Public Comment

Commentary: The Noble American Tradition of Tax Resistance

By Gar Smith
Friday April 11, 2008

Ask the average American to name a famous war-tax resister and most folks would probably cite Henry David Thoreau. But how about Joan Baez, Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem and Julia Butterfly Hill? 

The author of Walden Pond was an anomaly in 1846 when he served time in a Massachusetts jail for refusing to finance the Mexican-American War but, 120 years later, Baez, Chomsky and Steinem—and more than 500,000 fellow Americans— openly resisted paying taxes to support the war in Vietnam. 

Following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Baez, Chomsky and Steinem issued a new Appeal to Conscience proclaiming that citizens had a “moral duty” to oppose Bush’s aggression by refusing “to pay taxes used to finance unjust wars.” Today, as the Iraq occupation enters its sixth year, war-tax resistance is gaining new converts. 

In 2004, Julia Butterfly Hill refused to pay her Federal taxes to protest spending on killing. She redirected her withheld taxes to fund conservation and social justice programs. As Hill explained, “Every time I pass a newspaper stand and see a headline about the war, it’s good to know I’m contributing to a different headline.” 


Pulitzer-prizewinning New York Times reporter Chris Hedges recently declared his intention to refuse paying taxes if the U.S. attacks Iran, and prompting others to make similar pledges. 

The link between taxpayers and warmongers was underscored during the Vietnam War when Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State Alexander Haig dismissed anti-war protesters with the comment: “Let them march all they want, as long as they continue to pay their taxes.” 

“Taxation is the closest war-making link between the government and most citizens,” the War Resisters League (WRL) notes. “The maintenance of [America’s] arsenal depends upon the willingness of the American people ... to finance it.” 

The Pentagon spent $1.6 trillion on weapons in 2007—double the billions spent in 2000—and the Center for Defense Information estimates “national defense” now consumes more than half (51 percent) of all discretionary spending in the federal budget. The true impact is obscured by accounting tricks like the “Unified Budget,” which includes Trust Funds such as Social Security to make the military portion of the budget appear smaller than it actually is. 


A Short History of Taxation and  


Until the outbreak of WWII, war-tax resistance was largely limited to a few religious communities—notably the Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren. The rise of a US “War Economy” in 1943, saw the introduction of employee withholding—a preemptive seizure of earnings designed to conscript the wages of working Americans. 

In April 1948, American pacifist A. J. Muste responded by creating a tax-resistance 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.” 

In 1964, singer Joan Baez made war-tax resistance a national issue when she vowed to withhold 60 percent of her taxes to protest the Vietnam War. A tax-resistance statement authored by Muste was signed by Baez, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, ‘Catholic Worker’ founder Dorothy Day, professor Noam Chomsky, publisher Lyle Stuart, Nobel Prizewinner Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and thousands of others. 

When Washington imposed a 10-percent surcharge on phone use to cover the escalating costs of the Vietnam War, Gore Vidal, Gloria Steinem, Kirkpatrick Sale and 528 colleagues announced a Writers and Editors War Tax Protest. 

The early 1970s saw more than 20,000 active federal tax resisters while phone-tax protesters swelled to an estimated 500,000. The IRS had to throw in the towel on phone-tax refuseniks because the individual amounts withheld were so small, the government actually lost money on the few cases it did pursue. 

By 1972, there were War Tax Resistance chapters in 192 US cities and churches were openly encouraging tax resistance. Then-Congressman Ronald Dellums introduced the World Peace Tax Fund Act to create a “conscientious objector” status for taxpayers. 


Resistance Strategies 

The government’s aggression in the Middle East has given tax-resisters new justification for non-cooperation. And, with Washington operating in defiance of the United Nations Charter, the Nuremberg Principles, the Geneva Conventions and the US Constitution, some resisters argue that filing 1040s could render taxpayers “complicit” in the commission of war crimes. 

Resisting war-taxes can be as simple as filing a blank 1040 with a note of explanation. Some resisters fill out 1040s but refuse to pay all or a token amount of taxes owed. Some refuse to pay the percentage that goes to war while others withhold a symbolic $10.40 or underpay their tax levy by a dollar. 

Some make their 1040 checks payable to the Department of Education or the EPA while others donate the withheld portion of their taxes to organizations like the Peoples Life Fund in Berkeley. The PLF redirects liberated war dollars to peace and social justice causes. On April 14, the PLF will award $10,000 to dozens of peace organizations in a Tax Day event set for 6 PM at the Co-Housing coop at 2220 Sacramento. 

Tax resisters can face civil penalties on the amount owed (plus compound interest at a rate of around 10 percent) but One Million Taxpayers for Peace advises that the actual risk is “negligible” and resisters need not fear arrest or the loss of “one’s car, home or other assets.” Criminal prosecution is possible but uncommon. 


Such penalties would become a thing of the past under the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Act (H.R. 1921), which allows citizens to assign the “defense” portion of their taxes to a fund supporting peace work and social services. The bill, introduced by Rep. John Lewis (D. GA), now has 30 co-sponsors. 


If neither Congress nor the United Nations can prevent Washington from launching preemptive wars of occupation, a National Tax Strike may be the last, best hope for reining in this rogue administration. 


For more information, contact the War Resisters League (, National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee ( and the Northern California War Tax Resistance (