Refusal to Buy World War Ⅰ Bonds an Unsung War Tax Resistance Movement

Most histories of war tax resistance give little attention to World War Ⅰ. But, in the United States anyway, it’s a fascinating story, and a very different one than the typical war tax resistance plot. Resisters were hounded not by the government, but by vigilante mobs who were enforcing what was, nominally, a voluntary funding drive.

Although the U.S. government did raise some of its war funds through taxes, the most visible public war funding measure was the Liberty Bond program.

When someone bought a Lib­er­ty Bond, they were loan­ing the gov­ern­ment money, at in­ter­est, for the war ef­fort. This pro­gram was os­ten­si­bly vol­un­tary, but there was in­tense pres­sure to par­ti­ci­pate, and this pres­sure often amount­ed to com­pul­sion.

Those who re­sist­ed buy­ing Bonds in­clud­ed con­sci­en­tious ob­ject­ors to war, mem­bers of tra­di­tion­al peace churches, anti-cap­i­tal­ist and anti-gov­ern­ment rad­i­cals, and European im­mi­grants with ties among the people the U.S. and its allies were fighting.

Whatever the reasons, resistance to the Liberty Bond program was typically interpreted as treasonous. For instance, an article from the New York Times reads in part:

Pro-German agents in the United States, according to reports to the Treasury Department, have directed their energies toward defeating the Liberty Loan. Their organized propaganda is alleged to have borne fruit in scattered localities from Minnesota to Texas, where weak efforts have been made, not openly, but by indirect methods, to discourage subscriptions.

“There has been organized effort,” said Colonel [Herbert M.] Lord… “to discourage and defeat the loan.”

Assembled from various sources, the efforts of workers against the loan appear to have been directed along four main channels:

  • Attempts to discourage prospective buyers of Liberty bonds.
  • Efforts to prevent certain banks from handling the bonds.
  • The publication in certain newspapers and other mediums of publicity of editorials and articles which, while not directly opposing loan subscriptions, tend to discourage buyers.
  • The prevention, so far as local and sporadic efforts can prevent, of the placing of Liberty Loan posters and advertising literature where they will be most beneficial.

Attempts to discourage buyers by the personal plea method have been confined mostly to the East. Instances have been brought to the attention of officials where buyers have been approached, apparently in a spirit of great friendship, and advised not to buy the bonds.

Efforts to prevent banks from handling the bonds have centered chiefly in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Missouri and Oklahoma. The President of a Wisconsin bank has advised the Treasury that his depositors, mostly Germans, or of German parentage, have withdrawn many thousands of dollars from his bank because he aided the First Liberty Loan.

These depositors, he added, had taken their accounts to two rival banks on the understanding that those banks would not aid the second Liberty Loan. The two banks, he reported, were not aiding the loan in any way.

A check is kept by the Treasury on all newspaper editorials and articles referring to the loan, not only in publications printed in English, but in the foreign language press. A number of such publications, it is asserted, have been industriously printing editorials and articles of a tone apparently studied to produce impressions unfavorable to the loan.

The fourth phase of opposition — attempts to prevent the posting of Liberty Loan posters and placards in advantageous places — has been carried on in many places, notably Washington. Efforts to get permission to hang placards in the windows of empty shops here in many instances have met with refusal. In other instances, posters have been torn down. In nearly every case investigated, it was found, it is reported, that the person refusing permission also was entirely out of sympathy with the course of the country.

Not until Colonel Lord’s announcement today, however, did officials believe that the effort was organized. They now say it bears all the imprints of a carefully directed conspiracy.

, the Park City, Utah Park Record reported on some of these conspiratorial resisters:

There is only one disloyal spot in all of Summit county. This is in the vicinity of Marion, where there are a few so-called Socialists, who not only absolutely refuse to subscribe to a bond — but openly denounced the government for its efforts in raising funds in this manner. Their names are on record and in all probability they will be “attended to” later.

Liberty Loan enforcers sometimes appeared as underground, Ku Klux Klan-style groups, who would come by in masks in the dead of night and threaten people who did not purchase bonds (or who purchased fewer than the enforcers thought they should) with hanging, tarring & feathering, or various other tortures and degradations.

Other enforcers came in the form of above-ground “armies” who went door-to-door to enforce community Bond quotas. The Steamboat Springs, Colorado Steamboat Pilot reported on the “Liberty Loan Army” that was organized in that area to enforce the third Liberty Loan drive.

Every person, without exception, will be visited and solicited. Each individual will be given a chance to subscribe. No one will be expected to subscribe more than they can afford, but in cases where those solicited refuse to subscribe, when it is known that they are financially able to do so, where those solicited make disloyal remarks against the government or criticise the merit of the government bonds, or are discourteous towards the lieutenants, detailed reports will be made and the matter turned over to the secret service department for investigation. Persons knowing the importance of doing all possible toward the financing of the war and the support of the men who are offering their lives, and still refusing to help, although able, naturally are to be regarded as provoking suspicion.

The New York Times reported of another drive:

Persons with guilty consciences received scares , for policemen knocked at many doors to aid the Liberty Loan campaign. It was called “Policemen’s Day,” and no arrests were made, although there were many pointed suggestions that a trip to the bank would be advisable.

A set of articles from the New York Times during , reported on what kind of treatment “bond slackers” could expect if they did not respond as desired to “pointed suggestions” like these:

A.L. Hitchcock, Socialist member of the Board of Education, was arrested on a warrant issued by United States Commissioner Mariatt, charging him with violating provisions of the Espionage act by making remarks against the Liberty Loan. Hitchcock waived preliminary examination and was bound over to the Grand Jury. In a speech at Sandusky on , Hitchcock is alleged to have made this reference to the Liberty Loan:

“I do not believe in the Liberty Loan. Every dollar goes into the pockets of profiteers. I won’t contribute any of my money to the war profiteers. By purchasing bonds you are aiding the political ambitions of the head of our Government. All who buy bonds are being hoaxed.”

Five Austrians who refused to purchase Liberty Bonds at the Lyttle colliery, near here, were taken by the heels by the workmen and dipped into a steel tank used for heating oil for the colliery engines. Threats to sue the ring-leaders of the crowd brought the statement that a suit would result in the Austrians being strung up. The men all purchased bonds .

Theodore Pape, former city attorney, for whom United States Marshals have been searching since afternoon, for violation of the Espionage act, walked into the Sheriff’s office morning and gave himself up.

Pape is said to have refused to buy Liberty bonds, declaring that he wanted the war to end in a draw, and that the way to realize his hope, was to withhold money from the Government.

Pape was hanged in effigy during .

Crowds at Liberty bond rallies here threatened to lynch a Russian and two enemy aliens when their remarks were considered by men in the crowds to be hostile to the Government and the success of the loan campaign. The men were not injured, but Federal authorities detained two of them pending an investigation of their activities.

When a worker asked Michael Wisasanki, a Russian employed in a cannery, to buy a bond, his refusal was regarded as an insult and some of the factory workers threatened to lynch him. Officers of the company held him for the Federal authorities. John Radzouki, an Austrian, was held by the officers of the Everson & Leverson Manufacturing Company, after employees there had threatened violence to him. Hans Spiegel, a German, employed in the Pennsylvania Railroad yards, was saved from a beating by fellow-workers upon the suggestion of railroad officials that he leave town immediately.

The Frank Katz Hat Company… reopened after a suspension of caused by the strike of employes who would not work with two girls in the establishment who had refused to buy Liberty bonds. The trouble began two weeks ago, when the Liberty Loan Committee in the hat trade approached the employes of the Frank Katz Company with an appeal that every man and girl in the firm buy a $50 bond and give the company a 100 per cent. record.

A few days later the Hat Committee reported to Mr. Katz that one of his competitors had made a 100 per cent. record, and this fact set him to work. He found that two employes, Miss Lizzie Rozitch and Miss Lena Turdalowitz, were responsible for the indifference to the Liberty Loan appeals.

Unable to do anything with them, Mr. Katz appealed to the union officials, and the latter worked up the employes to such a pitch of patriotic resentment against the dissenters that they not only bought bonds but on refused to work with the two girls unless they, too, bought bonds. The girls refused, whereupon the rest of the employes declared a strike, and all activities at the factory were suspended on . Miss Rozitch and Miss Tudalowitz informed Mr. Katz that they would not return to work, and the factory reopened.

Names of people who refused to buy the Bonds were published in “rolls of dishonor” and “slacker rolls” or were written up in the newspapers. One such example:

David Fast, living south and west of Tyrone, has a fine farm with modern improvements. He has good stock and farm machinery around him. He is living on land that the government gave him for the magnificent sum of $16. When approached he refused, saying that the Bible did not teach war and that Germany loved us and would not bother us. I believe this man to be in sympathy with Germany and think that his land should be taken back by the government.… We have no patience with a man whose only excuse is his religious scruples and believe he will bear investigation.

Another paper reported:

A story comes to the Reaper of a man living in Richfield precinct who, when called upon by a liberty loan subscription committee, declared he would help in Red Cross work, but not one cent would be subscribed toward a liberty loan, war savings stamps or other war work, as he is a conscientious objector, and the United States had no business entering the war.

The other day a number of drafted men, conscientious objectors, were sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to serve 20 year sentences, for the same sentiments as those alleged to be uttered by this Richfield man.

Again the attention of the council of defense is called to this specific case. If there is a man in or around Richfield with these sentiments there is a place at Fort Douglas for him and the council of defense should act.

Such objectors could expect to be shunned, or worse. The Brigham City, Utah Box Elder News approvingly reported, “the way of the slacker is coming to be so odious and hard that might few individuals care to tread it.” Whippings, tarrings & featherings, and beatings were among the discouragements. Another common treatment was yellow paint:

“Peace on earth; good will toward all mankind” was not fully demonstrated in Hugo [Colorado] morning, early, when yellow paint was used freely in decorating the buildings of a citizen who had not subscribed as liberally as some thought he should to the various war funds, and for liberty bonds. The yellow paint seemed to act as a persuader however, and the aforesaid citizen purchased $1300 worth of War savings stamps and donated $200 to the Red Cross and United War workers, and all is peace once more in patriotic Hugo.

In other cases, resisters’ property was stolen and used to purchase Bonds:

When an unconfirmed rumor was received that members of a Mennonite colony at Jamesville [South Dakota] had refused to buy Liberty bonds, officers in charge of the loan campaign visited the colony and drove away 100 head of steers and 1,000 sheep.

In a statement issued subsequently it was said the animals would be sold and the money invested in Liberty bonds and applied to the Jamesville quota. The Mennonites offered no opposition to the bond “salesmen.”

I was able to find a lot of the newspaper articles referenced in today’s entry by following leads and searching for keywords suggested by reading H.C. Peterson’s and Gilbert C. Fite’s book Opponents of War, (). The patriotic fervor of that time, and the lynch mob hysteria of the pro-war faction in America, reminded me of the “freedom fries” days after . Only it was far worse then — people rounded up and put away for expressing their political opinions, conscientious objectors sentenced to decades of hard labor, mobs chasing down immigrants and forcing them to kiss the flag.

I read stories like these and I reflect on how safe it is today to dissent in the United States, and yet how few can be bothered to do it. I think of the weak-kneed peaceniks like the clownish nebbish at the Tikkun booth at an anti-war rally in Berkeley a few months back whom I tried to talk into war tax resistance, but who told me with trembling voice how afraid he was to cross the IRS at a time like this when our government is so contemptuous of civil liberties. And I want to scream.