Tax Strike! How to Say No to War on April 15
by Gar Smith / The-Edge
April 11, 2003

Credit: Michael Macor / SF Chronicle
If you ask the average citizen to identify a famous American war-tax resister, most folks (if they came up with a name at all) would probably cite "Henry David Thoreau." But how about Joan Baez, Noam Chomsky or Gloria Steinem?

While the author of Walden Pond is remembered for the night he spent in a Massachusetts jail for refusing to pay a levy to support the Mexican-American war of 1846, his solitary protest was an anomaly. But 120 years later, Baez, Chomsky and Steinem were joined by more than 500,000 US citizens who openly opposed paying tax tribute to support Washington's bloody campaign in Vietnam.

Today, with tens of millions of Americans marching to protest the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq, the nonviolent tactic of war-tax resistance is gaining converts as tax day approaches on April 15.

And, as before, Baez and company have issued a new Appeal to Conscience proclaiming that citizens have a "moral duty" to oppose Washington's war of occupation by "refusal to pay taxes used to finance unjust wars."

The link between taxpayers and warmongers was drawn indelibly during the Vietnam War era when US Secretary of State Alexander Haig was asked about the growing throngs of protesters filling America's streets. "Let them march all they want," Haig scoffed, "as long as they continue to pay their taxes."

"Before governments can buy weapons and hire soldiers, they must first raise the necessary money through taxes or borrowing," the War Resisters League (WRL) observes. "Taxation is the closest war-making link between the government and most citizens." According to WRL, since WW II, the percentage of the federal budget devoted to military expenses (past and present) has ranged from 45 percent to as high as 90 percent.

The Center for Defense Information (CDI) notes that the FY 2004 federal budget includes "$782 billion for discretionary spending (the money the President and Congress must decide and act to spend each year), $399 billion of which will go to the Pentagon." Put another way, CDI observes, spending for "national defense" now comprises more than half (51 percent) of all discretionary spending in the current US budget.

The Real 'Tax Cheats' Are in Washington
The true impact of military spending on the federal budget is obscured by several accounting tricks, WRL claims. "Each year, when the government announces the budget, they mix Federal Funds with Trust Funds (such as Social Security) to create a 'Unified Budget.' But, in reality, Trust Funds are completely separated from Federal Funds." The Unified Budget was created during the Vietnam War to mask the impact of the war's cost by making the military portion of the budget appear smaller and the human needs portion larger.

Social Security funds are raised and spent separately from income taxes. The federal budget's revenue comes from taxes on workers' incomes, on corporate earnings, on tobacco, alcohol, telephone service, customs and estates.

Politicians who benefit from the lobbying largesse of the "defense" industry like to argue that military spending creates jobs. But according to WRL, "dollar-for-dollar, the same amount of money creates nearly twice as many jobs in education or health care."

As WRL comments, "millions of people are underfed, unemployed and homeless while billions of dollars are spent to fuel, house and store weapons, tanks, plans and ships, and to recruit and train our youth in the ways of war." And, because the Pentagon is one of the worst polluters on the planet, taxpayers also "end up paying again to clean up after the military."

A Short History of Taxation and Resistance
Tax-resistance is as old as recorded history. Luke 23:2 records that tax resistance was one of the "crimes" that brought Jesus to the attention of the Romans occupying Palestine.

Until the outbreak of WWII, war tax resistance was largely limited to a few religious communities -- notably the Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren. Perhaps this is because, before WWII, individual income taxes affected fewer than three percent of the population.

The rise of a US "War Economy" required an expanded tax base. Government fears of a massive tax revolt were allayed in 1943 with the introduction of employee withholding, a preemptory seizure of earnings that brought a majority of the population under the tax laws.

In April 1948, a coalition of notable American pacifists including A. J. Muste, Dave Dellinger and others created a group called the "Peacemakers." As Muste memorably observed: "People are drafted through the Selective Service System and money is drafted through the Internal Revenue Service."

Forty-one Peacemakers refused to pay income taxes. Because the numbers were small, the government could afford to tolerate these principled dissidents. From WWII to start of Vietnam War, only six people served jail sentences for war-tax resistance.

The situation changed radically with the Vietnam War. In 1964, war-tax resistance became a national issue when Joan Baez publicly risked jail by announcing her decision to withhold the 60 percent of her taxes that would be diverted to fund the Vietnam War. By 1967, about 500 people had signed a "No Tax for War in Vietnam" pledge.

By the late 1960s, tens of thousands of Americans were refusing to pay for war. Muste organized a tax-resistance statement that was signed by Baez, Dellinger, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, linguist Noam Chomsky, publisher Lyle Stuart and Nobel Prizewinner Albert Szent-Gyorgyi.

When Washington imposed a ten-percent surcharge on phone bills to pay for the escalating costs of a failing war, Gore Vidal, Gloria Steinem, Kirkpatrick Sale and 528 colleagues formed the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest. In addition to refusing the telephone surcharge, they signaled their intent to refuse payment of the 23 percent of their income tax that would be diverted to finance the Vietnam War.

Between 1966 and the early1970s, the number of income tax resisters soared from a few hundred to more than 20,000. The number of phone-tax resisters numbered in the hundreds of thousands. By 1972, there were War Tax Resistance chapters in 192 US cities and churches had begun to openly encourage their members to refuse war taxes. Some churches even established funds to help resisters who were being harassed by the IRS.

In 1972, Congressman Ronald Dellums (D-CA) introduced the World Peace Tax Fund Act, which called for the creation of a special "conscientious objector" status for taxpayers. The legislation, now called the Peace Tax Fund, has been introduced in every session of Congress for the past 30 years.

While the Johnson and Nixon administrations did their best to discourage income tax resistance, the IRS had to throw in the towel when it came to phone-tax refusniks. Because the monthly amounts withheld by each individual were so small, it just wasn't cost-effective to send IRS agents off to hound phone-tax rebels. The government actually lost money on the few cases they pursued.

When Ronald Reagan rode into Washington with a plan for a costly expansion of military spending, the number of tax resisters tripled. In 1981, Seattle's Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen called upon his flock to oppose the nuclear arms race by withholding 50 percent of their income taxes.

This resurgence of tax-resistance triggered an increased response from the government, which began seizing resisters' property, including half-a-dozen homes and some automobiles. In 1982, the IRS introduced a new law that imposed a $500 fine on any citizen who filed a "frivolous" tax form, claiming a war-tax deduction.

After the Berlin Wall fell, Americans looked forward to a "peace dividend" that would return billions of tax dollars to the civil sector, making it possible to rebuild the country's roads, schools and medical systems. But within six months, George W. H. Bush sent US troops off to attack Iraqi troops in Kuwait. The Peace Dividend evaporated in the roar of the Pentagon's demand for new weapons.

Resistance Strategies
The Bush Doctrine hits home. On April 7, police opened fire on peace pickets at an Oakland protest, sending several protesters and bystanders to the hospital. Credit: Paul Sakuma
Hard-core tax-resisters file a blank 1040 with a note of explanation. Some fill out 1040s but refuse to pay all or a token amount of taxes due. Some people refuse to pay just the percentage that goes to war while others withhold $10.40 or underpay their tax levy by a dollar. [See]

The WRL notes that withholding the percentage that "goes to the military" doesn't actually defund the DOD, since a certain percentage of whatever one contributes still winds up going to the Pentagon.

Other war-tax-resistance strategies include earning less than the taxable income or working as a domestic servant, day laborer, minister or agricultural worker (they are all exempt from withholding).

The most popular and least risky form of tax resistance remains the refusal to pay the federal surcharge on telephone bills. During the peak of Vietnam War protests in 1972, it was estimated that half a million Americans were refusing to pay the phone tax.

The IRS estimates that the phone-tax brought in more than $34 billion from 1995 to 2001 -- a record $5.7 billion in 2001 alone. But phone companies do not like to be put in the position of trying to collect taxes for the government, so this act of resistance is widely tolerated. A simple "statement of conscience" enclosed with the monthly bill is all that is required.

No Taxation without Representation
The principle of "no taxation without representation" is eminently applicable to an administration that routinely ignores popular support for environmental protection, public education, medical care, labor and women's rights. Bush's refusal to abide by a host of international agreements covering landmines, global warming and the rights of children provides additional grounds for tax-resistance.

Finally, the government's aggression in the Middle East gives tax-resisters further legal and moral justification since Washington is operating in open defiance of the United Nations Charter, the Nuremberg Principles, the Geneva Conventions and the US Constitution.

Generally, people who refuse to pay receive several tax-due notes threatening civil penalties of 5 to 25 percent on the amount owed -- plus compound interest at a rate for around 10%. If the amount is not paid, the government can attach wages, bank accounts, property, cars and homes. Criminal prosecution is possible but uncommon.

These penalties could become a thing of the past if Congress were to pass (and the president were to sign) the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Bill. A Peace Tax Bill would allow citizens opposed to war to assign the "defense" portion of their taxes to a fund supporting peace work and social needs. The Religious Freedom Peace Tax Bill will be introduced in the 108th Congress around Tax Day April 15.

Starting to Stop the War on April 15
Meanwhile, a bloody conflict rains death and destruction on the Iraqi people and claims the lives of US and British soldiers far from home. When ten million people around the world marched against the threat of war, George W. Bush dismissed this unprecedented outpouring and declared he would not be swayed by a "focus group."

Congress has failed to rein in the Bush administration. The United Nations has failed to prevent the US from launching a preemptive attack on a nonbelligerent nation. At this point, a National Tax Strike may be the last, best tactic for bringing this rogue administration to account.

Not even Attorney General John Ascroft, wielding the all the terrible swift swords in the closets of the Department of Homeland Security, could marshal the police power and jail space needed to handle tens of millions of citizens if they all decided to take a stand for life, for law and for liberty on Tax Day, April 15.

As the WRL proclaimed in a recent public statement criticizing the invasion of Iraq: "The US government's ability to threaten and coerce other nations is a direct result of the unprecedented size of our military arsenal... The maintenance of this arsenal depends upon the willingness of the American people... to finance it."

For more information, contact the War Resisters League, 339 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012, (212) 228-0450,

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