The Early Years of the Modern U.S. War Tax Resistance Movement

Here is an excerpt from Scott H. Bennett’s Radical Pacifism: The War Resisters League and Gandhian Nonviolence in America concerning the origins of the modern American war tax resistance movement:

In a small tax resistance movement emerged when several tax refusers learned about one another and began to correspond. Many of these early tax resisters were WRL members. Abraham Kaufman, the League’s executive secretary, facilitated many of these contacts. At its founding conference in , Peacemakers established a Tax Refusal Committee. League members formed a majority on this committee, which was chaired by Ernest Bromley, a Methodist minister and the nation’s leading proponent of tax resistance.

For the next two decades, Bromley championed tax resistance and publicized examples from three continents to demonstrate its power. American examples included Quaker tax resistance during both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, the popular tax protests by colonists during the American Revolution, and Henry David Thoreau’s refusal to pay the Massachusetts poll tax to protest the Mexican War. He also cited England’s Wat Tyler (fourteenth century) and John Hampden (seventeenth century). Finally, he invoked Gandhi and the Indian independence movement; both resorted to tax resistance in the struggle against British rule.

For both moral and pragmatic reasons, tax resistance appealed to Peacemakers and to radical pacifists. Most important, it enabled absolutists to express their total commitment against militarism and war. The Peacemakers’ literature underscored this uncompromising position. One publication explained that tax resistance “is not merely a protest. It is an act.” Aware that modern, technological warfare required huge expenditures, tax resisters were seeking to cripple war preparation — and war — through nonpayment of taxes. Other literature asserted that nearly 35 percent of the national budget was earmarked for the military and that 80 percent paid for past, present, and future wars. The “new push-button type warfare,” Bromley declared, would require “more drafted dollars than drafted men.” Tax resisters were hoping to influence American policy by publicly repudiating military preparedness and weapon stockpiling before conflict broke out again. Unlike COs and nonregistration, tax resistance was both age and gender neutral. By enabling men and women of all ages and occupations to participate, tax refusal expanded the sphere of war resistance and promoted solidarity with draft-eligible men.

Ernest and Marion Bromley, whose Wilmington, Ohio, home served as unofficial headquarters of the Tax Refusal Committee, embodied the spirit of tax resistance. “The time has now come,” Ernest exclaimed in his IRS tax statement, “when men ought no longer to depend solely upon their spoken witness against war or preparation for it. They ought to prepare themselves for an outright resistance by a thorough-going dissociation with the war-making system.” In her letter to the tax collector, Marion charged that “this country did not turn to peace at the end of World War Ⅱ, but instead sought to protect and expand an American Empire,” declaring “I want to dissociate myself as completely as possible from these tragic, suicidal and evil policies… and to do all I can to convince my fellow citizens that we must completely renounce the way of war and violence.” The Bromleys believed that radical pacifist individuals and organizations must assume risks for war resistance. Anticipating the New Left, Ernest asserted: “Pacifists believe… that there is a… time and place where they as individuals must simply come to a stop, and ‘clog [the system] with their whole weight.’ Perhaps that time and place have come.”

Four months after its formation, Peacemakers’ Tax Refusal Committee published the statements of active tax resisters. Many of these people were WRL members. These statements illustrate the total commitment and absolutist nature of Peacemakers and of a section of the League. Writing in a different venue, Caroline Urie similarly declared:

In a time of crisis like the present it is our duty as sovereign citizens to defend our country not only with protest but with our lives, if necessary, against military enslavement and the possible annihilation implicit in atomic and bacterial warfare. In the brief time at our disposal, protest is not enough; if we are to assume real responsibility, we must act in a manner simple enough and clear enough to be understood and to arouse public conscience.

As justification for tax resistance, several WRL members pointed to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, which had established the principle of individual responsibility for wartime actions, even in the face of wartime orders. In his letter to the IRS, Walter Gormley declared that he was “refusing to make any federal income tax payment, because they money would be used mostly for ‘crimes against peace.’ ” “The U.S. is preparing for a shooting war of aggression by maintaining bases, subservient governments and military forces from Korea to Turkey, by intensive research on methods of mass slaughter and by maintaining a huge military organization,” he charged. “I must refrain from supporting such a government.” Likewise, Valerie Riggs explained that “if our government… at Nuremberg could hold individuals responsible to stand against crime… I feel thoroughly justified by my own government in not paying this part of my tax.”

Perhaps A.J. Muste best expressed the compelling logic of tax resistance. “World War Ⅲ has already started,” he exclaimed in :

I cannot support a government in these war-measures, which I deem insane, wicked and suicidal. I must withdraw support from such war-measures in every possible way. The two decisive powers of government… are the power to conscript and the power to tax. Pacifists recognize that to be consistent they must refuse to be conscripted for military service or training. I have come… to the conviction that I at least am in conscience bound… to challenge the right of the government to tax me for waging war, and in particular for the production of atomic and bacterial weapons… The need for getting our pacifist teaching off the level of talk and writing and onto the level of action is, I believe, imperative.

Peacemakers was highly critical of pacifist organizations — the WRL included — that collected withholding taxes from their employees. By withholding taxes these pacifist groups were effectively barring tax refusers from working for them, or forcing them to resign. Both the WRL and the FOR paid a lot of attention to this issue. A special committee of the FOR examined the problem for a year before recommending that the FOR withhold taxes, even though most FOR employees had indicated that they wanted to make individual decisions about tax refusal. Staff member Marion Coddington (Bromley) resigned over the policy. The WRL also decided to withhold taxes. In justifying this policy, a member of the League’s executive committee declared: “The life of the organization is at stake.” The Peacemakers’ Tax Refusal Committee, which characterized the WRL and other pacifist groups as “tax collectors for the government,” was scathing in its denunciation. “If pacifist organizations, whose business is to create a warless world, are not ready to risk something for war resistance now,” the committee asked, “when will they be ready?”

Tax resistance took various forms. Total refusers paid not tax. Since most workers could not avoid withholding tax, total refusers were often self-employed. Miriam Keeler and Marion Coddington Bromley resigned from the Labor Department and the FOR staff in order to avoid the withholding taxes. Percentage refusers withheld that portion of taxes corresponding to the percentage the federal government would spend on war preparation and the military (calculations ranged from 35 to 80 percent). Finally, some tax resisters chose to live on an income below the taxable level or to work at several part-time, low-income jobs to preclude employers from withholding taxes. Some tax resisters refused to submit tax returns; others explained their action in letters to local tax collectors and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Some tax resisters, instead of remitting taxes to the government, contributed the money to WRL and other peace and justice organizations.

As a result of Peacemakers’ activism, tax resistance became a major issue for the WRL. The League sold stickers that tax resisters could attach to their tax forms. “This tax goes chiefly for war purposes, as a pacifist I pay under protest.” In the League passed several resolutions commending those, members or not, who practiced tax resistance. Beginning in , several tax resisters began donating a portion of their unpaid income tax to the League, an act consistent with their willingness to pay taxes for nonmilitary social programs. The League established a special literature fund for these donations to ensure that they did not go to pay staff salaries, which were subject to withholding taxes.

Ammon Hennacy, a WRL member most often associated with the Catholic Worker movement, was a pioneer tax refuser praised by the League. A “Christian anarchist,” he first practiced tax refusal in , when the tax withholding system was implemented. Each year at tax time he prepared a statement and mailed it to the IRS. Hennacy’s tax statement reflected the direct action and civil disobedience impulse that would shake the League over the next half-decade. “We can refuse to put our trust in Princes and Presidents,” he declared. “With Thoreau and Gandhi we can start our own campaign of Civil Disobedience by refusal to buy war bonds… and… pay taxes for war or conscription.” In , Hennacy began expanding his protest; each year, on 6 August, he fasted and picketed the local IRS office for as many days as years had passed since . While picketing, he distributed tax statements and leaflets that repudiated war, advocated anarchism, and declared his tax resistance. When threatened with arrest for disturbing the peace while picketing, he retorted: “I’m disturbing the war.”

In a letter to Hennacy, [Abraham] Kaufman expressed his disagreement with tax resistance. But then he added: “I admire your guts and want you to know that I am with you, for each of us must use the methods he feels to be effective in bringing the world out of its present insanity. Your method may prove most effective in the long run.” Although he did not delude himself that his “One Man Revolution” would change government policy or transform the world, Hennacy insisted on the moral imperative of individual resistance to the militaristic state.

By , radicals had succeeded in raising the issue of the WRL’s payment of withholding taxes, especially for members like Roy Kepler who supported tax refusal. In the WRL endorsed CCCO assistance for tax resisters and authorized a review of the issue. Although they extended moral support to tax refusers and publicized their actions, most League members did not support tax resistance, and the WRL did not officially endorse it. Kaufman, in particular, insisted that it would be “unethical” for a small minority to “coerce” the League into accepting such a policy. With minor revisions, the League accepted its subcommittee’s Withholding Tax Report. Concluding that its survival as an organization took priority over tax refusal, the League decided to continue to withhold income taxes from its employees.

The WRL eventually changed its policy on withholding, and stopped withholding income taxes from the wages of one of its tax-resisting employees, Ralph DiGia, in .