Liberian American Relations Revisited

By Abraham L. James, Ph.D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

February 9, 2004

In July 2003, during Liberia’s devastating civil conflict when Monrovia, the capital city was under siege due to an attempt by Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel forces to overthrow the regime of President Charles Taylor, Liberia received unprecedented media attention. The issue of America’s responsibility for Liberia, and America’s participation in the conflict was discussed and debated in the media. The debate was primarily between those who felt that the United States should intervene because of the historical ties between the two countries; and those who opposed intervention, because they felt that Liberia was currently of no geo-political significance to America’s national strategic interest. A survey of letters from the media revealed that 85% supported American intervention, while 15% opposed it.

America’s association with Liberia dates back to the nineteenth century. It is based on a unique combination of historical, consanguineous and cultural ties. The Liberian State is an American creation in which Congress, the executive branch of government and many famous American citizens were major players. The founding of the country had its origins in the Anti-Slave Trade Act of March 3, 1819. The legislation by the United States Congress authorized that a new home be found for liberated Black Americans whose ancestors had been taken into captivity in the Americas across the Atlantic Ocean. The Act authorized the President “to make such regulations and arrangements as he may deem expedient for the safe keeping, support and removal beyond the limits of the United States, of all such negroes, mulattos or persons of color as may be delivered and brought within the jurisdiction.” The Act also authorized the president to appoint a person or persons residing upon the coast of Africa as an agent or agents for receiving the category of individuals mentioned above. Congress provided funding for the project.

Although Congress hoped that the president would implement the Act broadly, President James Monroe, perhaps because of domestic political reasons, decided to proceed cautiously through the American Colonization Society (ACS), a private organization, established in Washington D.C. in 1817, and sponsored by various American religious and philanthropic groups. The membership included many distinguished Americans including: Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, James Monroe, Bushrod Washington (nephew of George Washington) and Francis Scott Key, to mention a few. The views of the members and others that believed in the objectives of the African mission differed widely. One group including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Randolph of Roanoke, regarded slavery as an evil in consistent with the American Declaration of Independence, but since they believed it impossible for Whites and Blacks to live together in harmony, regarded colonization abroad as a necessary accompaniment of emancipation. Another group of the colonists was interested in using black émigrés as instruments to convert Africans to Christianity. A third faction was motivated largely by a desire to create in Africa a colony that would produce exotic crops to enrich American trade.

In keeping with the Anti-Slavery Act, the United States Government designated the ACS as the custodian for the recaptures under its protection, and President Monroe announced the dispatch to Africa of two federal agents and a representative of the ACS along with a company of laborers and artisans. They were authorized to “establish a government station.”

Many of the settlers who went to Liberia were brown men and women “mulattoes,” individuals of mixed black and white parentage, as stated in the Act. They were descendants of white male slaveholders, and black mothers. Their white fathers were predisposed to liberate their progeny for a new life in Africa. Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a freeborn Virginian émigré who became Liberia’s first President in 1847 was a product of this group, as were all of his successors until 1892. The mulattoes were an influential group in Liberian society and politics.

America’s legacy is evident throughout Liberia. The Settlers from America took with them a broad range of skills and habits acquired in the United States, particularly a preference for the way of life they had experienced in the American South, these included formal attire, ante-bellum architectural style and also a variety of Southern style dishes. A constitution modeled on that of the United States drafted by a Harvard law Professor, Simeon Greenleaf, was adopted, as was a flag, which resembles that of the United States. Other signs of American influence are the names of many cities, towns and streets. For example, Monrovia, the capital, is named after President James Monroe, Liberia’s second largest city, Buchanan, is named after President Buchanan and Harper, the seat of government of Maryland County, is named after Congressman Robert Goodloe who invented the name Liberia.

There have been other manifestations of American influence, over the years. From the period of the Second World War to the end of the Cold War, the United States was accorded special privileges in most of the bi-lateral agreements that were concluded between the two countries. During the Second World War Liberia made available to the Allied forces not only its huge supply of rubber that was indispensable to the United States military machinery, but also facilities for airfields and military bases. This was as far back as 1939, even though Liberia did not declare war on Germany until 1944.

After the fall of France in 1940, Pan American Airways, acting secretly on behalf of the United States Government, obtained the consent of the Liberian Government for the construction of airfields to accommodate massive transport planes. Ostensibly, the purpose of the airfields was to facilitate Pan American’s New York-Lisbon connection. The secrecy of the arrangement was such that no formal agreement was prepared. In June 1944, based on a verbal understanding, Pan American Airways and Firestone began construction of Robertsfield. One month later with the project still in progress, the airfield was functioning. The airfield was one of the few of its kind outside the United States capable of accommodating the giant B-2 bombers. It handled dozens of planes each month and enabled General Dwight Eisenhower to ferry troops into North Africa to assist the British under the command of Field Marshall Montgomery.

Additionally, during the Cold War, Liberia trusting in the sincerity of a policy of friendship with the United States, adopted a policy of special cooperation with the United States. It was the only country in Africa where the United States had land and refueling right for military aircraft on 24-hour notice, and the Voice of America transmitter near Monrovia, broadcast throughout West Africa. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Defense Department also had facilities in Liberia for intelligence communications throughout the entire African continent. Private American investments in Liberia were also substantial, including Firestone the largest rubber plantation in the world. Furthermore, Liberia a small African country, unwaveringly supported and voted with the United States in the major councils of the world, especially in America’s ideological conflict with the Soviet Union. Likewise, Liberia’s Maritime Bureau was created to provide a neutral flag to ships of the American merchant marine, thereby evoking considerable hostilities from the leading European maritime countries because of their competition with the United States in the maritime field. Liberia was pejoratively referred to as the country with a “flag of convenience.”

These developments should help to explain the spontaneity of the reaction of world leaders and others in calling for American intervention during the July 2003, siege of Monrovia. It is recalled that United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan called on President George Bush for a robust United States participation in the Liberian peace process. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, United Kingdom Permanent Representative at the United Nations referred to the United States as “the nation that everyone would think would be the natural candidate”, because of the historical ties. There were also calls for American intervention from officials of the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS), as well as many news organs across the United States. In doing so, the leaders pointed out what they felt were parallel cases of intervention by France in the Ivory Coast and British intervention in Sierra Leone. .

Official American policy on America’s relations with Liberia has varied with successive Republican and Democratic administrations. In early 1862, President Abraham Lincoln expressed the hope “that there shall be perpetual peace and friendship between the Republic of Liberia and the United States." President Franklin Roosevelt seemed to have a keen interest in Liberia. It is recalled that after the Casablanca conference in January 1943, President Roosevelt paid a visit to Liberia. He thanked the people of Liberia, and before flying back to the United States from Robertsfield, extended a special invitation to Liberian incumbent President Edwin Barclay and President-elect William Tubman to visit the United States. During the visit, President Barclay lived in the White House and Mr. Tubman was a guest at Blair House. President Jimmy Carter also paid a brief visit to Liberia in 1978, and held discussions with President William R. Tolbert and members of his government. During the administration of President Ronald Reagan, which coincided with a military coup d’etat in Liberia, United States assistance amounted to five hundred million dollars, exceeding those of all previous administrations. President George Bush was instrumental in securing the adoption of a United Nations Security Council Resolution that created the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in September, 2003. And during the same year a bi-party coalition of Democrats and Republicans achieved a congressional appropriation of $200 million dollars assistance and $245 million dollars for the UNMIL Peace Keeping Force. Liberians were deeply appreciative of this development.

The argument that America’s obligation in connection with the existing Liberian situation should be based on Liberia’s geo-political significance seems to disparage the complexity of Liberia’s historical ties with the United States. In fact, it ignores the significant contributions made by Liberia to Liberian-American relations at crucial moments of the long association that spans over 150 years. Despite occasional differences on various issues Liberian-American relations are firmly on track, and it is hoped that they will be strengthened during the years ahead.

About the Author: Dr. Abraham l. James is a former Assistant to President W.V.S. Tubman and Adjunct Professor of History at the Comey Institute, Saint Joseph’s University, Pennsylvania.