Campaign of the Month: National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC)
“What would you do if someone came to your door with a cup in hand asking for a contribution to help buy guns to kill a group of people they didn't like?”
— Wally Nelson
Wally Nelson was a resister during World War II, one of many U.S. pacifists who not only refused to kill but didn’t want to pay for it either. In 1942, Ernest Bromley refused to buy a “defense tax stamp” for his car because the money went to the war, and the U.S. government took him to court. He spent 60 days in jail for refusing $7.09 for stamps and a $25 fine imposed by the court.
Wally and Ernest were influences for pacifists around the country, initiating what has become the modern war tax resistance movement in the U.S. They were active with Peacemakers and War Resisters League, and like other members and staff coming out of WWII, their emphasis was on direct action, such as refusal to pay for war.
In the mid-1950s, Ralph DiGia was the first WRL staff member to become a war tax resister. The organization not only stood behind Ralph but developed a policy of ignoring Internal Revenue Service (IRS) levies against Ralph, and many other staff members over the years to come. In 1974, frustrated by a lack of cooperation, the IRS seized money from the WRL bank account for unpaid taxes of resisting staff members. In 1978, the IRS took WRL to court to demand cooperation with collection efforts. The organization argued that it should not have to make staff members pay for war, but WRL lost the case. Though the bank account was seized again in 1981, WRL continues to support those staff members who resist.
This refusal helped to keep war tax resistance (WTR) as part of the WRL program for decades. Because of the rapid growth of resistance during the Vietnam War, the WRL was unable to handle the volume of requests for information, which led to the 1969 founding of the organization, War Tax Resistance. WRL members were actively involved, helping to develop and promote campaigns such as “Hang Up On War,” calling for a refusal of the 10% federal excise tax on telephone service. Eventually, as many as a half million people refused that tax to protest the Vietnam War, leading the IRS to try to crack down through seizure of bicycles, cars, and even homes for tiny amounts of refused tax. After the end of the war, War Tax Resistance folded but thousands continued to resist.
In the late 1970s WRL produced its first analysis of the federal budget that evolved, by the mid-1980s, into the annual tax pie chart flyer “Where Your Income Tax Money Really Goes.” Many resisters use it to determine how much of their taxes they will refuse to pay the IRS. Each year across the U.S. thousands of the flyers are handed out on street corners, and the pie chart web page is the most visited on WRL’s website after the homepage.
In the early 1980s the antinuclear weapons movement, growing opposition to Euromissiles, and Ronald Reagan’s military escalation once again encouraged an increase in refusal to pay taxes for war. WRL published the first edition of the book War Tax Resistance in 1981, which, now in its 5th edition, continues to be the best and most thorough resource on WTR.
In 1982 WRL co-founded the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC) to disseminate and promote war tax resistance information. Late in that decade in conjunction with NWTRCC, WRL developed the Alternative Revenue Service campaign as an outreach tool to introduce more people to the idea of refusing to pay for the war and to redirect that money to social needs.
Campaigns against specific wars have come and gone, but in the U.S. taxes are due every April 15, and WRL, along with NWTRCC, promotes actions before and on “Tax Day” that draw attention to the obscene expenditures on the military and the current wars. Actions range from handing out flyers to street theatre to rallies to civil disobedience. Because many U.S. corporations (e.g., Lockheed, Boeing, Halliburton, General Dynamics) profit from U.S. taxpayer-funded war, there is often a focus on war profiteers as part of these actions.
WRL is still seen as the primary organization that supports war tax resisters and maintains resources on the topic in the U.S. Along the book War Tax Resistance, WRL’s website has many pages on war tax resistance, and WRL helped fund NWTRCC’s 2010 film Death and Taxes.
Despite the visceral anger against these wars and the budget-distorting military spending, the biggest impediment to resistance, even among peace activists, is fear -- real and perceived -- of the IRS and the economic consequences that makes it difficult for many to continue year after year. WRL members -- and others who reject all wars -- have helped to keep this form of resistance alive and to provide support for those who resist.
Among the strengths of war tax resistance are that it is one of the few forms of direct action that not only denies funding to the military but sends a message to the government that cannot be ignored and, once those tax dollars are rerouted, provides direct aid to programs hurt by the government’s perverted priorities.
Many WRL members feel that if we really expect to achieve our vision of a warless world, then we must be willing to take chances. It also doesn’t hurt to know that one’s taxes are not being used to kill others around the world.
By Ruth Benn and Ed Hedemann. Ruth Benn was on the WRL staff from 1987-2000 and is the coordinator of NWTRCC. Ed Hedemann was on the WRL staff from 1973-1986 and is active with the NYC WRL chapter. Both are longtime war tax resisters.