History of War Tax Resistance

Refusing to pay taxes for war is probably as old as the first taxes levied for warfare.

Up until World War II, war tax resistance in the U.S. primarily manifested itself among members of the historic peace churches — Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren — and usually only during times of war. There have been instances of people refusing to pay taxes for war in virtually every American war, but it was not until World War II and the establishment of a permanent, centralized U.S. military (symbolized by the building of the Pentagon) was the modern war tax resistance movement born.

Colonial America

One of the earliest known instances of war tax refusal took place in 1637 when the relatively peaceable Algonquin Indians opposed taxation by the Dutch to help improve a local Dutch fort. Shortly after the Quakers arrived in America (1656) there were a number of individual instances of war tax resistance. In 1709 the Quaker Assembly refused a request of £4000 for an expedition into Canada, replying “it was contrary to their religious principles to hire men to kill one another.”

American Revolution

Most Quakers were opposed to taxes designated specifically for military purposes. Though the official position of the Society of Friends was against any payment of war taxes. Property was seized and auctioned, and many Quakers were jailed for their war tax resistance. A number of Quakers even refused the “mixed taxes.” Up to 500 Quakers were disowned for paying war taxes or joining the army.

Following the war many Quakers continued to refuse because these taxes were being used to pay the war debt, and therefore were essentially war taxes.

Mexican War

The Quakers reacted strongly to this war because of its aggressive nature and the threatened spread of slavery posed by the war. Many, again, refused to pay war taxes. However, the most famous instance of war tax resistance was that of Henry David Thoreau. Although not a pacifist he was opposed to slavery, and the imperialist and unjust nature of the war. His refusal to pay the Massachusetts poll tax levied for the war resulted in a night in jail. This whole experience was recorded in his essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” which has had a profound influence on many people since.

World War II

Until World War II the individual income tax was a minor part of the federal government receipts (affecting no more than 3 percent of the population). However with the introduction of the employee withholding tax in 1943, for the first time a large percentage of the population was subject to the income tax. The unprecedented amount of money being raised and spent for World War II suddenly touched the consciousness of many pacifists, who up until the war were not required to pay taxes.

In 1942 Ernest Bromley refused payment of $7.09 for a “defense tax stamp” required for all cars, and thus became the first known war tax resister in the modern era. He was arrested and eventually jailed for 60 days. Though Bromley and a few other pacifists did not pay income taxes during World War II, but there was no movement of war tax refusal.

Post-World War II

In April of 1948 a conference on “More Disciplined and Revolutionary Pacifist Activity” was held in Chicago, attended by over 300 people. The Call to the Conference (signed by A.J. Muste, Dave Dellinger, Harrop Freeman, George Houser, Dwight Macdonald, Ernest Bromley, and Marion Bromley, among others) expressed a need for a more revolutionary pacifist program and action techniques. Out of this conference grew a new organization, calling itself the Peacemakers. Their newsletter was titled Peacemaker. About forty people who attended the conference stated their intention to refuse part or all of their federal income taxes, forming a Tax Refusal Committee.

This Committee began almost immediately to publish news bulletins, independent of the Peacemaker. The bulletins were instrumental in engendering concern and giving information on tax refusal. War tax refusal succeeded in achieving nationwide publicity in 1949 with the issue of a Peacemaker press release titled “Forty-one Refuse to Pay Income Tax.” For almost twenty years Peacemakers was virtually the only consistent source of information and support for war tax resisters. The Catholic Worker, The Progressive, Fellowship, and a few other movement newsletters and magazines, would occasionally print sympathetic articles on war tax resistance.

Following World War II and up to the start of the Vietnam War only six people were imprisoned for war tax resistance related issues: James Otsuka, Maurice McCrackin, Juanita Nelson, Eroseanna Robinson, Walter Gormly, and Arthur Evans. All had been found in contempt of court for refusing to cooperate in one way or another with the proceedings.

In 1963 the Peacemakers published the first handbook on war tax resistance, appropriately titled Handbook on Nonpayment of War Taxes.

Indochina War

War tax resistance gained nationwide publicity when Joan Baez announced in 1964 her refusal to pay 60 percent of her 1963 income taxes because of the war in Vietnam. In 1965 the Peacemakers formed the “No Tax for War in Vietnam Committee,” obtaining signers to the pledge “I am not going to pay taxes on 1964 income.” By 1967 about 500 people had signed the pledge.

Then several events in the mid- to late-1960s occurred making this a pivotal period for the war resistance movement, signaling a shift in war tax resistance from a couple hundred to eventually tens of thousands of refusers.

A committee led by A.J. Muste obtained 370 signatures (including Joan Baez, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, David Dellinger, Dorothy Day, Noam Chomsky, Nobel Prize winner Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, publisher Lyle Stuart, and Staughton Lynd) for an ad in The Washington Post, which proclaimed their intention not to pay all or part of their 1965 income taxes.

A suggestion in 1966 to form a mass movement around the refusal to pay the (at that time) 10 percent telephone tax was given an initial boost by Chicago tax resister Karl Meyer. This was followed by War Resisters League developing a national campaign in the late 1960s to encourage refusal to pay the telephone tax.

In 1967, Gerald Walker of The New York Times Magazine began the organizing of Writers and Editors War Tax Protest. The 528 writers and editors (including Gloria Steinem and Kirkpatrick Sale) pledged themselves to refuse the 10 percent war surtax (which had just been added to income taxes) and possibly the 23 percent of their income tax allocated for the war. Most daily newspapers refused to sell space for the ad. Only the New York Post (at that time, a liberal newspaper), Ramparts (a popular left-wing anti-war magazine), and the New York Review of Books carried it. To see an image of the ad, click on link above.

Ken Knudson, in a 1965 letter to the Peacemaker, suggested that inflating the W-4 form would stop withholding. Again, Karl Meyer was instrumental in promoting this idea, which was adopted by Peacemakers, Catholic Worker, and War Resisters League, among other organizations in the late 1960s. Inflating W-4 forms also brought a new wave of indictments and jailings by the government — 16 were indicted for claiming too many dependents; of those, six were actually jailed.

The number of known income tax resisters grew from 275 in 1966 to an estimated 20,000 in the early 1970s. The number of telephone tax resisters was estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. Many groups were formed around the country including “people’s life funds,” to which people sent their war tax resisted money to fund community programs.

The popularity of war tax resistance grew to such an extent that the WRL could no longer handle the volume of requests. So in 1969 a press conference was held in New York City to announce the founding of the National War Tax Resistance (WTR). Long-time peace activist Bradford Lyttle was the first coordinator. Local WTR chapters blossomed around the country, and by 1972 there were 192 such groups. WTR published a comprehensive handbook on tax resistance, Ain’t Gonna Pay for War No More (edited by Robert Calvert), and put out a monthly newsletter, Tax Talk. Radical members of the historic peace churches began to urge their constituencies to refuse war taxes.

In 1972 Congressman Ronald Dellums (CA) introduced the World Peace Tax Fund Act in Congress, which was designed to create a conscientious objector status for taxpayers. The National Council for a World Peace Tax Fund was formed to promote this legislation (later changed to National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund). The bill has been introduced into each Congress since.

During the Indochina War, war tax resistance gained its greatest strength ever in the history of the United States, and on a secular basis rather than as a result of the historic peace churches, who played a very minor role this time. The government did its best to stop this increase in tax resistance, but was hamstrung by telephone tax resisters. There were so many resisters and so little tax owed per person that the IRS lost money every time they made a collection. The cost of bank levies, garnished wages, automobile and property seizures, and even the simplest IRS paperwork was simply too expensive to be worth it.

The Reagan Military Escalation

National WTR folded in 1975 with the end of the Indochina War. By 1977 war tax resistance dropped to about 20,000 telephone tax resisters and a few thousand income tax resisters. Then in 1978 some radical members of the three historic peace churches got together to issue a “New Call to Peacemaking” that suggested war tax resistance as one way to oppose the arms race. The Center on Law and Pacifism was formed in 1978 to assist these and other war tax resistance efforts, issuing the book People Pay for Peace (by William Durland) in 1979.

With the election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980 and his call to rearm the U.S., many more people began to resist war taxes. The IRS admitted the number of war tax resisters tripled between 1978 and 1981. Like Joan Baez’s tax refusal announcement seventeen years before, a national stir was created in 1981 when Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle urged citizens to refuse to pay 50 percent of their income taxes to protest spending on nuclear weapons. Letters of endorsement of his stand were made by other religious leaders in Seattle and elsewhere around the country.

In 1982 the War Resisters League published the first edition of The Guide to War Tax Resistance, which sought to provide a broad and comprehensive source of information incorporating the out-of-print Ain’t Gonna Pay for War No More, Peacemakers’ Handbook on the Nonpayment of War Taxes, as well as new material not included in either book. A fifth edition of the book came out in 2003. About the same time, WRL began producing its annual “tax piechart” street flyer, which analyzed the spending of the Federal government while promoting protests to military spending.

This renewed interest in war tax resistance, spurred on by the unprecedented increase in military spending during peacetime, stimulated an escalated response by the government. Though there have been only three criminal prosecutions of war tax resisters since 1980, the IRS shifted tactics and began seizing property. In 1984 and 1985 after almost ten years of very few seizures, about a half dozen automobiles and a similar number of houses were seized from war tax resisters. Furthermore, in 1982 the government came up with a new civil penalty which was specifically aimed at war tax resisters. Called the “frivolous” fine, it charged a $500 penalty against anyone who altered their 1040 forms (e.g., by claiming a war tax deduction).

In an effort to coordinate the growing interest in war tax resistance, a National Action Conference was called by WRL and the Center on Law and Pacifism in 1982. Out of this conference the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC) was formed. Every spring NWTRCC has issued press releases announcing Tax Day actions around the country. In addition to a bimonthly newsletter with the latest war tax resistance news, NWTRCC has issued several brochures, produced a slide show, and published the War Tax Manual for Counselors and Lawyers.

The End of the “Cold War”

In 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by the collapse of the former Soviet bloc, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Cold War ended. War tax resisters and others expected a major reduction in the U.S. military and looked for ways to work in coalition with groups calling for a “peace dividend.” However, a little more than a year later, George Bush sent U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf region, and war tax resistance groups were flooded with calls from people saying that they’d “had enough!”

Also in 1989, the IRS seized and auctioned the Colrain, MA, home of war tax resisters Randy Kehler and Betsy Corner; shortly thereafter, the home of resisters Bob Bady and Pat Morse, neighbors of Kehler-Corner, was also seized and auctioned. Within hours, a support committee was formed. Significant articles appeared in newspapers across the country. After their eviction in 1991, the house was occupied by a rotating collection of affinity groups until 1992, when the new owners forced their way in. A continuous vigil outside lasted until the fall of 1993. Throughout this entire period, considerable publicity, actions, and support were generated bringing a lot of attention to war tax resistance, U.S. military spending, and the misplaced priorities of the government. Four years later “An Act of Conscience,” a 90-minute film about the struggle, was finished.

Meanwhile, from 1990 to 1993 the Alternative Revenue Service (ARS) was developed by the WRL and co-sponsored by NWTRCC and the Conscience and Military Tax Campaign. It grew out of a desire, shared by many war tax resisters, to have a nationally organized campaign that would reach out to new communities in a creative way, suggesting that even a token level of tax resistance is a valuable protest. During the 1990-1991 tax season, 70,000 EZ Peace forms – a parody of the IRS’s 1040EZ form – were circulated. About 500 forms were returned and over $105,000 in resisted taxes were redirected to alternative funds and other groups. By 1993, a decline in interest, made that the last season for the ARS.

Numerous well-publicized cases of IRS abuse led to Congressional hearings in 1997 and 1998, and resulted in the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act. Among the changes, were some reductions in interest and penalties, some restrictions on levies and seizures, reorganizing the IRS away from a geographical structure to one that concentrates on types of taxpayers (individuals, small businesses and the self-employed, corporations, and tax-exempt groups), and a number of more cosmetic (as far as war tax resisters are concerned) changes. The IRS also cut back on the number of collection agents, liens, levies, and seizures of property.

In 1993 Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in an attempt to accommodate individual conscience in instances where a person’s religious beliefs may be adversely affected by the government. In the late 1990s three court cases were filed by Quaker war tax resisters using RFRA and the First Amendment guarantee to the free exercise of religion in an attempt to have penalties against war tax resisters removed and permit them to pay only for non-military programs. These cases were dismissed in lower courts, appealed, then dismissed again in the Second and Third Circuit Courts. In 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear any of the appeals.

The “War on Terrorism” (2001-?)

Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush began bombing Afghanistan and sent in ground troops to topple the ruling Taliban regime in the name of fighting terrorism. U.S. special forces were also deployed around the world to countries including Indonesia, the Philippines, and Colombia.

In March 2003, the U.S. launched an all-out war against Iraq, a country with no role in the September 11th attacks. Historically, the level of activity of the war tax resistance movement, as with that of the peace movement in general, rises and falls with national and international events. It is too early to tell what the effect this new war will have on war tax resistance. If the “war on terrorism” lasts a long time – as the President Bush has promised – then there is sure to be an enormous growth in the peace movement with a major resurgence in war tax resistance.

For more information on the history of war tax resistance, see the War Resisters League’s War Tax Resistance: A Guide to Withholding Your Support from the Military.