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Liberia - No More War, May 2005

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Liberia's Historic Ties to the U.S.

Liberia's FlagU.S. Flag

by Zachary K. Johnson

As the reign of Liberian president Charles Taylor crumbled and rebel forces closed in on Monrovia, the capital city, in the summer of 2003, the United Nations and countries in West Africa called on the United States to honor its historical ties to Liberia and intervene to quell the violence before it got out of control.

Eventually, a small group of U.S. Marines and Navy troops landed via U.S. Navy ships, and they helped African peacekeepers bring order to the beleaguered capital. Soon the warring factions chose a transitional government, marking a new chapter in Liberia's history.

This wasn't the first time the U.S. military had intervened in Liberia's troubled history. In 1821, Captain Richard Field Stockton of The Alligator skimmed the coastline of West Africa, looking for land to start a colony. Stockton's orders were to help an organization called the American Colonization Society find a new homeland for freed American slaves.

The society had experienced little success in convincing local tribal leaders to sell land for the new colony, and the first 88 free black settlers from America were dropped off on Scherbo Island, where many died from malaria. The Navy eventually secured -- some reports say through intimidation -- a 36-mile-long strip of coastline in exchange for $300 worth of rum, weapons and other goods. This was the beginning of Liberia.

Long before the American Civil War, there were many freed slaves and descendants of freed slaves living in American society. Their presence prompted some white religious groups to start a movement to expatriate free blacks because they felt the former slaves could never truly be free in the closed white society of the day. In 1816, and with this ideology in mind, the American Colonization Society was formed. Its supporters included prominent Americans, some of them still well-known today. They included renowned orator Senator Daniel Webster, national anthem composer Francis Scott Key, and Bushrod Washington, nephew of the first president. But the society wasn't solely driven by philanthropy. Slaveholders also joined the group, recognizing that removing free blacks from American soil could also take away a source of inspiration to slaves still in captivity. Some slave owners used the new colony to remove slaves they considered rabble-rousers, offering them a choice between plantation servitude and a free life in Africa.

For the most part, blacks were wary of the movement to remove them from their American homes, and many organized to denounce the practice, fearing it would become official policy. Nonetheless, some were attracted to the idea of liberty offered outside the United States.

"They went because they saw themselves as second-class citizens who would never be first-class citizens," said Dianne Oyler, a history professor at Fayetteville (N.C.) State University who specializes in West Africa. They also went for business opportunities and to do missionary work. But only about 13,000 immigrated over the next 40 years.

The new colony proved useful to the U.S. government in policing the illegal cross-Atlantic slave trade. Whenever the U.S. Navy seized a slave ship, it would deposit the human cargo in the new colony. It was common practice for Western naval powers to return boatloads of slaves to a convenient port in Africa, even if it wasn't the original home of the slaves. The British unloaded their slaves in Sierra Leone, the French in Gabon.

America's dumping ground was named Liberia in 1824, the same year the new settlers built Monrovia, naming it for U.S. president James Monroe, who helped establish the colony with $100,000 from funds used to police the illegal slave trade. Although it was useful to the United States, Liberia was never a U.S. possession. Before those first settlers had even set foot on Scherbo Island, the colonists had signed a constitution granting the American Colonization Society the authority to govern the colony.

Despite the U.S. government's imprimatur and the involvement of influential Americans, Liberia has long considered the United States a capricious benefactor.

"There has always been this love-hate relationship between the United States and Liberia," said Oyler. The United States did not step in to stop Taylor's rise to power in 1989, she explained, much as it had turned its back on Liberia when Britain and France began taking an interest in the fledgling colony's territory a century and a half earlier.

Liberia decided the best way to defend itself from Europe's imperialist designs was to claim national sovereignty. So in 1847, it declared independence from the nongovernmental organization, and Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who had become the first black governor of Liberia under the American Colonization Society in 1841, was elected the country's first president in 1848. Back in the United States, politics surrounding the slavery debate prevented official recognition of the black African nation until 1862.

An ocean away from the race-defined caste system in the United States, the new colonists were free to form their own hierarchical structure. At the top were the Americo-Liberians, the freed blacks, who came from America with possessions and relative wealth. Beneath them were the slaves deemed troublemakers by their American owners and sent to Africa with only the clothes on their backs. At the bottom were those dubbed the Congoes -- the people rescued by the Navy along the Atlantic Passage. The colonists fought with the indigenous people from the very beginning and did not include them in the hierarchy until the early 20th century, although even then the indigenes remained second-class citizens.

"You know how the African Americans were treated in the South? That's how the Americo-Liberians treated the Africans," said Oyler. The newcomers didn't enslave the indigenes, though; rather, they created schools devoted to teaching the tribespeople the merits of performing menial labor. From Jenkins's first presidency until 1980, the predominantly Americo-Liberian True Whig Party ruled the nation. Today, the descendants of former slaves make up only 5 percent of the population.

As America's global influence grew in the 20th century, it found new uses for Liberia and maintained economic and military ties. During World War I, Liberia, pressured to side with its old friend the United States, declared war on Germany, even though Germany had been a major European trading partner for the struggling African nation. The German Navy expressed its discontent with an artillery bombardment, but the attack was both limited and isolated. Aware of the economic implications for Liberia that would arise from its turning on Germany, the United States tried to shift some of its trade Liberia's way and offered to secure a $5 million loan to clear Liberia's debt to other nations. Congress, however, denied the loan.

Then U.S. companies took an interest in Liberia. After the end of the Great War, a foreign monopoly on rubber threatened to drive up the cost of American automobiles. Harvey S. Firestone not only warned the American public of the stranglehold Britain had on the world's rubber market, but also was prepared to do something about it. Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Ohio offered Liberia a take-it-or-leave-it deal of a $5 million loan and a 99-year lease on 1 million acres at about 5 cents an acre, said Elwood Dunn, a political science professor at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. Dunn also taught at the University of Liberia in Monrovia and served as Chief of Staff under William S. Tolbert, president of Liberia until 1980.

The importance of the rubber trade grew during World War II, and the United States took a greater interest in Liberia because of it, building the Port of Monrovia and Roberts International Airport for its important ally. Iron mines opened during the war, and the rubber plantations became a major force in the postwar Liberian economy, accounting for as much as 40 percent of the national budget in the 1950s, according to the U.S. State Department. But the revenues did not benefit all Liberians, and some historians call it a time of growth without development.

As geopolitical tensions shifted, so did the relationship between Liberia and the United States. During the Cold War, the United States used Liberia as a base of operations, and in return, brought foreign investment along with it. Liberia became the U.S. intelligence center for all of Africa, said Dunn.

Changing governments in Liberia didn't diminish the country's strategic importance. In 1980, a low-ranking military officer from one of the country's smallest ethnic groups -- Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe of the Krahn -- successfully led a bloody coup to overthrow Tolbert's rule. More than a century of rule by the Americo-Liberian class ended when one of Doe's men disemboweled President Tolbert where he slept. Several members of Tolbert's government were also executed.

Doe banned political parties until the year before he won a 1985 election -- one that the U.S. State Department declared tainted by fraud. The United States, however, accepted the Doe government and gave hundreds of millions of dollars to Liberia during the 1980s, helping the autocratic leader upgrade his military. Even when Taylor, whose father was Americo-Liberian and mother was indigenous African, entered Liberia from the Ivory Coast and ignited a civil war in 1989 and when Doe himself was tortured, mutilated and executed in 1990, the United States did not intercede, although it did encourage the Economic Community of West African States to mediate a peace settlement.

Sick of war, the Liberian people elected Taylor president in 1997, fearing he would continue the fighting if he did not win the election. Under Taylor, the government security forces beat, tortured and humiliated the Liberian people and were suspected of being responsible for summary executions and the disappearance of government dissidents, according to the U.S. State Department. "The Taylor government was like the Taylor rebel group -- in other words, there was no change," said Dunn.

When Taylor prepared to step down from power and into exile in Nigeria, U.S. warships again floated off the West Africa coastline.

After Taylor was removed, the United States gave money and support to the United Nations Mission in Liberia to ease in the transitional government and fill the leadership void. And it took the physical presence of U.S. military to establish the early stages of a tenuous peace. As Taylor left for Nigeria, West African peacekeepers were unable to calm the restive capital. The large-scale violence of the summer of 2003 did not end until approximately 225 U.S. Marines and Navy troops came ashore in Monrovia.

About a quarter of the American landing force began showing signs of malaria, and most returned to ship within 11 days.

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