, about one-half cooperated with the IRS to the extent of telling the agent who called on them where their money could be seized, and about one-quarter put the IRS to the trouble of ferreting out their bank accounts. The number of actual resisters came to about 275.
the IRS began keeping a count of tax protesters. The number rose to 375. In there were 533 taxpayers who refused part or all of their income taxes and wrote the IRS that they were doing so in protest against the Vietnam war. there were 848 who set themselves against the law on grounds of conscientious objection to the war. The IRS spokesman told me that roughly three-quarters of the income-tax protesters live on the east and west coasts and that the same proportion held for persons refusing to pay the telephone tax.
IRS spokesmen emphasize that the number of refusers is only a tiny fraction of the total number of taxpayers. There were some 71 million returns filed in , about 73 million in , and 75 million in . But again, tax-resistance leaders find significance in the fact that the very idea of tax refusal was unthinkable to nearly all of the resisters until their consciences impelled them to it. Furthermore, although the numbers are small, the rate of increase of tax resisters is far greater than the annual increase in tax returns.
Fear of prosecution and jail is a deterrent to potential tax refusers. Many people fail to recognize the distinction between clandestine tax evasion and open tax refusal. The IRS makes the distinction, however, and has shown no inclination to prosecute persons refusing taxes because of the Vietnam war. An IRS spokesman said earlier this year: “Is IRS going to ask the Justice Department to go to a federal grand jury and get a jury trial to put a man in jail for a dollar, when all we have to do is go to his bank account?” Tax-resistance leaders believe also that the government wishes to avoid the publicity attendant on a prosecution, largely because a test case might produce a martyr and create sympathy for the movement. The few prosecutions in recent years have been for refusal to file returns or disclose information rather than for refusal to pay.
War tax refusal in this country is older than the United States itself. It began in when Mennonites and Quakers refused to pay taxes for the French and Indian wars. They refused again during the American Revolution and the Civil War. The most famous early instance was that of Henry David Thoreau, who spent a night in jail in for refusing taxes in protest against our invasion of Mexico. He explained in his essay on civil disobedience that he could not “without disgrace be associated with it” and added: “If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a bloody and violent measure, as it would to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.”
Gandhi, who was deeply influenced by Thoreau, wrote in that “civil non-payment of taxes is indeed the last stage in non-cooperation. …I know that the withholding of payment of taxes is one of the quickest methods of overthrowing a government.” He went on to say: “I am equally sure that we have not yet evolved that degree of strength and discipline which are necessary… Are the Indian peasantry prepared to remain absolutely non-violent, and see their cattle taken away from them to die of hunger and thirst? …I would urge the greatest caution before embarking upon the dangerous adventure.” But Lord Mountbatten said with relief after India became independent: “If they had started to refuse to pay their taxes, I don’t know what we could have done.”
The idea of modern, organized tax resistance in this country against armaments and war seems to have begun with the Peacemaker Movement, which was formed by 250 pacifists who met in Chicago early in . In , the Peacemaker Movement published the first edition of a mimeographed Handbook on Non-Payment of War Taxes, which contains practical advice and case histories. The handbook has now run to three editions and nearly 10,000 copies. It points out that since the bulk of the federal budget (estimates range from 66 to 80 per cent) goes to pay for past wars, finance the Vietnam war, and prepare for future wars, “it is apparent that the major business of the federal government is war… it is useless to act as if the major business of government is civil functions or peaceful pursuits.”
In , a little more than a year after A.J. Muste’s committee published its tax protest advertisement with 370 signers, Gerald Walker of The New York Times Magazine began to organize a Writers and Editors War Tax Protest, in which all the signatories pledged themselves flatly to refuse the then-proposed 10 per cent war surtax and possibly the 23 per cent of their income taxes allocated to the war effort as well. As was the case with the Reverend Muste’s advertisement, most daily newspapers that Walker approached refused to sell space to him. The New York Times was one that refused and so, this time, was The Washington Post. The New York Post printed Walker’s advertisement in , as did The New York Review of Books and Ramparts. In all, 528 writers and editors signed the pledge. Walker told me recently that about half of them, including himself, failed to carry out the tax-refusal pledge. “Johnson’s ‘abdication’ two weeks before the tax deadline convinced me that we had won,” he said.
I was myself among the other half of the signers who did refuse part of their taxes — 23 per cent in my case, the 10 per cent surtax not having gone into effect. Since my own hesitant involvement in war tax resistance seems typical among the non-pacifists now joining the movement, I will summarize it here as the case history I know best. With my part payment of my income tax, I wrote the IRS as follows:
Enclosed please find my check for $1,862.81, which is 77 per cent of the tax required. The 23 per cent unpaid is a protest against the government’s use of that proportion of its revenue for the war in Vietnam. My conscience revolts against the gross immorality of the war… There are also questions of law. The war violates the supreme law of our land, notably the Constitution (Art. Ⅰ, Sec. 8, clause 11), the United Nations Charter (Art. 51), and the Southeast Asia Treaty (Art. Ⅳ)… Responsible jurists and philosophers soberly accuse our government of crimes against international codes on human rights and the conduct of wars and the specific statutes created ex post facto to punish the Nazis…
The prodigal waste of our national energy and treasure in destroying the land and people of Vietnam is so weakening this nation that other powers may bring us to judgment as we once brought the Nazis to account at Nuremburg… It will then be no defense to plead, like the “good Germans,” that we had to obey our government and cannot be held responsible for what it did. By paying taxes which I know my government is using to kill a small nation I commit a greater and more violent breach of laws than I do by not paying…
I was a Navy pilot in World War Ⅱ. I would not serve in this war. If I could prevent my tax dollars from serving, I would do so. Unfortunately, I have not yet learned of a practical way to keep the government altogether from extracting financial support from me for the war. In the meantime, I balk at 23 per cent in token of my dissociation from the cruel injustice and bloodshed to poor and distant strangers being done under my flag, in my name, with my money.
The IRS reply did not come until after I had refused a similar amount of taxes . It was a form postcard saying: “Dear Taxpayer: Thank you for your letter. We are looking into the matter you brought up and should have the answer to you shortly… Thank you for your cooperation.” The answer, inevitably, was a series of printed forms, progressing from a “notice of tax due” to a “Final Notice Before Seizure.” The IRS had already seized telephone taxes, which I stopped paying in , from three bank accounts, patiently tracking down the bank to which I transferred my account after each seizure. The IRS obtained the unpaid part of my tax, plus six per cent interest, in . At this writing I am awaiting implementation of the Final Notice Before Seizure of the refused portion of my taxes. Banks are required by law to surrender private assets, including the contents of safe deposit boxes, to the IRS upon demand. Most banks surrender the levied amount immediately and the depositor is informed afterward.
This whole business of deliberately defying and harassing the government, even in a moral protest, is a heavy and anxious experience. When I first considered it in I was unaware that some hundreds of other people were already doing it. I was afraid of going to jail, which, among other things, would have prevented my fulfilling a contract to complete a book. I began refusing the telephone tax after obtaining the pamphlet “Hang Up On War!” from a pacifist in Princeton in . The Writers and Editors War Tax Protest, which came to my attention , gave me a sufficient sense of safety in numbers to begin income-tax resistance.
I am still troubled over possible consequences, particularly after the conspiracy convictions in the Dr. Spock trial, and I find it innately distasteful to resist paying my share of the general tax burden. But my revulsion against the war in Vietnam prevails over anxiety and civic reservations. And the Nixon Administration seems as unwilling or as unable as the Johnson Administration to make a significant and credible effort to end the war. In the country voted for Johnson and peace and got an escalation of the war. In , between Nixon and Humphrey, there was no real opportunity to vote for peace. Demonstrations have proven equally futile as a means of affecting war policy, so much so that the President declares that he will not be swayed by them. Under these circumstances, tax resistance, distasteful as it is, seems to more and more people to offer the most effective channel of protest.
I participated in the formation of War Tax Resistance, which is working to transform tax protests from essentially individual acts into an integrated political factor. The leading figure in the organization is Bradford Lyttle, a slim, earnest, no-nonsense pacifist who led a peace march across the United States and Europe to Moscow, urging unilateral disarmament on governments along the way and exhorting citizens toward non-cooperation with military service and war production. Its “Call to War Tax Resistance,” claiming the right of conscientious objection for taxpayers as well as draft-age men, says:
The first goal… is to convince as many people as possible to refuse at least $5 of some tax owed the government. Nearly everyone can do this by refusing their federal telephone tax or part of their income tax. If hundreds of thousands refuse to pay $5, they will establish mass tax refusal. Besides having the burden of collecting the unpaid amounts, the government will be faced with the political fact of massive non-cooperation with its war-making policies.
In a separate but related action, the poet Allen Ginsberg and I have obtained the backing of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee for a suit against the government to recover money that has been seized from us in enforcement of tax claims and also to enjoin further seizures. The main ground of our action, as it is now being prepared, is based on the historical equivalency between taxes and service (which is a kind of tax) and the claim that the right of conscientious objection is as inherent to taxpayers as it is to men liable for military service. Conscientious objectors cannot avoid service but they can earmark their service to the exclusion of warlike activity. In the same way, we claim, taxpayers should pay their full share but they should be able to earmark their taxes to the exclusion of war-like applications. In a time when weaponry has achieved the capacity to wipe out civilization, we believe, the people should be accorded a direct voice in deciding whether they shall make war. Since World War Ⅱ the decision has moved ever more into the hands of the executive despite the Constitutional stipulation that it is Congress which should declare war.
Meanwhile, until we are legally able to earmark our taxes for non-warlike applications, we feel conscience-bound to resist paying at least a part of them.