David R. Bassett, founder of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund, is a person of persistent faith and generous wisdom. His story begins this way:
“I was born in 1928 and I had wonderful parents. They were both in the Congregational Church. I was taught, more by my mother than either parent, that fighting was not a good thing to do. It is a simple phrase for a four-yearold or a six-year-old. I guess at age 10, in 1938, I was aware of the invasion of the Nazis into Czechoslovakia, and of course I remember Pearl Harbor quite well, in 1941 when I was age 13.”
World War II began during his adolescent years, and David began to think about how, one day, he would be called to live out his convictions in regard to violence. He cites his church, his parents, and close friends such as a Quaker couple from Philadelphia, the Edgertons, as influential in the development of his thinking. “I came to realize quite young, I think in high school days, that I should not be a soldier,” he said. “I wasn’t made to be a soldier, I could not be a soldier.”
His convictions as a conscientious objector evolved fairly early in his life. “One couldn’t help thinking about the [cost of ] paying for war,” he says. “I began to think that paying for war is a form of participation in war, and then to think about all of the extensions of that: what am I going to do when I am going to be taxed?”
Upon graduating from medical school in 1953, he faced the doctor’s draft and was asked to report to the military. After exchanging upwards of 60 letters with the Selective Service System, he was granted conscientious objector status. He spent the following two years doing alternative service through the American Friends Service Committee. He went to India with his wife, Miyoko Inouye, and their newborn child, to work as a doctor.
For the next several years, David deeply engaged with the idea of how a person of conscience is called to act in regard to paying for war. He discussed this with fellow Friends and interested people throughout the faith community. The National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund was founded in 1971 (with a different name at first). The organization’s purpose was to encourage legislation creating a legal option for those who conscientiously object to paying for war. David, although himself a war tax resister, understood that not all nonviolent people are inclined to such civil disobedience, and most wish to pay their taxes in full.
The bill, which was first introduced in 1972 and continues to be reintroduced every two years, seeks “to affirm the religious freedom of taxpayers who are conscientiously opposed to participation in war, to provide that the income, estate, or gift tax payments of such taxpayers be used for nonmilitary purposes.” One who feels compelled to declare this conscientious objector status would pay the equivalent amount in taxes as other citizens, but these funds would be marked in such a way that they could be used only for nonmilitary purposes.
The organization’s work in Washington, D.C., often interacts with similar movements throughout the world. David explains: “I had a feeling that there were other locations holding up this interest starting, I think in some cases, with very little influence from the Washington office, and in other cases with a good deal of back-and-forth.” Specifically he mentions work in Brussels, Belgium, another active group in England, and a group in Japan.
David appreciates the many ways that the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund has been fortunate, including use of space provided by the Friends Meeting in Washington, and a generous budget. Most of all, he appreciates the dedicated people with whom he has worked. He tells heart-warming stories of the human aspect of the work, particularly highlighting the spirit of Marian Franz who for a long time was executive director of the campaign.
How does he see the organization moving forward into the future? Through hard work, “as it has always been,” he says. But the work is “inspiring if one is committed. Those who stay with it are infused and enthused with the spirit from the beginning. . . . I don’t think it takes a great deal, aside from recognizing the importance of who we are and what we are doing.”
His advice? “Just carry on and do what you know there is to be done,” remembering that “you can be creative and you will not be morose or depressed. . . . You may have some new ideas.”
He repeats the classic Quaker conviction to speak the truth. “That is simple to say, but you do that in a way that does not turn people away [and] opens some eyes.”
Hear an interview with David Bassett
from the Church of the Brethren Podcast
Sara White has been an intern at the Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. For information about the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund go to www.peacetaxfund.org. A collection of the David R. Bassett papers 1963-2004 is available from the Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan.