RAY SUAREZ: Now, a longer view on the unique American ties to Liberia. We're joined by Edward Perkins, a former ambassador to Liberia. He's now the executive director of the International Programs Center at the University of Oklahoma. Elwood Dunn is Liberian, he taught at the University of Liberia and also served in the government. In 1980 he was the minister of state for presidential affairs. He now teaches political science at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Marie Tyler-McGraw is a historian who has written a great deal about the American colonization society, the 19th century group which spearheaded the early efforts by free American blacks to colonize Liberia.
And, Marie Tyler McGraw, we often hear it referred to in news reports as a historical relationship, a special relationship. What are the American roots of Liberia?
MARIE TYLER-McGRAW: The American roots of Liberia go back really to African-Americans in the United States. It's a surprise to a lot of Americans to learn that there were a good many, thousands of free blacks in the United States before the Civil War, before the Emancipation Proclamation. Many of them felt that their status was... that they could never be full citizens of the United States. Indeed their status was a lot like that in the Jim Crow America of the post Civil War era. Some considered that they might be better off to start a republic of their own somewhere else. Many were reluctant to abandon the United States and their hopes for full citizenship here. Others were receptive to the notion that they might be in charge only somewhere else, outside the United States. Enter: The American Colonization Society which was founded by white men, mostly politicians and ministers who believed that these free blacks could never attain full citizenship and set up a private benevolent organization to found this colony on the western coast of Africa.
RAY SUAREZ: So a country in effect founded by an NGO?
MARIE TYLER McGRAW: Right. Yes, with private money, donations, almost no federal aid. When they did get some federal aid, it was sneaky. It was a ruse. It was an amendment to the Slave Trade Act. It said, we need a colony on the western coast of Africa to receive the slave ships that we interdict and take slaves from and return to Africa. We need some place for them to go. So we'll spend money on this. That lasted for two administrations and when Andrew Jackson came in to the presidency and saw that line item, he said forget it. It was not a federal project. It was not a project of which he approved so that's the only federal aid they ever got.
RAY SUAREZ: Elwood Dunn, Liberia is started. A country that's sort of a landed gentry is left off on boats. What happens after that? Do they get up and running without very much American help?
ELWOOD DUNN: Well, I like to suggest that there was a founding paradigm that I think is very important in terms of understanding the beginnings of Liberia and the relationship between the Liberians and the United States. That founding paradigm goes something like this: That is, the whole purpose of the enterprise was to create a state in order to advance civilization and Christianization, so the purpose was to create this entity in order to civilize and Christianize the peoples found in that part of Africa. I think it's important for us to keep this in mind because it's going to be very important in terms of understanding what follows.
RAY SUAREZ: So there's a strong missionary component to the enterprise of starting this country in the first place?
ELWOOD DUNN: Precisely. And a strong cultural component. I think it will be when the whole process of implementation of this paradigm begins that we begin to see conflicts, if you will, in the relationship between the repatriate community and the indigenous community -- conflict that is going to be very important in understanding the early part of the evolution of the Liberian state in society.
RAY SUAREZ: In the founding decades of the country, what was the relationship like between the people who were essentially Americans? They were detribalized. They didn't speak ethnic tongues from the African continent. They were people from Maryland and Virginia. How did they get along with Africans who were already living on the West Coast?
ELWOOD DUNN: That's precisely why I started with this founding paradigm. These people were people of a very different world view, very different outlook. They were westernized blacks, if you will, here, going to the continent of Africa where they found people that they considered to be heathens and uncivilized. I think this was very important in terms of establishing the nature of the relationship that existed between these two peoples. But that didn't remain that way. Over time things began to change. And intermarriage took place. They went to school together. So that as we move forward to where we are at the present time certainly that way of thinking about Liberia has undergone significant transformation.
RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Perkins, after Liberia is started and underway, does the United States take very much of an interest in the country that in a way it helped create?
EDWARD PERKINS: Well, unfortunately that has been kind of an up-and-down situation. The United States on occasion has taken a great deal of interest in Liberia, and it lasts for some time. Then it goes off the radar screen. I think that the United States subconsciously believes that Liberia is a country that is sort of in its best interests in terms of having a relationship, but that relationship has not been altogether substantial for any great length of time. That's not to say that the United States has not been interested in Liberia because I think it has. Otherwise, it would not be responding as it is this day.
RAY SUAREZ: Marie Tyler-McGraw, even when the government of the United States isn't very interested in Liberia, do the same elements of American society-- black intellectuals, church groups, missionaries-- continue to have a cultural contact with this sort of American country on the African coast?
MARIE TYLER-McGRAW: For a long time after the dissolution of the American Colonization Society and even before, missionary contact, educational contact, especially missionaries engaged in educational and health programs were a main or perhaps "the" main contact. There was always interest in exchange students, any interest of African-Americans in Africa. They would be interested in Liberia. Of course there was a great deal of turmoil in the why '50s and '60s when African nations began to achieve their independence and actually at that point Liberia seemed to be not moving as fast. But yes, there has been informal interest. Our government has not been as involved as segments of the population.
RAY SUAREZ: So Elwood Dunn, for a long time was this Liberia population almost reflexively pro American?
ELWOOD DUNN: Well, the Liberia population has been a varied population. Elements of it have been pro American. Elements have been... tended to be pro African. I would like to come back to this question of paradigm that I talked about earlier on because I think a significant shift in paradigm took place in the late '50s going into the '60s as the process of decolonization got underway in Africa. That shift was away from the founding paradigm towards greater participation, a sort of democracy and the free-market economy, and movement towards more inclusion, if you will, of the vast majority of the population in the whole process of running the state and society.
So I think it was a very different Liberia that we found as we move into the '50s and '60s and particularly the 1970s. And there I'd like to underscore that that was happening in the 1970s was a veritable attempt on the part of the Liberian people at transforming, reforming the society. And what happened in 1980 when the coup detat at that time took place tended to arrest that process.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's remind people what form that coup detat at that time took. A former vice president of Liberia had become president, President Tolbert. Indigenous Liberians in the army took control of the government.
ELWOOD DUNN: Yes, this is precisely what happened. But there's a background to this. And the background to this is that in the 1970s, you had a very lively reform movement, a series of movements and a large number of people were engaged in efforts at trying to reform the society. When the coup detat took place, some saw it as an attempt on the part of indigenous people to take power from the repatriate community.
But I think the misunderstanding here comes from the fact that people don't appreciate the individuals who were involved in the reform movement. Those individuals came from all sectors of Liberian society, and I think it was a concerted effort on the part of all Liberians at addressing the problems in the society and seeking to go forward in a democratic way, away from the political autocracy that had been characteristic of the political order in Liberia.
RAY SUAREZ: So, Ambassador Perkins, what is the United States' posture towards Liberia during this period of turmoil after the '70s and '80s are underway?
EDWARD PERKINS: For a while it was I think a very positive one. The United States looked upon Liberia as a valuable ally with several demonstrations of resources in Liberia that helped the United States to carry on its own foreign policy within West Africa and also in certain parts perhaps of southern Europe. So it was a pretty positive relationship. The coup detat that took place, of course, caused a kind of change, a redefinition of how the United States looked at Liberia, but I don't think it ever looked on Liberia as a place to be abandoned during that time. There was a decided effort to try and make sure that the country itself remained viable through many different ways. And I think that lasted for some time. Unfortunately, the kind of turmoil that took place did not allow the... what I thought was a pretty good intent on the part of the United States to last very long after that.
RAY SUAREZ: And the turmoil that began in those days has not abated to this day. Guests, thanks a lot.