America Has a Moral Duty to Help Liberia

By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 20, 2002

Mark Bellamy - © By The Perspective
William Mark Bellamy
Does the United States bear any moral responsibility towards Liberia? Put another way, does the U.S. have a moral duty to help Liberia against her enemies, external or internal? Does the United States have a moral role to play in bringing peace and stability to Liberia? It is my firm belief that the answer to all of the questions posed above is "yes" - a frantic and unequivocal "yes". Yet there are those, both inside and outside of the government as well as other circles of influence here in the U.S. who make bold statements to the contrary. It is the intent of this article to make this case: The United States of America does have a compelling moral duty toward Liberia.

Speaking for the record on the documentary, "Liberia, America's Step Child", Herman Cohen, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1989-1993) had this to say about Liberia: "They were always willing to give us facilities in Liberia. For example, we had unlimited use of Robertsfield and Robertsport. We had two vast antennae stations there, one for diplomatic communications and one for the Voice of America (VOA) broadcasting. We had an Omega navigational station run by the Coast Guard. In other words, there was the perfect relationship for us."

On the subject of whether the administration should have been supporting Samuel K. Doe, who is claimed to have won a dubious presidential election, Mr. Cohen said: "We had a dilemma of supporting this gentleman or not. Initially, the Cold War tilted us in favor of supporting him because we got reciprocal treatment..."

He further said: "He should have lost but rigged the elections. But at that time all West African elections were rigged - it was a very normal thing for the government to win the election although they may have had less than a majority of the votes. So it did not bother us." Yes, that's what the man said: "It did not bother us."

Later on, as Taylor's forces advanced and the U. S. government seemed unresponsive to Doe's appeal for assistance, Secretary Cohen said again: "The fact the Cold War was ending was no coincidence. We had less need for his cooperation." As to whether he thought the U.S. had any moral obligation to set things right, he said no, the U.S owes no moral duty to Liberia.

At a recently held conference on Liberia titled: "Liberia: The Eye of the Hurricane", Mr. Mark Bellamy, US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs said: "Throughout this discussion today there has been sort of an undercurrent, at times more than an undercurrent suggestion that somehow the United States has a duty and moral responsibility to get rid of Charles Taylor. And the simple answer to that is NO. United States does not have a duty and responsibility to get rid of Charles Taylor. We have a duty and responsibility to contain him, to pressure him and to work with democratic forces in Liberia to empower and enable them to get rid of Charles Taylor..."

Some Historical Origins of the Founding of Liberia

Liberia is generally known as the country founded by the American Colonization Society (ACS) and settled by freed American Blacks and others intercepted on the high seas by the American navy and returned there. Actually, it can be said that it was founded under the auspices of the US government, which originally appropriated $100,000 (one hundred thousand dollars) to facilitate the project – the purchasing of land, mainly.

Liberia's capital city, Monrovia, was so named in honor of James Monroe, America's fifth president. Its flag closely resembles the red white and blue flag of the United States and its government structure is similar (on paper) to that of the United States. Liberia claims to be a Republican form of government with three co-equal branches - executive, legislative and judiciary. Its constitution is almost a replica of the famous US document and a team headed by a Harvard University professor wrote it.

Although it is quite evident that American interests founded this country, the motives of the various parties forging this project remained ambivalent and sometimes divergent. For example, in his dynamic book, "Liberia: The Quest for Democracy", Gus Liebenow writes: "The motives of those who organized the ACS in 1816 were decidedly mixed. Some saw immigration as a convenient device for ridding cities both North and South of a class that had not been successfully integrated in the 'American melting pot'... Southern planters, who figured prominently in the resettlement movement, were particularly interested in eliminating a class whose very existence - by setting an example of freedom and self-reliance among Blacks - constituted more than a symbolic and political threat to the institution of slavery. Other supporters of the ACS had different motives. They saw the colony of American Blacks as a beachhead in West Africa for Protestant Christianity and Western Civilization... Finally, there were those founders who were more moved by some secular humanitarian considerations..."

Whatever the motives of the various founders and settlers of the Republic, it remains convincingly clear that the founding of Liberia was a unique American experiment - conceived and implemented by Americans.

In view of the foregoing, a natural relationship between the two countries became inevitable. It would be naturally logical to assume that the United States would become Liberia's mother country, and many do consider that to be the case. If America is Liberia's mother country, what does that make Liberia? Well many have chosen the dubious appellation "stepchild" to be an apt description.

Some quite extraordinarily uncontrollable events occurred from which this stepchild was born. America, although not being able to deny her relationship to her child, has treated her as an outsider to be tolerated by circumstances. At times, when it has been to America's advantage, she has gone to all length to let the world know that Liberia was her possession and would enjoy her protection. But when Liberia experienced some bumps on the road through growing pains, her mother usually abandoned her.

This child, Liberia, from a very early age, learned to fight her own battles, with some measurable successes. But like the abandoned and unwanted child who craves his/her parents' love and attention, Liberia has always made herself available and willing to please America. She has always been proud of her American heritage. Nothing pleases the poor child more than to be referred to as "Little America" or "America in Africa". Even in these tumultuous years, when America's commitment has reached an all-time low, Liberia is still pleased to be called "America's stepchild".

Although, as has already been indicated, Liberia was founded under American auspices, the government refused to go the extra mile to "organize" the new colony as an American territory. This left the colony vulnerable to bigger and hostile forces. For example, it was a number of hostile and intimidating moves by the British government that forced the colony into declaring itself an independent country in 1847. The British government, in support of European traders from Sierra Leone, seized a Liberian vessel in retaliation for a vessel seized by the Liberian colony. In refusing to pay custom fees, Britain claimed she did not recognize the sovereignty of the ACS. The Americans declined to intervene; in effect saying the British were right. This in my view was one of the earliest demonstrations of this "stepchild syndrome". A mother fights for her real children - Liberia was merely a stepchild, an unwanted child; she didn't deserve to be defended from the hawks.

Here is a strange twist to the tale: Immediately upon its "Declaration of Independence", Britain recognized the newly independent country. America, on the other hand, did not extend diplomatic recognition to Liberia until 1862 - "When the Civil War had removed the principal objectors to the presence of a Black envoy in Washington, DC."

For the latter decades of the nineteenth century, the Liberian government relied more on Britain than America. For example, in 1871, the Liberian government turned to the British government for a loan when it found itself in dire financial straits - the results of this loan were disastrous for the Liberian people.

In the meantime, Liberian youth were mainly being educated in Britain and Sierra Leone, a British protectorate. Britain opened the first regular shipping schedule to Monrovia and gave financial and other forms of aid in the reorganization of the Republic's administrative and military forces. The British pound remained Liberia's official currency until 1943, when it was replaced by the American dollar.

We will also note that during most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Germany was Liberia's principal trading partner, with the Netherlands being a close second. Britain remained the primary supplier of imported goods and became even more important after the entreaties of America and the Allies succeeded in getting Liberia to break diplomatic relations with Germany.

Breaking diplomatic relations with Germany was an economic disaster for Liberia because at that point, Germany controlled three-quarters of Liberia's prewar trade. This decision meant a loss of public revenues to the country as well as a collapse of commercial trade. So, why did Liberia do it? Because her "mother country", America wanted it that way and the stepchild was eager to please her mother.

The Case for Moral Responsibility

Given the numerous historical and cultural ties that that bound Liberia and the United States, there is a case to be made about the complicity of the US government in the exploitation of the institution of slavery to which the founding of Liberia is inextricably linked. It is that link that, in my view that establishes America's moral duty to Liberia. Records do indicate that the US government did benefit from the immoral and heartless use of forced labor of slaves help develop the infrastructure of this great country. In his magnificent book, "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks", the great civil and human rights lawyer and author, Randall Robinson tells us how the US Capitol was constructed: "The United States government sent out a request for one hundred slaves. The first stage of the Capitol's construction would run from 1793 to 1802. In exchange for the slaves' labor the government agreed to pay their owners five dollars per month per slave." (Please note: All monies went to the slaveholders and none to the slaves who did the backbreaking work.)

Also according to Robinson, "Slaves were not only made to labor on the Capitol building but also to do much of the work in implementing Pierre Charles L'Enfant's grand design for the whole of the district of Columbia." We also learn from this account that during the Civil War, slaves dislocated in the turmoil gravitated towards union soldiers, who often brought them to Washington to be put to work on the Capitol. They called them the "spoils of war" and "contraband slaves".

Even President Lincoln, the so-called great emancipator, was known to have urged Blacks upon emancipation to leave the United States en masse for colonies that would be set up in Haiti and Liberia. In fact, Lincoln had invited a group of free Blacks to the White House in August 1862 and told them: "Your race suffers greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side. If it is admitted, it affords a reason why we should be separated", according to Robinson.

It will be recalled that these so-called free Blacks were each promised "forty acres and a mule" by the government under the Southern Homestead Act of 1866. In fact, many were sent packing, empty handed, to join their unfortunate brethren in Liberia. Today, they don't lay claims to reparations. Not even the forty acres and a mule in exchange for the forced labor their ancestors endured. All the country asks for is some moral consideration. Is that too much to ask?

The evil force that threatens to destroy our country is internal, rather than external. At the conference referred to earlier Mr. Mark Bellamy made this remark about Liberia: "This is a regime whose attributes more closely resemble often times those of a gang than a government and this is a leader (Charles Taylor) whose behavior more closely akin to that of a gang leader than that of a president".

Mr. Bellamy has clearly defined our problem. A drug-dealing gang leader and his goons hold our country hostage. All the country asks is to be delivered from this evil. Is that too much to ask? Mr. Bellamy admits they have a responsibility to "contain him". We simply want no part of him. Is that too much to ask?

What Mr. Bellamy and other movers and shakers of American foreign policy ought to be concentrating on is building a relationship with countries that will benefit and serve the interests of the countries involved not just the interests of the United states. If the United States keeps entering relationships only seeking its own interests, as opposed to bilateral, trilateral or even multilateral approaches, her intentions will always be undermined and viewed as suspect. The old saying "Super powers only have permanent interests, not permanent friends" must become a thing of the past. Countries, just like people have a need to have real friends. And real friendship requires moral responsibility and moral duty toward each other.

It only makes sense to call on the US government, its people and especially the foreign policy gurus to do the right - not just the expedient thing. We need to re-examine the words of former Secretary Cohen who went from making the statement, "They were willing to give us facilities in Liberia..." to saying when speaking of a rigged election and a military despot: "It did not bother us... The fact that the Cold War was ending was no coincidence. We had less need for his cooperation". What do you call such a policy, the "good time" policy?

I think the case is clearly and forcefully made for America's moral duty toward Liberia. Yes, America owes Liberia a commitment to provide guidance. Liberia is the monster America created and must not be allowed to walk away from her with impunity. As I write these lines I can only imagine the blues the country suffers as she sings and cries. The song I hear Liberia singing is an old Blues tone and it goes: "It's a low down dirty shame... the way you treat me..." America, please remember your friends in good times as well as bad times. That's real friendship.

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