Posted by Anita Folsom
Are you ready to sing those lyrics by the tax deadline on April 15? Probably not.
This musical ditty was actually a propaganda masterpiece used by the federal government during World War II. Knowing that the war would cost billions of dollars, President Franklin Roosevelt used the war emergency to push a new tax program through the federal bureaucracy. But how could FDR’s administration whip up patriotic fervor and encourage Americans to pay so much in taxes? The answer: Use all types of media with the message that paying taxes would help to win the war.
Two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, composer Irving Berlin penned a tune about paying taxes entitled “I Paid My Income Tax Today,” and the government asked radio stations across the country to play the recording early and often. The goal: remind the public to pay their income taxes before the new deadline of March 15, 1942. (For more information and more verses to Berlin’s lyrics, see FDR Goes to War, Chapter 9.)
Roosevelt and his advisors had tried for years before the war to begin a system that would tax a majority of Americans. Before World War II, only about 6% of American citizens with the highest incomes paid any income tax at all.
But suddenly the United States was fighting a two-front war on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. So during World War II, FDR’s administration pushed through new regulations that meant about two-thirds of Americans would pay income tax beginning in 1942. And those Americans with the highest incomes would pay 94% of their total income to the government!
“Pay as you go,” or what we now call “withholding,” became a part of American life. Employers were responsible for deducting wages from each employee’s compensation during each pay period and sending those funds to the government. Voila! Uncle Sam had a new stream of cash flowing into federal coffers–permanently.
The government also appealed to the public with slogans and posters. One of the most popular pro-tax mottos was “taxes to beat the Axis!”
Even Walt Disney’s studios became a part of the propaganda machine. The Treasury Department asked Disney to produce an eight-minute film, The New Spirit, to play in movie theaters. The program showed Donald Duck paying his taxes and then seeing the weapons produced to win the war. The narrator concluded at the end of the script, “Taxes will keep democracy on the march!”
Unlike many Disney films, the story of American taxation does not have a happy ending after World War II. The income tax for most Americans was kept in place and even expanded. Withholding became an integral part of American society. And the battle for freedom from usurious taxes continues to this day.