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Reviewed by:
  • Power to Destroy: The Political Uses of the IRS from Kennedy to Nixon
  • John Sbardellati
John A. Andrew III , Power to Destroy: The Political Uses of the IRS from Kennedy to Nixon. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002. 385 pp. $27.50.

Titled after Chief Justice John Marshall's all-too prescient dictum that "the power to tax involves the power to destroy," John A. Andrew's final book uncovers the myriad ways the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations politicized the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), misusing its immense powers in order to exert heavy pressure on political and ideological foes. Published posthumously, the finished product benefits from the labors of friends and family, colleagues and publisher. The result is an invaluable portrait of a renegade government agency seldom studied by researchers.

According to Andrew, there is a good reason for the dearth of studies on the IRS. Researchers are hindered by what Athan Theoharis (in describing the Federal Bureau of Investigation) refers to as a "culture of secrecy." The seemingly Kafkaesque task of providing sufficient descriptions of IRS holdings in order to gain access to records without the benefit of any finding aids is only the tip of the iceberg. The IRS has made a habit of destroying its records, and even the documents that are released often include substantial portions that have been redacted. Moreover, the IRS has jealously refused to transfer records even to the National Archives and Records Administration. Encountering such obstacles, Andrew knew probably better than anyone that the full scope of IRS political activity will likely never be uncovered. Such barriers make this book all the more important, and Andrew certainly deserves kudos for astutely using a wealth of documentary evidence from numerous private collections to pry open material from the clutches of the taxmen.

Andrew opens his account by delving into the Kennedy administration's use of the IRS as a weapon against rightwing critics such as the John Birch Society. On the advice of Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, John and Robert Kennedy ordered the IRS to launch what eventually became known as the Ideological Operations Project (IOP), a systematic attempt to undercut funding for rightwing organizations by challenging their tax-exempt status. For Andrew, the chief abuse here is that the IRS was targeting groups for political reasons rather than because of clearly demonstrated problems with their tax returns. One noteworthy example is the campaign launched under the IOP against Billy James Hargis's Christian Echoes Ministry (CEM). Hargis, a preacher from Texas and recipient of an honorary doctorate from Bob Jones University, became active in anti-Communist circles in the 1950s. His zealous campaign against liberalism and Communism—two "isms" easily conflated by Hargis and his followers—revealed a mixture between religion and politics that provided the IRS the opportunity to inquire into the propriety of CEM's tax-exempt status. After several in-depth investigations, IRS agents concluded that Hargis's group was entitled to the exemption, but Andrew then shows how higher-ups in the IRS decided to shift the focus of the investigation from questioning the CEM's financial operations to questioning its activities. Andrew uses this incident to suggest that politics [End Page 158] and religion, the public sphere and the private, can never truly be divorced, whereas the IRS predicated its case against Hargis—and indeed the broader IOP—on the faulty premise that the two must be kept separate.

Andrew's discussion of the Kennedy administration's repression of rightwing groups judiciously complements the more familiar accounts of government campaigns against the left. This is not to say, however, that Andrew is trying to foist on his readers an ideological defense of the right; rather, his quarrel is with the IRS's abuse of power, whoever the victims may be. Under Lyndon Johnson the IRS, functioning as an intelligence resource for the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), began targeting New Left and antiwar groups. From 1968 until at least 1974 the IRS was an important part of the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program against those deemed subversive.

Yet despite IRS abuses under Kennedy and Johnson, it was—not surprisingly—Richard...