Book Reviews and Commentary
By J. Kpanneh Doe
In a review of the historical literature on Liberia, there is a plethora of academic studies geared towards the political and social, rather than the personal. There is not only a scarcity but also a glaring absence of memoirs and autobiographical studies, which emphasize an individual's account or personal experience of events, scenes and developments as they have occurred. In a sense, there is a huge shortage of literature that provides a personal or "eyewitness" account of history as it has unfolded. This has created a gap in our national history in which personal perspectives have been lacking.
But new grounds are now being broken. There is a personal storytelling tradition that is now beginning to emerge in Liberian studies or historiography. If this trend continues, this would help contribute to a large body of knowledge and a better understanding of Liberian history.
"The Memoirs of a Liberian Ambassador, George Arthur
George Arthur Padmore's book, The Memoirs of a Liberian Ambassador, George Arthur Padmore (Edwin Mellen Press, 1996), seeks to accomplish such an objective. Articulating his objective for writing this book, Ambassador Padmore writes: "Numerous examples of attempts by Liberians to tell their story of their country could be cited, but those stories deal with a few political and economic situations in the country. This have also appeared in print little autobiographies and other such writings in which the Liberian story has been gleaned; but, again they are largely statements of kind or another on the country's restricted development."
This book offers a rare and insightful glimpse into the journey of George Arthur Padmore's rise to becoming Liberia's Ambassador accredited to the United States, member of the Liberian delegation at the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco, and First Dean of the African Diplomatic Corps in Washington, D. C. Ambassador Padmore's social relationships and connections to the center of power and privilege are also very evident. He is a foster son of President Edwin Barclay, brother-in-law of President V. S. Tubman, and personal friends to various other Liberian presidents such as William R. Tolbert and Samuel Kanyon Doe.
The book's strengths lie in its beautiful narration and description of events, witty observations and social commentary. The Ambassador's account of Liberia's trouble with the League of Nations for its involvement in slavery and forced labor practices which led to the resignation of President Charles Dunbar Burgess King, his meeting with various American Presidents such as Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy, and his discussion of U. S. -Liberian relationship, are well described.
But the book suffers from several weaknesses as well. There is a lack of coherence, and detailed analyses of events are inadequate. For example, in discussing various Liberian Presidents whom he described as follows: Arthur Barclay, the humanitarian; Daniel Edward Howard, the Pragmatist; Edwin Barclay, the intellectual; William V. S. Tubman, the architect; and, William R. Tolbert the dreamer. Surprisingly, he ran out of adjective when it came to his good friend, Samuel Kanyon Doe. Ambassador Padmore ably describes their styles and personalities, but does not provide a context as to what shaped them or what goals each of their presidency set out to accomplish.
Furthermore, Ambassador Padmore recounts how President Arthur Barclay married four times and had a reason for each marriage. He however counseled that one should "never marry for love." The relevance of this point to Barclay's presidency and the general theme of the book are lost to the readers.
Despite the book shortcomings, Ambassador Padmore's memoirs blaze the trail by documenting the experiences of his life in public service. Liberia's history can be enriched by his contribution. The book is therefore good to read.
"Beneath the Cold War: The Death of a Nation"
Leonard and Sadie Deshield, a husband and wife team, and former officials in the Tolbert administration, have collaborated in publishing: Beneath the Cold War: The Death of a Nation (Professionals Press Publishers, 1999 ). With its appealing but distorted title, the authors state that the book is not a research treatise, but their aim "is simply a narrative based on our personal experiences and the experiences of others during a time when the cold war was in the throes of what we feel was a mighty deception known as the cold war." The book is unique in so far as it offers a perspective from two individuals who were not only bystanders, but also participants in government.
The book begins with the premise that Liberia, like all other Third World or developing country, is a victim of the cold war. Devoting the first half of the book to prove this point, the authors cite various methods such as psychological warfare, character assassination, harassment, destabilization, etc. employed by the CIA and the KGB, to undermine leaders and governments that have either step out of line or fallen out of favor with their patrons. "The KGB and the CIA were the designers and executioners of their nation's cold war policies," they assert.
In the second half, which is the crux of the book, the authors delve into a personal account of their experiences of what happened on the night of April 12, 1980, which led to the overthrow of the Tolbert government by the military junta. Narrating a gripping story and their ordeal, and drawing on eye-witness accounts of others, they conclude that the death of Tolbert was orchestrated by the CIA with considerable involvement of the American Embassy near Monrovia.
More than it being a personal narrative, the book offers a passionate defense of the Tolbert government, True Whig Party rule, and Americo-Liberian hegemony. The authors also make a scathing critique and paints a bleak portrait of the so-called progressive forces -MOJA and PPP - their leaders, and their purported role and challenge they pose to the Tolbert government and the True Whig Party.
On Americo-Liberian hegemony, the authors assert that: "Tribal Liberians joined with self- seeking expatriate Liberians to castigate and crucify a small segment of Liberians as being responsible for all the ills of society. Aided by covert operators of the cold war, they even misnamed this group "Congoes."
For example, the authors write: "Tolbert came to the presidency troubled by many things". His domestic and foreign relations activities were highly commended by his people, especially his mediation of the longstanding coolness between three of the leaders of Liberia's neighboring states."
Discussing MOJA and PPP, the authors state: " PPP and MOJA had promised their followers, especially the market element that they could bring rice into Liberia far less than ten dollars a beg. The Tolbert government gave them the opportunity to do so but they quickly back away from their own lies."
There are three significant problems with the book. Firstly, there is no disputing the fact that the cold war played a significant role in undermining the progress and development of many African and Third World countries, but to apportion blame solely on the cold war without addressing the internal problems that prevailed in Liberia, which accelerated the political crisis, not only miss a crucial point, but display a lack of objectivity in their analysis of the root causes of the existing problem that has bedeviled the country.
Secondly, the book is rife with inaccuracies, disjointed and incoherent, and does not stick with its stated aim of being a narrative of personal experience. It is difficult to discern whether the book is a narrative, or a political analysis of events as they transpired in 1980. The topics and subject matters also lack coherence and there is an absence of an in-depth analysis of discussion of critical issues. The authors casual attempt and treatment of deep historical problem leaves much to be desired.
Thirdly, there is a paucity of attribution and sousing. The authors quote from other works, but fail to acknowledge sources. However, the book needs to be read so that the necessary corrections can be made.
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