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Liberian president Samuel K. Doe meets with Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan Library
Liberia and the United States: A Complex Relationship

Liberia is born
In the early 1800s, as the United States debated the status and rights of its Black population, the government made its first stand with regard to Liberia (known at the time as the Grain Coast): Congress would help provide funding to send freeborn Blacks and emancipated slaves there to establish a colony.

The idea of repatriating Blacks from America to West Africa was a controversial one. Among African Americans themselves, opinion was divided. Some felt they should stay and fight for equality and freedom in America. Others were encouraged by the promise of their own land, but were suspicious of the motives of the American Colonization Society (ACS) for sending them to Africa. Quaker members of the ACS felt that African Americans would have a much better chance at liberty in a country of their own than they would in America. Slaveholder members of the ACS agreed with the principle of sending Blacks to Africa, but theirs was a more selfish, and racist, reason: They wanted to rid America of any free Blacks who might help organize a slave rebellion.

And so in 1822 the first Black, American settlers crossed the ocean and arrived on the Grain Coast, their voyage the first thread of a complex web that would link Liberia to America over many decades. The settlement was named Monrovia, after U.S. president James Monroe, and the colony became Liberia. Over the next 40 years, 19,000 African Americans, Africans recaptured from slave ships, and a small number of West Indians, would settle in Liberia.

Transition to political independence
White agents of the ACS first governed Liberia. Under them, Black American repatriates attempted to recreate and maintain an American society, yet they also married indigenous people. Many of their children, therefore, were Liberians of mixed parentage, but were identified as descendants of settlers, or Americo-Liberians. Like their settler parents, some would come to dominate Liberia's politics and economy.

In 1847, Liberia became a republic, with a constitution and flag modeled after America's. The relationship of the U.S. to Liberia changed from one of control to one of assistance. Settler values, however, still dominated, especially as settlers benefited from an educational advantage, often having attended missionary schools in Liberia or gone to school in America. The first president, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, and his Cabinet were all American, born and educated in the U.S.

American, but Black. And this was an important fact. In 40 years, Liberia had gone from being a white-run colony of America to a Black-run republic, with formal diplomatic relations with the United States. Despite this transformation, however, Liberia still relied on, and expected, financial assistance from the U.S.

Financial dependence continues
Liberia had a thriving and prosperous agricultural sector, but, lacking an industrial base at a time when industrialization was critical for economic development, Liberia began to face financial troubles in the 1860s. By the 1870s Liberia was forced to accept high-interest government loans from Europe and the United States. Thus began a long period of Liberian financial and economic dependence on other nations. During World War I, Liberia declared war on Germany, previously a major trading partner, in order to appease the U.S. As a consequence, Monrovia was shelled by a German U-boat, and the Liberian economy was crippled as a result of cessation of trade with Germany.

In the 1920s, the United States seized on this vulnerability to initiate the exploitation of one of Liberia's natural resources: rubber. The rapidly growing automobile industry was creating a massive world demand for rubber, the main component of tires, and the U.S. wanted to compete with Britain's near monopoly of the industry.

The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Ohio, therefore, began negotiations to acquire a rubber plantation in Liberia. The result was an agreement, supported by the U.S. government, that clearly disadvantaged Liberia: Firestone would lease one million acres for 99 years at the annual rate of six cents per acre; any gold, diamonds, or other minerals discovered on the land would belong to Firestone; and Liberia would accept a $5 million loan from Firestone for a 40-year period with which to settle all outstanding foreign loans, in effect taking on new debt to pay off old debt. The company made huge profits and enriched some of the Liberian elite, thus ensuring their support for the venture.

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FDR's trip to Liberia was very symbolic. (1:13) Watch

The United States also saw in Liberia an opportunity to promote its military interests. During World War II, the U.S. built a base near Monrovia for refueling and maintaining U.S. military aircraft active in North Africa and Europe. At the height of the war, in 1943, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt stopped in Liberia on his North African tour to visit U.S. troops. Liberia viewed his visit as a symbol of the strong relationship between the United States and Liberia, and as a confirmation that the U.S. would be a source of support and aid to Liberia. The African nation was, after all, America's stepchild.

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Tubman mastered Cold War politics. (1:06) Watch

"You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours"
The United States did, in fact, support Liberia with foreign aid -- because it had a specific interest in doing so. As World War II gave way to the Cold War, the U.S. viewed Liberia as an ideal post from which to fight the spread of communism through Africa. The U.S. signed a mutual defense pact with Liberia and built communications facilities in Liberia to handle diplomatic and intelligence traffic to and from Africa, to monitor broadcasts in the region, and to relay a Voice of America signal throughout the continent. Under President Kennedy, the U.S. also established Peace Corps and economic and military assistance programs. From 1962 to 1980, Liberia received $280 million in aid from the U.S., the greatest level of U.S. aid to any African country on a per capita basis at the time.

In exchange for this aid, Liberia offered its land free of rent for U.S. facilities. Under Liberian president William V.S. Tubman, Liberia voted with the U.S. on most Cold War matters at the United Nations, supporting, for example, the U.S. in its position on Vietnam. This relationship enabled the U.S. to maintain a strong foothold in a region otherwise struggling to rid itself of colonial domination, as countries such as Guinea and Ghana fought for their independence from France and Britain.

Trouble foreshadowed
The seemingly cozy relationship between the United States and Liberia began to falter under William R. Tolbert, who became president in 1971 when Tubman died. Promoting Liberia's political independence, Tolbert welcomed the Soviet, Chinese, and Cuban ambassadors to Liberia. He severed Liberia's ties with Israel during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 that pitted Egypt and Syria against Israel, and he spoke out for recognition for national rights of the Palestinian people. He also renegotiated a better deal with Firestone and encouraged political and economic freedom. In 1978, U.S. president Jimmy Carter visited Liberia, after initially planning to fly over Liberia on his way to Nigeria. The fact that this was the first official visit by an American president to Liberia (FDR had made his stop simply to visit U.S. troops) may have been a sign that the U.S.-Liberia relationship was not quite as tight as the Liberians had thought.

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The U.S. accepted Doe. (:54) Watch

Cold War politics
Whatever might have happened to the U.S. relationship with Tolbert became moot in April of 1980 when indigenous master sergeant Samuel K. Doe led 17 young soldiers in a coup in which they assassinated Tolbert, executed many of the Cabinet members, and imprisoned dozens of other government officials. Despite the violent way in which Doe came to power, the U.S. supported him, accepting him as many people in Liberia initially accepted him, as a leader of indigenous origin who could finally open up the democratic process in Liberia to the entire population, and who would put an end to the political dominance by the descendants of settlers.

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Doe was a useful ally for the U.S. (2:08) Watch

Doe quickly became an important Cold War ally, and Liberia served to protect important U.S. facilities and investments and to prevent the spread of so-called Soviet influences. In the first five years of Doe's rule, the U.S. poured $500 million into Liberia through direct and indirect assistance.

In exchange, Doe did close to everything the U.S. wanted him to do. He granted the U.S. use of Liberia's ports to deploy a force trained to respond to security threats around the world. He closed the Libyan mission in Monrovia and reduced the staff of the Soviet Embassy. He also reestablished diplomatic relations with Israel.

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Doe's corruption became an embarrassment to the U.S. (1:15) Watch

Supporting a bully
In the meantime, however, Doe's government grew increasingly corrupt and repressive, banning political opposition and shutting down newspapers. Human rights violations were frequent. A portion of U.S. aid was suspected of landing in Doe's own pocket. Eventually the U.S. government, politically embarrassed to be supporting such a regime, convinced Doe to hold an election in 1985, and then accepted the clearly rigged results which made Doe the president of Liberia. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Chester Crocker testified before Congress that the election was imperfect but that at least it was a movement toward democracy. He further justified his statement with the claim that, in any case, all African elections were known to be rigged at that time.

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As the Cold War ended, U.S. support for Doe dwindled. (1:48) Watch

Many Liberians and Americans alike in Liberia were outraged by the U.S. government's continued support for Doe. The U.S. House and Senate passed resolutions calling for an end to U.S. assistance, but the Reagan administration, still motivated by Cold War concerns, continued to supply aid. Liberians continued to hope that the U.S. government would step in and remove Doe, or at least force him to end his government's mistreatment of certain ethnic groups, mismanagement of funds, and political repression. But the U.S., despite its displeasure about Doe's behavior, hardly interfered, even when attacks on the opposition and on the Gio and Mano people intensified after a failed coup attempt by Doe's exiled former second-in-command Thomas Quiwonkpa.

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Liberians believed that the U.S. would save them from themselves. (1:54) Watch

The U.S. looks away
In 1989, the Cold War came to an end, and U.S. political interests in Liberia faded. That same year, Charles Taylor and his rebel forces invaded from the Ivory Coast and set off a bloody and destructive seven-year-long civil war in Liberia. As fighting between the rebels and the Liberian army intensified, Liberians kept hoping that the United States would step in, remove Doe, and broker a peace agreement. The U.S. did not remove Doe, but nor did it support him. Instead, it limited its involvement to merely evacuating U.S. citizens from Liberia in 1990. The U.S. encouraged mediation and peacekeeping by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which ultimately worked with the United Nations and Charles Taylor to bring about a peace agreement, finally ending the war in 1997.

A relationship unravels
Today the U.S. provides some assistance to Liberia, not in direct aid to the Liberian government but rather in the form of humanitarian services (health care, education, social services) through the United Nations and non-governmental organizations for the Liberian people, who are beginning the long struggle to rebuild their lives and their war-ravaged country. But the amount of U.S. aid has fallen drastically since it peaked in the 1980s. The Peace Corps program no longer operates in Liberia for political and safety reasons.

Taylor was elected president of Liberia in 1997 in an election monitored by the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS) and by Jimmy Carter and former U.S. senator Paul Simon. Under Taylor, the violence and human rights violations have continued. The U.S has accused the Liberian government of contributing to a regional refugee crisis, creating instability in the region, and fueling the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone by providing arms in exchange for diamonds mined under terrible conditions. Liberia, therefore, currently faces a UN-imposed ban on diamond exports, as well as a travel ban on senior Liberian officials and an arms embargo.

To help or not to help
In the span of 180 years, the relationship of the United States to Liberia has gone from one of parental nurturing to one of self-interested assistance to one of increasing disengagement. There are many views on whether the U.S. should have become more involved in the Liberian civil war, and how much assistance the U.S. should be providing to Liberia now. Some feel that the U.S. had a moral responsibility to prevent the massive destruction that took place in a country to whose creation it had been so instrumental. In this view, the U.S. should have intervened at the beginning of the war and, having not done so, should now at least be providing greater assistance to help promote a democratic system and stop the human rights abuses. Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo are examples of places in which the U.S. had minimal ties and yet offered significant postwar reconstruction assistance.

Others feel that U.S. interests in Liberia are peripheral, and that Liberia's destiny is best left in its own citizens' hands, whatever the cultural ties and affinities between the two nations. They point to the disastrous 1993 U.S. mission in Somalia which led to unnecessary U.S. casualties. They point to the economic and social problems at home which require political attention and funds. In this globalized world in which countries, economies, and people are so connected, the question of the proper role of the United States in Liberia's past, present, and future is an increasingly complex one.

Related links

Africa: South of the Sahara: Liberia:
An extensive list of links to dozens of Liberia-related Web sites, from Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources.

Liberia's History: Time Line:
Prepared by a former Peace Corps volunteer to Liberia, this timeline focuses primarily on the achievements and challenges of the many men who have held the top office in Africa's oldest republic. The timeline ends with President Tolbert's execution in 1980, and a literal question mark as to how the country's problems escalated to this point.

Liberia: History:

Cartage (Central Array of Relayed Transaction for the Advance of General Education): Liberia: /histories/history/hiscountries/L/liberia.html

The Liberian Connection:

Liberian Embassy: Liberia at a Glance:

History: Liberia:

African Studies: Liberia: /Country_Specific/Liberia.html

African-American Mosaic: Colonization:

Time Line:


Anjali Mitter Duva is a freelance writer and consultant based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This essay was reviewed by D. Elwood Dunn, a professor of political science at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and by Womi Edith Neal, a District of Columbia public school teacher and founder/executive director of the Grass Roots Theatre Company in Bethesda, Maryland.

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