Several years ago I tried to track down a source for this quote, which has been popular in war tax resistance circles for over three decades. I didn’t have any luck.
The quote still gets trotted out regularly by war tax resisters, even though the number of people who know who Alexander Haig was must be pretty small by this time. I’ve used it myself once or twice. It’s a good quote that makes a good point. I assumed it was genuine. But now I think it’s apocryphal and should be retired unless there’s a good source for it somewhere.
The most detailed accounts of the context of the quote claim that it was in response to the “March and Rally for Peace and Disarmament” that took place in New York City on . At the time, Haig was Secretary of State in the Reagan administration (though not for long — he submitted his resignation later that month). In some tellings, he was in the White House, and reacted spontaneously to the sight of a coordinated protest nearby. In others, he was asked by a reporter to comment on the New York protest some time after it happened.
It has proven difficult to find examples of this quote from earlier than or so. And even by the quote has mutated into a variety of forms, for example:
- “Let them march, so long as they pay their taxes.” (letter to the editor in the SANE/Freeze newsletter)
- “Let them march all they want, as long as they continue to pay their taxes.” (Robert Irwin’s Building a Peace System, 1989)
- “Let them demonstrate all they want, just as long as they pay their taxes.” (letter to the editor in the Bay Area Reporter, )
This suggests to me that this was something circulating in the “oral tradition” in the peace movement of the time. People remembered the gist of the quote, and it was too good not to use, even if they didn’t have an authoritative source for the quote handy. I found many examples of the quote being deployed, but none of them gave a source for the quote that was precise enough for me to look up. It began to look like this was one of those spurious apocryphal quotes that spreads like an urban legend because it’s “too good to check.”
I used various permutations of “[Let them / They can] [march / protest / demonstrate] [all they / as much as they] [want / like] [as long as / so long as / just as long as / if] they [pay / just pay / continue to pay / keep paying] their taxes” to hunt through newspaper archives and old books to try to find the origin of this quote, but I lost the trail pretty quickly.
Larry Rosenwald recently ran into the same difficulty tracking down the quote, and he asked on the wtr-s email list “I tried to trace the quotation to its origin, and I couldn’t find anything precise. Does anyone know the story here? Did Haig actually say this, and if so when and where?” So far nobody has been able to come up with a good source, but there’s since been some interesting back-and-forth on that list about whether or not war tax resisters should continue to use this quote in their propaganda even though they don’t seem to have any good reason to believe it’s genuine. There was a surprising amount of support for the idea that it doesn’t really matter whether it’s true or not:
- “it’s a great quotation, whether Alexander Haig said it or not!”
- “Did he ever deny it? Therefore I say use it!”
- “Someone said it, or we wouldn’t be quoting it. So it’s a quote.”
- “I have no problem using it and attributing to Haig. We’ve used it for years (despite this question coming up periodically). But I’m an activist, not an academic.”