Liberia - United States Relations: Shifts And Turning Points


By D. Elwood Dunn

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

November 23, 2004

Ravaged by instability and civil war in the last quarter of the 20th century and into the new millennium, the events of mid 2003 catapulted Liberia, and with it, the peculiar relationship with the US onto the global headlines. As warring factions and government militias attacked the civilian population in their fight for power, a simple refrain echoed around the world: that as former colonial powers Britain and France had each engaged to end civil war in their respective former colonies of Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire, the US was challenged similarly to engage in its former ward to help end the carnage and restore normalcy. The US did not immediately respond, but when it did there were evocations aplenty of historic ties of long duration.

This article will review the peculiar and longest-lasting relationship between the US and the African State of Liberia. It will do so by highlighting shifts and turning points in the relationship. It will suggest in its emphases that no shift has been more jolting, nor turning point more thorough-going in the 156 years of interaction than the seismic changes of the past quarter century. Fundamental questions that will guide or frame the review include the origins of the relationship and what the interest of the US has been; how the relationship has evolved; what its Cold War highpoint was; and how one might characterize the post-Cold War and post 9/11 relational ambivalence.

The idea of Liberia is American in origin. It is derived from deep stirrings in the American conscience about how to address questions of slavery and race. African-American colonization closely linked to the civilizing/Christianizing mission of the main line American Christian churches was advanced as the first integral approach to the solution of an American problem that would serve African interest. Other ideas framed the relationship. They include American "informal" expansion abroad and the transference of both American ideals and the pursuit of American interests. The Cold War context of big power/small state relationship is germane as well, as are the post Cold War and post-9/11 givens of the international system.

Though African-Americans were involved, the colonization and civilizing mission was fundamentally designed by white men who subsequently employed black agents for the "regeneration" of Africa. This was both a presaging of what Rudyard Kippling called "the white man's burden", which in time became transmuted into the westernized black man's burden. A process of cultural assimilation ensued with the roles in hierarchical order of white Americans, African-Americans and then Africans.

American informal expansion and the initiation of dependency proclivities in Liberia can be gleaned from the work of Harris and Kieh, respectively. Harris has posited an informal US colonial relationship with Liberia, replete with US federal colonial agents, private assistance, federal monies, and a watchful eye of the federal government over Liberian affairs. This expansion abroad was rooted in prevailing American ideology on territorial expansion (Monroe in the 1780s) and volunteerism (Jacksonian democrats; de Jocqueville's 1830 observations). Volunteerism encouraged individual state colonization societies, which had the effect of spurring the repatriation movement. Benevolence and belief in racial separation were also important elements of this American ideology. Kieh, drawing upon dependency school literature, portrays Liberia as a prototypical neo-colony in Africa. He speaks of nominal independence, spiritual and material dependence on the Western world; and an American-derived domestic Liberian ruling class.

A final set of organizing ideas relates to the big power/small state relationship in the contemporary world. Political clientelism took on a new meaning during the Cold War, casting the issue in terms of US, material interests versus Liberian sentimental appeal, or a "friendly Liberia" versus a democratic Liberia. Both the ending of the Cold War and the current after-effects of 9/11 suggest the need for fresh perspectives. While the prerogatives of the nation-state remain, human rights and humanitarian concerns have become so enmeshed in power politics that even the powerful are now obliged to acknowledge that we inhabit in common a "global village". The eclectic perspectives reflected above will frame the review.

The Early Relationship
US- Liberia relations originate with US trade with pre-Liberia and the campaign of the US Navy against the slave trade. American whaling ships in large numbers went to Africa after 1770. Ships returning to America or Europe from Africa generally carried other products in addition to slaves: gums, spices, hides, and gold dust.

American traders actively supplied Europeans in West Africa, as well as Sierra Leoneans of North American descent. And although African commerce was a small part of US commerce as a whole, it was sufficiently important to receive special attention from the national government, which sought to promote it by all means possible. The US Naval Squadron stationed in West African waters from the 1840s to the American Civil War to aid in suppressing the slave trade had another mission - to protect and further American commerce. The instructions of the Secretary of the Navy to Commodore Charles Skinner were clear: "The rights of our citizens engaged in lawful commerce are under the protection of our flag. And it is the chief purpose as well as the chief duty of our naval power to see that those rights are not improperly abridged".

Consistent with patterns elsewhere in Africa, American Christian missionaries followed American traders to Liberia. The background to the missionary movement was the religious ferment of the 18`h century. The great religious revival of the era was closely linked to the industrial revolution. Like groups in Europe, dissenting groups in the US prepared to preach the Gospel to areas neglected by the older churches. Poverty was a disability to be remedied by cultivating a spirit of personal independence; and "by constructive charity to all those who could not help themselves: the aged and the very young, the sick and the insane, slaves and the savages in the bush." The new movement quickly took root in the US where the religious revival provided the principal inspiration for the abolitionist movement. It also led to missionary work overseas.

Closely linked to the anti-slavery campaign were the movements to abolish the slave trade and to provide for the welfare of free blacks and slaves rescued from slavers. While efforts to end the slave trade involved the US in a long series of disputes with Britain over American rights at sea, the interests (personal, humanitarian, religious, cultural) of some Americans in ending the slave trade and/or slavery was closely linked to the founding of Liberia, as they saw it, as a homeland for the free African-Americans and as a refuge for Africans liberated from captured slave ships. Between 1822 and 1867 19,000 black people were repatriated to what became Liberia, among them 4,540 freeborn, 7,000 manumitted slaves and more than 5,700 recaptured from slaving vessels .

Though from the point of view of America history Liberia was established in the 1820s by white Americans as an informal colony for black Americans, the modem Liberian state is integrally the product of a complex African past woven into the circumstances attending the abolition of the slave trade. While it merged two cultural streams – an indigenous African and a westernized African – it is the westernized element that held for long the social and political ascendancy.

During the period between the establishment of the colony (1822) and political independence (1847), the position of the US government was anomalous. Officially, the only interest of the US in the colony was in its use as a depot to hold slaves rescued by vessels of the US Navy until their final disposition should be determined, yet it was the threat of force by a US naval officer that partially enabled the colonists to obtain the land they required, and naval officers and men erected buildings and fortifications for the settlers. In the many conflicts involving the early Africans - and the pioneering African Americans, US government experts and American power were clearly in evidence.

Major Turning Points
US-Liberia relations have followed the broad pattern of US_Africa relations. Trade, legitimate and illegitimate, initiated the contact, followed by Christian missionaries and the Colonization movements. This became the mode by which the West was introduced to pre-Liberia. The power structure of the American Society for the Colonization of the Free People of Color (ACS) was transferred to Liberia. White men initiated and controlled the colonization movements; westernized blacks inherited the control. A dimly perceived African population would be considered only after the core interests of the first two were addressed. The criteria of race and culture were central. It is against the foregoing that we might understand the political struggles that followed.

Independence (1847): This event marked a significant shift in the relationship between an African-American political class, nurtured in the dynamics of the black-white struggle for power during the 1822-1847 period, and the white leadership in the US of the ACS. Blacks were now clearly in charge, but what did this mean? The incipient culture of dependency is pertinent.

Recognition of the new country was accorded by many European nations. For the US recognition was withheld for some fifteen years. The ACS continued to remain an important intermediary between the new African republic and the US government. African-American opinion was divided as people sought simultaneously to deal with the issue of slavery which persisted, and the controversial proposal (now under implementation) about a refuge in Africa for "the free people of color."

Recognition by the US (1862): In a message to congress on December 3, 1861, President Lincoln wrote: "If any good reason exists why we should persevere longer in withholding our recognition of the independence and sovereignty of Liberia, I am unable to discern it." Congress did not immediately act. But in June 1862, it did. This was followed by a Treaty of Commerce and Navigation signed at London on October 21, 1862 and entered into force February 17, 1863. It remained for long the formal framework of the relationship and was not supplanted until 1938. The significant non-commerce and navigation provision included the following, undoubtedly deemed essential by Liberian leaders: "The US government engages never to interfere, unless solicited by the government of Liberia, in the affairs between the aboriginal inhabitants and the government of the Republic of Liberia, in the jurisdiction and territories of the Republic." Yet in the course of the unfolding relationship there were in fact many occasions of US involvement in Liberia's civil conflicts, some of the latter being quite deadly.

In the 1875 Grebo-government conflict a US navy captain mediated. In a renewal of the same conflict in 1910 the USS Birmingham's captain mediated as Chief Gyude and other Nyomewe Grebo leaders were made to submit to the government. In the Km-government crisis of 1915, the USS Chester Captain Frank Schofield responded to the government's request for assistance. During a re-incarnation of the same crisis in the 1930s, this time a consequence of government repression of Kru-Liberians because of cooperation with the League of Nations Commission of Inquiry into human rights charges, the US decided to withhold recognition of President Edwin Barclay's government.

While the US did very little to provide diplomatic protection for Liberia in the midst of the European Scramble for Africa, the presence of American missionary organizations and the interests of some African-Americans in the country kept the tenuous connection alive. Liberia lived through the period of the European colonial expansion, employing its claims to the measure of American interest and support, but also in consequence of its willingness to cooperate and accommodate to European and American economic expansion in West Africa through the opening of concessions for timber and mining operations.

By the turn of the 20th century, German, American, British, and French individuals and companies did considerable trading and extractive business in Liberia through concessions, contracts, shipping lines and merchant houses. Yet Liberia's survival as an independent state became seriously endangered by its participation in the global economy. A succession of European and American loans (1871, 1906, and 1912) often at usurious rates of interest and inadequately managed by the government led to arrangements of receivership in which Europeans and Americans controlled the nation's finances and sought to influence its political future.

Firestone/1926: A case in point is that of the American industrialist, Harvey Firestone, who sought to establish a stable supply of rubber for the booming American market by obtaining a plantation concession in Liberia. The circumstances were controversial. Firestone acquired a million acres of land (10% of Liberia's then arable land) for 99 years at 6 cents an acre. Imposed on the arrangement was a Firestone loan through the Finance Corporation of America, FCA (a political cover for the investment) of $5 million to retire all financial obligations to European lenders. When production began the plantation company became quickly the largest rubber producer in the world, contributing to allied war efforts particularly during World War II, serving as the largest employer in Liberia, but contributing to government coffers only $60,000 of its average yearly profit of $4 million. It was only partly mischievous that Liberia was referred to as the "Firestone Republic".

Liberian Presidents and the US
There was for long an official US posture of showing public deference to Liberian presidents, often reluctant, at least publicly, to show disapprobation of policies pursued by the Liberian government, the case of Edwin Barclay being until then a noted exception. Perhaps this was so because the American posture was consistent with the tenor of the times in reference to the prerogatives of states over the rights of citizens. Consistent with this pattern the US engaged Liberia's leaders as the former maneuvered for advantage. The US pursued its Cold War and other interests while Liberia's leaders sought to defend their turfs, at times called national interests, yet patronage interest in reality.

A significant shift in the arrangement was on the horizon in the waning days of the Cold War as the US struggled with a posture of "constructive engagement” in the 1980s which it was forced to abandon as the country was plunged into Civil War at the end of the decade. To the consternation of many the US adopted an "interested observer" stance throughout the 14 years of Civil War, including the five years of the Taylor presidency (1997-2003). I will flesh out some of the foregoing pointers by briefly reviewing five Liberian presidents and their relations with the US.

Edwin Barclay and the US
Barclay was president between 1930 and 1943. The British writer, Graham Greene, interviewed him in 1935. Stripped of the caricatures there remained the portrait of a man of "ambiguous qualities", capable at once of Machiavellian abandon and great personal charm.

He was born in 1883 in Liberia, a scion of a prominent family from among the West Indian settlers who arrived in Liberia in 1865. He was graduated from Liberia College in 1903, and studied law in the firm of his uncle, then President Arthur Barclay (1904-1912). Beyond his formal education, he studied by himself, one recently declassified American account calling him "a well read man in any group" with "a quick and devious mind, retentive memory, catholic tastes and good political acumen. By any, except those completely blinded by color prejudice, he would be considered a capable, intelligent statesman". Thirteen years as president, he previously held a number of cabinet positions, including Secretary of State (1920-1930). It was from the latter position that he acceded to the presidency, and it was the issue immediately at hand that determined his relationship with the US.

In summary these issues included the international charges of forced labor and practices in Liberia akin to slavery and the attitude of Liberian officialdom toward these quite serious charges. The US was reluctant to accord early recognition to Barclay's government so soon after it had succeeded the indicted President C.D.B. King and his vice president, Allen Yancy. On the succession itself the US raised questions about constitutional procedures following the pressured resignations of both the vice president and the president. In fact the substantive concern appears to have been the fact that Barclay was Secretary of State during the period of the international allegations, and the US felt he was tinged with the scandal and therefore could not represent the legitimacy that the country then deserved. When upon his succession to the presidency Barclay altered his predecessor's position regarding Liberia's disposition toward the League Report, agreeing to accept it only in principle, then subsequently requesting a League committee of experts to recommend reform measures for the country, the US quite impatiently stated in a diplomatic note that it expected prompt action to remedy the evil disclosed by the League Report, warning that otherwise "there would be a final alienation of the friendly feelings which the American government and people had entertained for Liberia since its founding".

Barclay was not forthcoming to this American importuning. He gauged the international climate, awaited the expert report, hedged on full acceptance until the League lost interest and withdrew from the effort in 1934. Eventually, Barclay drew up a plan of reform of his own which he then began to implement.

Meanwhile, Barclay clashed with the US over a related issue. Given the perceived simultaneous social, financial, and political crises that the country faced, he decided to suspend payment of interest and amortization on Firestone's FCA loan of 1926. In fact Barclay's view of the crises was that there was an international conspiracy afoot to place Liberia under international Mandate, and that the international figures involved were using certain "native grievances" to achieve their ends. Accordingly, he caused to be passed by the Liberian legislature a harsh and oppressive Sedition Act, as well as a Moratorium Act in respect of obligations to the loan. Where others loudly protested, Barclay stoutly defended his actions, pointing out that the latter action was not "confiscatory" as the US government had claimed, but merely a measure induced by budgetary pressures and relational difficulties.

The crisis in the relationship ended some five years after it began when the US State Department presented President F.D. Roosevelt with three alternatives, the third of which he accepted. The first was that the US would assume preponderant control over Liberia. The second was that the US would leave Liberia "severely along". The third was that the US would collaborate with the international community in an effort to rehabilitate the country. Roosevelt's acceptance of this latter alternative led eventually to the resolution of the crisis. Recognition of the Barclay government, withheld since 1930, was accorded in 1935. The relationship nonetheless remained tense for the remaining eight years in spite of the mitigating circumstances of World War II.

William Tubman and the US
He served as president 1944 – 1971, and was born in 1895 in Harper of parents who immigrated to Liberia from Georgia (USA). Educated by Methodist missionaries, he also studied law under the apprenticeship of Maryland County Senator Monroe Cummings. Though his formal education was limited, he apparently had natural talents which he used to good effect as he embarked on an early political career.

A recently declassified American source called Tubman "gifted with a quick mind, keen intuition and observation" as he managed "through his own effort, to acquire an education well above that of the average Liberian politician." Senator in 1923 at age 28, and justice of the Supreme Court, 1937-January 1943, he left the Court to begin his quest for the presidency which he won in 1943 and succeeded Barclay in January 1944.

Tubman's presidency coincided with the immediate post-World War II years when a new world order, led by the US, was being forged, accompanied by the ferment of change in Africa with the decolonization movement. He took his cue from the Barclay transition and opted to make common cause with the US as the Cold War dawned. He also became "godfather" to many struggling African nationalists in the late 1940s/early 1950s and became a champion of Africa's rights to self-determination, though under the preferred shadow of the "free world".

World War II recognized Liberia's strategic value as it emphasized its strategic location and its critical value as a major source of rubber production for the allies, particularly after Japan cut the Pacific route to Asian rubber. The US interest in supplying planes to Britain led the War Department to urge Pan American Airlines to establish commercial service to Liberia, and in 1941 Firestone built Robertsfield (later Roberts International Airport, RIA) which PanAm used in its contract to ferry planes from the US to Brazil, and on to the Near East.

Once the US entered the war Liberia was integrated into the effort with infrastructure development, the stationing of America's "Buffalo Soldiers" on Liberian soil in July 1942, the first of its kind, and US troops involvement in the modernization and training of Liberia's military, the Liberian Frontier Force (LFF). More followed. With Liberia's declaration of war against the axis powers on American urgings, she became eligible for Lend-Lease assistance with the label "vital to the security of the US". The US acquired rights to construct and defend airports, and assist in the defense of the country. It was against this background that President Roosevelt made a historic visit to Liberia in 1943, then the first ever of an American president. Elected later that year as president, Tubman (as president-elect) joined President Barclay in a return visit to the US.

The Barclay-Tubman visit to the White House was an occasion to take stock of the relationship with the US and set a post-war course. And it largely accomplished that as a number of items were acknowledged as being in the pipeline, among them, a US geological survey of Liberia's natural resources (first US team went out in 1943), a US-pledged loan of more than $12 million for the construction of a deep water port in Monrovia (first discussed in 1942), and a US team of public health officials to survey health conditions in the country.

Against the wartime foundation for cooperation Tubman sought to formulate his US policy. He fully embraced the Western world led by the US where Barclay proceeded with caution, perhaps reflecting the latter's experience of the 1930s with the international community. In his 1944 inaugural address, Tubman made common cause with the "general national and international aims" of the US, declared war on Germany on US urgings, becoming the 35th country to do so.

The expressed policy affinity with the US became for Tubman the basis for an "implicit quid pro quo approach" motivated by historical and cultural bonds between the two countries. In concrete terms this meant going forward with things in the pipeline – the 1942 defense agreement which granted the US rights to operate strategic airports as well as defend Liberia through six months following termination of the war; the building of roads as an offshoot of US activities in the country; the US dollar replacing the British pound as the country's currency; Liberia's eligibility for Lend-Lease assistance which included plans for building a port.

In 1945 Tubman dispatched to the US his treasury secretary at the head of a mission to prepare a development blueprint for the country. It envisaged a whole range of infrastructure development including roads, health, military training, education, and urban development. In time the Liberian president would reason that the US had a responsibility to develop Liberia in all spheres in the same manner as European colonial neighbors had developed their African territories. The Cold War soon gave a fillip to this argument.

A first American public loan of $15 million was pledged in 1945, $12.5 million earmarked for port construction, and the remainder for other development projects. This was followed by US encouragement of private American and other Western investment in the country. In 1947 the Stettinius Associates-Liberia, Inc. was established. It was granted an 88-year concession "to exploit any line of business, except activities already expressly granted to other concessionaires". And it became the stimulus for Liberia's merchant marine program. The latter, formally installed in 1948, remains today a major revenue generating business. A slew of other private enterprises followed, among them the three iron ore-extracting giants of the Liberia Mining Company (LMC), the Bong Mining Company, and the Liberia-American-Swedish Mineral Company (LAMCO).

Partially in return, Tubman permitted the US to install a Voice of America transmission station for Africa on Liberian soil, a diplomatic relay station for sensitive communication between Washington and US missions in Africa, emergency use of RIA, and later the Free Port of Monrovia. And Liberian diplomats were instructed to speak publicly on international issues in terms to which the US subscribed. In the decade 1956 to 1966, with a favorable global economic situation and the returns on the enormous public and private investments made, Tubman's Liberia could boast appreciable modernization of its economic and social institutions.

Because Africa was the other pillar of Tubman's foreign policy thrust, and considering American Cold War interests in the continent, there was here some interesting collaboration. Tubman was motivated by developments in his neighborhood – nationalism and decolonization, independence and the arrival of "radical forces" represented by Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sekou Toure of Guinea, and Patrice Lumumba of The Congo, among others. There were concerns as well about the spread of communist influence and the destabilizing effects of these and similar activities. There was the closest of collaboration between Tubman and the US on these matters. The US fully acknowledged Liberia's standing in Africa and often used Tubman as a conduit to more problematic African leaders. One American wrote in 1959: "Under the aegis of President Tubman, Liberia's role in Africa has changed from semi-isolation to that of an exponent of moderate pan-Africanism." But Tubman reaped from his detractors charges of being a stooge of the US. He stoically held his grounds while working to enhance his credentials as a moderate leader.

William Tolbert and the US
He succeeded to the presidency upon Tubman's death in July 1971 and served through April 12, 1980 when he was assassinated. Born 1913 in Bensonville of parents whose forebears came from South Carolina, his father spoke fluent Kpelle, was a farmer, and a legislator. The junior Tolbert's career mirrored his father's. Graduated with a BA degree in 1934 from Liberia College, he was elected to the Legislature in 1943, and called ten years later to the vice presidency where he remained until Tubman's death.

Tolbert signaled an early shift away from Tubman's foreign policy, characterizing what he sought to do as retaining old friends while courting new ones. In a world still dominated by the Cold War, he decided to exchange ambassadors with the Soviet Union and other socialist states, sever ties with Israel, establish relations with Libya through a Liberian-Libyan Holding Company, the latter two in the name of Afro-Arab solidarity. Tolbert warmed up as well to African and other Third World "progressive" regimes, even while he had a complicated relationship with his own domestic "progressives". Because the US was troubled by these relationships there is speculation that it may have sanctioned the 1980 coup d'etat which ended Tolbert and his regime.

The 1971-80 period echoed the Barclay era in reference to sentiments of ambivalence in the relationship. Where Barclay's was derived from the crisis of the 1930s, Tolbert's came from a review of foreign concession agreements and his upbraiding of some multinational company officials, accompanied by openings to the socialist world. Another Barclay and Tolbert-era commonality is that American presidents visited Liberia during their incumbencies – President Roosevelt in 1943 and President Carter in 1978.

Early in his term Tolbert decided to seek a renegotiation of concession agreements with a view to addressing issues of equity. Firestone was the first because, among other considerations, it was the oldest. Firestone apparently chose not to be forthcoming. One source hints at what came next in these words: "During the first meeting of Government officials and Firestone representatives, in July 1974, the emotional bomb exploded, and Finance Minister Steve Tolbert, as Chairman of the Concessions and Investment Commission and backed by his brother, the President of Liberia, demanded the withdrawal of Firestone's reply which – it was felt – had insulted Liberia". Tensions with Firestone found echoes in the State Department in Washington. There soon emerged reports in official Liberian circles in 1975 that the State Department was discouraging further foreign investment in the country.

Then came a row in July 1976 involving the Liberian Foreign Minister and the American Ambassador to Liberia. The Minister used the occasion of July 4 at the US Embassy to express what he called "mixed feelings" and a mode that was "somewhat ambivalent" as Liberia celebrated America's milestone. A Liberia review committee of US-Liberia relations concluded in September 1975 that the so-called ‘special relationship’ had declined significantly from the American point of view, if at all it ever existed".

In 1979 a Washington public relations firm hired by Liberia was even more revealing in its report. It said that US perception of Liberia included the image of an elitist society with the masses living in despair. Liberia was also perceived as a traditionally reliable friend of the US and therefore easy to short-change in matters of military and economic assistance. The firm's memo highlighted two American concerns regarding Tolbert's Liberia – uneasiness with what it termed "the student sector", that is shorthand for the manifestation of radical politics of the 1970s led by such social movements as the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) and the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), and directed toward the youth; and an apparent preoccupation with the human rights of an identifiable indigenous Liberian population.

This, then, was the status of the relationship as the 1970s ended. Tolbert's decision to open Liberia to the socialist world, to make common cause with "progressive" forces of the Global South (accompanied by ambivalence toward domestic progressives), and to re-negotiate concession agreements, notably Firestone's . These and other decisions contributed to tension in the relationship between Washington and Monrovia. The 1980 coup occurred in this context and friendship in the relationship was not restored until a military government was installed in April 1980.

Samuel Doe and the US
Doe was president (or head of state) from April 12, 1980 through September 9, 1990 when he was publicly tortured to death by Warlord Prince Yormie Johnson about a year into the Civil War. Born 1950 in Tuzon of Krahn parents, he was the first president of purely indigenous background. His formal education was meager but he managed to improve himself after he enlisted in the Liberian military. In 1979 he was made a master sergeant, a rank he held when he joined other enlisted men and overthrew Tolbert. Doe was not highly thought of by US officials, but there appeared a decided American determination to mold him into something useful.

Uncertainty characterized the relationship in the beginning months of the military government. That was short lived. Given the country's economic difficulties and a military leadership made to lean towards Liberia's traditional orientation, unprecedented US assistance soon assured that friendship would return to the relationship. From an annual average of $8 million during the two decades preceding 1980, total US aid in the decade of the 1980s exceeded $700 million.

The US was so forthcoming because Doe was seen as responding to US interests. He closed the Libyan People's Bureau in Monrovia, restored ties with Israel, and expelled Soviet diplomats. These actions led the outgoing Carter administration and the incoming Reagan administration "to reconfirm the traditional US-Liberian special relationship." Consistent with the new approach Doe was accorded in 1982 a state visit to Washington during which he granted the US special military deployment rights in reference to the use of RIA and the Free Port of Monrovia with only a 24-hour advance notice. And the US used the facilities for twelve monthly flights, including sending equipment to the UNITA forces in Angola.

While Doe was doing well from these early indications of responding to Washington's interests, US officials did not consider that his pattern of eliminating his domestic rivals had implications for the future of his regime. Clearer autocratic tendencies soon emerged, coming to a head in the politics of the 1985 elections. Liberians and international observers tried to protest a rigged election, while President Reagan's point man for Africa, Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker offered a condescending endorsement of the results. Crocker's successor, Herman Cohen, writes that that endorsement caused "dismay in the Congress and [marked] the start of a steady decline in US-Liberia relations".

In response to the deteriorating socio-political and economic situation, largely a direct consequence of a foiled coup d'etat in late 1985 by General Thomas Quinwonkpa, Doe's erstwhile colleague, as well as Doe's politics of repression and defiance, particularly directed toward Liberians of Nimbain provenance (home County of Quinwonkpa), Secretary of State George Schultz visited Liberia in January 1987.

Much transpired during and following the visit, but its primary outcome was the US offer of a team of retired financial experts to assist Liberia ,put its financial affairs in order. Doe thoroughly frustrated the experts and they prematurely withdrew leaving Washington even more frustrated. Too, he seemed unprepared to appreciate US Congressional concerns about his poor human rights record and the management issues that had partially prompted the Schultz visit. By January 1989 three US national security facilities near Monrovia were threatened due to congressional disenchantment with Doe. These vitals included the diplomatic and intelligence communications relay station "of 500-acre antenna fields and several buildings serving 15 American embassies in Africa"; the VOA relay station of some 1600 acres that transmitted 75 daily broadcasts to Africa; and a US Coast Guard-operated "Omega" maritime navigation tracking station, then one of six worldwide as navigational aids for ships and air crafts.

There things stood when Charles Taylor's NPFL appeared on the stage. A noted initial public US response was to consider providing the Doe government counterinsurgency advice, but the international human rights community and Congress were swift in response, underscoring Doe's atrocious human rights record. Cohen observes: "Our small initial act of sending two LIBMISH officers to Nimba County ran into a firestorm at home. The Americo-Liberian lobby accused us of providing counterinsurgency advice to the AFL".

Liberia was in flames at the moment in 1990 that Iraq invaded Kuwait. A US choice was made not to engage in Liberia despite what the State Department called "expensive and irreplaceable [American] facilities" and other interests in Liberia. According to Cohen, the abandonment went forward because the White House, led by deputy NSC adviser Robert Gates, determined that the US facilities had lost their vitality and criticality in the changed circumstance of the post-Cold War world. Neither military nor diplomatic engagement would be allowed. The US would not "take charge of the Liberian problem". It would follow the lead of Liberia's African neighbors and become an "interested observer", providing routine humanitarian assistance to NGOs in the field. This, essentially, remained US policy, 1989 through 1997, when Taylor acceded to the Liberian presidency. There was no material change in this policy.

Charles Taylor and the US
Taylor was president from January 1997 through August 11, 2003 when he was pressured to resign and go into exile. Born 1948 in Arthingon, Taylor is the product of a settler-Liberian father and a Gola-Liberian mother. He was educated in Liberia and the US, completing a BA degree in 1970 at Bentley College. In terms of his political pedigree, he is from the lower echelons of the old settler group, and therefore was not in power at their sufferance despite the fact that a few sensed political opportunities in his regime. Considered by those who know him well to be naturally gifted with a good mind and personal initiative, Taylor's route to power was most unorthodox. His political apprenticeship was with Liberian community organizations in the US during his student days and a stint in the military government of his nemesis, Samuel Doe.

He soon fell out with the dictatorial Doe, returned to the US, and was charged with embezzlement of public funds by Doe who then initiated extradition proceedings against him. Taylor was arrested and imprisoned awaiting trial when he escaped and left the country. Soon he emerged in West Africa, exploited his marital link to Nimba County, and declared in course that he was taking up the mantle of General Quiwonkpa. It was this rebellion of Taylor's that became the Civil War that lasted for 14 years, ending only in the Summer of 2003 following his indictment by the Special UN Court for Sierra Leone for crimes against humanity, and his pressured departure into exile.

Liberia's warring and political factions concluded a peace agreement in 1996 as the then seven-year-old conflict sputtered to an end. Holding free and fair elections quickly was a centerpiece of the arrangement. In a highly problematic and unstable social environment the international community pushed for and supervised elections in 1997. Taylor is reported to have won by a large margin over his opponents, one prominent publication justifying the exercise by suggesting that in choosing Taylor Liberians were "voting for peace". Taylor soon became the "democratically elected president of Liberia". A mutually distrustful relationship between the US and President Taylor ensued.

The first issues involved the implementation of the Abuja peace agreement of 1996 and concerned legitimizing and regularizing the country's security arrangements – the military, the police and other security forces. ECOMOG, the West African peace force which had been endorsed by the UN was meant to supervise the re-creation of the military in collaboration with others in the international community. The US expressed interest in helping with re-creating a national police force. Taylor chose to ignore the peace agreement and claimed a constitutional prerogative to "raise an army". ECOMOG unceremoniously departed the country.

The relationship of mutual distrust with the US became manifest as serious human rights concerns lead the US to condition its offer to help with police training on the removal by Taylor of his notorious police chief, Joe Tate. Human rights assessments of the country during the period 1997 through 2003 explain why on this issue, as well as that of the highly problematic private militia security units created by the regime, progress was inconceivable.

A series of other issues further shaped the relationship. Taylor planned in 1997 to attend the fall session of the United Nations General Assembly. Because he was coming to the US, the then unsettled issue of his escape from prison in the State of Massachusetts in 1987 was raised by the press and other sources. Following much back and forth involving Massachusetts's judicial officials, the US State Department, and Taylor's agents, the State's District Attorney decided in October 1998 to drop all charges against him. The idea of a US trip was revived following this outcome, only to be aborted once again, this time because Taylor considered it a slight that in all the arrangements made for his visit US President Bill Clinton had refused to receive him, the only Liberian president, certainly among the five being profiled here, to so experience American shunning. A Taylor apologist writes: "Not only did President Clinton decline to meet personally with one of the few democratically elected leaders in Africa, but when, later the same year. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright toured African countries, she refused to meet with the elected Liberian president".

Other events transpired that further eroded US-Liberian relations. They include a surreptitious attempt by Taylor to circumvent a UN arms embargo by seeking to purchase an armored Hummer vehicle from the US via the U.K. The US blocked the purchase and Britain deported the Liberian facilitator who was residing in London. There was as well a serious incident in September 1998 at the US Embassy in Monrovia during which there was an exchange of gun fire involving Taylor's security forces, his armed opponents, and military guards at the Embassy. Charges and counter charges left the relationship where it had begun, marked by acrimony and mutual suspicion.

Perhaps the ultimate issue was the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) insurgency, which began in northern Liberia in 1999 and culminated on Bushrod Island in the Summer of 2003, contributing in no small way to bringing down the Taylor regime. The US appeared quickly to join what became a bandwagon of determined opponents, which included another insurgency group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), attacking from southern Liberia, as well as the Liberian people themselves protesting the brutalities that engulfed them on every side.

During the Clinton administration the US employed diplomatic methods to persuade a change of course by Taylor. He was urged to discontinue support for Sierra Leone RUF rebels and other acts of West African regional destabilization, as well as improve his human rights record at home. Unresponsive, there followed a US-backed UN investigation of the charges. The investigation confirmed the veracity of the charges, and selective punitive sanctions, called "smart sanctions", were imposed against the regime. Taylor struggled to circumvent the sanctions even as LURD increased its military pressures on the regime.

Some observers have suggested a linkage of objectives involving LURD, Guinea, and the US, the latter heavily involved in training and supplying the Guinean military, which then helped train and supply LURD forces. Was the US simply looking the other way as LURD, in engaging Taylor's forces, rained death and destruction on the Liberian people? Similar linkages have been perceived involving MODEL, Cote d'Ivoire, and possibly sympathizers of the Abidjan regime.

Clearly US policy was to contain and isolate Taylor, working closely with West African regional and continental African leaders, as well as with the UN. The close collaboration with the Africans was in evidence during President Bush's visit to the continent July 7-12, 2003. Over time the US dissuaded the international community from any direct assistance to the Taylor regime; it wanted the UN arms embargo of mid-Civil War vintage sustained; it condemned violence perpetrated by all in the escalating conflict without suggesting forceful action against the insurgents. Taylor had become a hindrance to US interest particularly in a post-9/11 world.

The Liberian president began feeling the coordinated military, financial and diplomatic pressures, and attempted his own maneuvers. Early in May 2003 he signaled his preparedness to make major political concessions including not standing for re-election at the end of his term later in the year. He invited direct US engagement in an effort to end the insurgency. But the US remained unresponsive, plausibly intensifying pressures at its disposal.

Meanwhile, the pace of events quickened. The International Contact Group on Liberia (ICGL), involving Ghana, Morocco, Nigeria, France, Britain, the US, the African Union, the European Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the UN, met in Brussels May 12. A peace conference assembling all the parties to the Liberian conflict began in Ghana on June 2. On June 4 the proceedings were disturbed with an announced indictment of President Taylor by the UN Special Court in Sierra Leone "for his alleged role in crimes committed during Sierra Leone's civil war". The belligerents announced a cease-fire agreement on June 17.

On June 26 President Bush made the following statement to a gathering in Washington of the Corporate Council on Africa:

In Liberia, the US strongly supports the cease-fire signed earlier this month. President Taylor needs to step down so that his country can be spared further bloodshed. All parties in Liberia must pursue a comprehensive peace agreement. And the US is working with regional governments to support those negotiations. And to map out a secure transition to election. We are determined to help the people of Liberia find the road to peace.

A further intensification of the diplomatic and other pressures on Taylor was applied in the weeks that followed. Taylor grudgingly bowed to these pressures, resigned on August 11, 2003 and went into exile in Nigeria. The ongoing negotiations in Ghana concluded on August 18 with a comprehensive peace agreement. These developments appeared cumulatively to mark a new beginning for Liberia and with this perhaps a new chapter in the history of relations with the US.

There has always been controversy about the special or privileged character of the relations between the US and Liberia, but seldom an issue about its uniqueness. Few, if any, African countries can claim the more-than-a-century of sustained interaction with the US as can Liberia. The US was present at Liberia’s creation and has remained engaged since its 19th century beginnings and throughout the many shifts and turning points in the relationship. Perhaps the greatest turning point came in the summer of 2003 when the world community trained its gaze on the relationship as Liberia experienced a fresh spasm of violence in its 14 year old Civil War. Not materially different from what had occurred in the summer of 1990 as political violence was just beginning, this time the context of a post 9/11 world and the global struggle against terrorism framed perceptions. Both Britain and France were re-engaging in their troubled former colonies in Africa following a hiatus in the 1980s, and the US was challenged to demonstrate a similar measure of concern for its former ward.

Thus it was that as Taylor departed the presidency in August 2003 and Liberians recollected themselves, they did so with substantial assistance from the international community, the US being critical to that effort. And since then there have been signs of a fresh start, or a renewal of ties in the relationship. What might be the motivations on part of the US? In the past the US has been motivated by its international struggle such as World War II and the need for Liberian territory and rubber, and the Cold War struggle when the US required Liberia's strategic resources and alliance, as well as a stable place for American capital investment.

In early 2004 a series of reports suggest changing motives as the US re-engages in a way reminiscent at least of the heyday of the Cold War. On February 13 there was a reported US-Liberian agreement that authorized US sailors to board Liberian-flagged vessels in international waters to search for weapons of mass destruction since potential terrorists were thought to be shifting locale due to tightening aviation security measures. President Bush announced on Feb. 25 that the US was providing $114 million of its pledged initial $200 million for the reconstruction of Liberia. And on a visit to Monrovia in early March, the deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs pledged $35 million to help train a new Liberian military. The American official added her government's prepared to work with Liberian authorities toward the goal of "debt forgiveness". Prompted by the US the World Bank reported immediately making available to Liberian authorities $4 million to assist with the provision of capacity necessary to absorb some $520 million in pledged assistance from the international community for the country's rehabilitation in the two years immediately ahead.

What might really be motivating this expression of goodwill? A new surge of humanitarianism? New perceptions of interests including security and oil prospects in the West African zone? How enduring might be such considerations? How might all of this translate into sustainability in Liberia? On the answers to such questions will turn the future of the relations between the US and Liberia and the future wellbeing of Liberia itself.

From THE PENNNSYLVANIA GEOGRAPHER: AFRICA, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2004)
Copyright 2004 by The Pennsylvania Geographical societyReproduced in this format with permission of the editor.

About the author: Dr. D.Elwood Dunn is a professor of Political Science at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.