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Chronicle of Higher Education, June 11, 2004
Rubber, Rebels, and Resentments
Scholars explore the difficult past and uncertain future of the
relationship between the United States and Liberia
By JENNIFER JACOBSON
As rebel forces closed in on Liberia's former president, Charles Taylor,
last summer, most newspaper accounts gave Americans in-depth coverage of
the fighting -- and only a single sentence or so as to why they should care.
Reporters in Monrovia briefly noted that the United States had
historical ties to Liberia dating back to 1822, when the U.S. government
and freed American slaves founded the West African nation and named its
capital city after the American president James Monroe. Few reporters,
however, attempted to explain the complex history of that relationship.
That complicated knot of history is at the center of two new books:
Claude A. Clegg III's The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the
Making of Liberia (University of North Carolina Press) and Ibrahim
Sundiata's Brothers and Strangers: Black Zion, Black Slavery, 1914-1940
(Duke University Press). Taken together, these works lay out crucial
interactions between America and Liberia in the African nation's first
118 years. In many cases, the interactions led to bitterness and
disillusionment. Both Mr. Clegg and Mr. Sundiata reveal how cherished
myths about Africa and America ran aground on the shoals of political
and cultural realities.
Mr. Clegg, a professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington,
traces the journeys of black North Carolinians who settled in Liberia
during its first seven decades as a nation, while Mr. Sundiata, a
professor of history and African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis
University, details the stirrings, trials, and eventual collapse of
Marcus Garvey's African emigration movement in the early 20th century.
The two narratives observe the history of the U.S.-Liberia relationship
with a keen eye. But in the light of last summer's conclusion to a
14-year civil war, the authors point to lessons for the future as well.
Because of the global campaign against terrorism being waged by the
United States, that relationship may once again take on a significance
not seen since the days of the cold war. Mr. Sundiata is among those who
argue that the United States would be remiss not to stabilize Liberia
and engage its help in the post-September 11 world, as it once did to
counter the Soviet threat.
In his introduction, Mr. Sundiata points out significant parallels
between the violence and chaos of 2003 and that which existed in Liberia
in early 1933, when its greatest natural resource, rubber, was a key
concern for American national security.
"Seventy years ago, in the name of human rights, a Republican
administration stood on the verge of using military force to secure a
material deemed essential to national defense," writes Mr. Sundiata.
"Today, amid the slaughter of thousands, another Republican
administration is timorous of all but token involvement. Interventions
proceed, but perceived national interests have shifted. This is the most
cautionary part of the tale."
That is a tale that many Americans would rather not hear. Against the
tide of public interest, however, Mr. Clegg and Mr. Sundiata have
written books that highlight U.S. indifference to a country it has for
the most part deserted.
"We now have sort of divested ourselves of any interest in Liberia
because it doesn't seem to have anything we want," Mr. Sundiata says.
A Life Imagined
In The Price of Liberty, Mr. Clegg begins from the African nation's
first encounter with Americans, telling the stories of former slaves
from North Carolina who helped to settle Liberia in 1825. "I was
interested in the sort of community that the African-Americans who
became settlers in West Africa envisioned, what kind of life they
imagined," he says.
Among them is Charity Hunter, a free black woman, and her three
children, who left North Carolina for Norfolk, Va., where they got a
view of slavery, before leaving for West Africa. In the introduction,
Mr. Clegg tries to re-create what Hunter may have seen in Norfolk and
all that she may not have understood about her journey.
"Perhaps unbeknownst to Charity Hunter and many of her fellow
sojourners, the idea of black Americans emigrating from the United
States, voluntarily or otherwise, as a solution to racial conflict was
as old as the republic itself," Mr. Clegg writes. "As early as the
Revolutionary period, Thomas Jefferson proposed relocating
African-Americans beyond the boundaries of the new nation. Similarly, as
late as the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln still envisioned a great black
exodus that would purge the country of African-Americans once and for all."
This idea, Mr. Clegg writes, became known as colonization, and it led to
the creation of the American Colonization Society. The group, promoting
an idea that many viewed as a compromise between slavery and its
abolition, relocated free African-Americans to Liberia.
The United States helped establish the future country as a settlement in
1822 for Africans captured from transatlantic slave ships after
transatlantic slavery was abolished 14 years earlier.
Although the new colony was expressly intended for the settlement by
freed black Americans and illegally traded Africans, prominent white men
actually headed up the society. Bushrod Washington, George Washington's
nephew and chief justice of the Supreme Court; U.S. Rep. Henry Clay, of
Kentucky; and Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president, among other
prominent politicians, led the society, which functioned as Liberia's
government until 1847, when Liberia became an independent state. These
men sought "to model the country upon the American model," Mr. Clegg
says, by converting the Africans to Christianity and therefore
For many of the settlers, Western ways, including the wearing of top
hats and overcoats, and slavery itself, were all they had known. So the
very people seeking freedom in Africa ended up enslaving native
Africans, Mr. Clegg says, and this led to the existence of slavery in
Liberia in the late 19th century.
The settlers' denial of freedom for Africans "speaks to the fact that
settlers saw themselves as superior to Africans because they were
Christian and civilized and they spoke English," Mr. Clegg says. "They
were in some instances mimicking what they had learned in the U.S." and
were "coming from a society in which notions of equality were not the
And so "in the process of forging the world's second black-ruled
republic," Mr. Clegg writes, "they also constructed a settler society
marred by many of the same exclusionary, oppressive characteristics
common to modern colonial regimes." (Many historians consider Haiti,
whose slave population rebelled in 1795 and declared independence from
France in 1804, to be the world's first black-ruled republic.)
While Mr. Clegg's book deals with Liberia's early years, Mr. Sundiata's
book, Brothers and Strangers: Black Zion, Black Slavery, 1914-1940,
pushes the narrative of the U.S. "colonization" of Liberia forward into
the 20th century.
Mr. Sundiata says he questioned why black emigration, "black Zionism,
never really got off the ground." Only 15,000 African-Americans
emigrated to Liberia in the 19th century. "A drop in the bucket," says
But once settled, they became the American-Liberian elite and dominated
the indigenous Africans, who did not exactly welcome them.
In addition to discussing the tension between these two groups, Mr.
Sundiata chronicles the troubled relationship that Liberia shared with
the United States in the early 20th century. Not only did the new wave
of emigration proposed by Garvey strain relations, but the expansion of
American commercial interests also played a role. In 1926 the Firestone
Tire & Rubber Company built a rubber plantation in Liberia. Rubber a
natural resource found in abundance there, proved essential to America's
national defense in World War II. The country also allowed U.S. troops
to use its Firestone-built airstrip, which was, at the time, America's
only entry point into North Africa.
The two countries grew especially close, Mr. Sundiata says, during the
cold war, when the United States established a listening post in Liberia
and its dictators declared themselves pro-American and anti-communist.
But "with the end of the cold war and the rise of synthetic rubber,
Liberia shrank in significance," Mr. Sundiata says.
Hot and Cold
Mr. Sundiata argues that "having had [Liberia] as its best friend in the
cold war," the United States "has a moral responsibility to the people
In particular, Mr. Sundiata points to the repressive cold war-era
regimes of William V.S. Tubman, who ruled Liberia from 1943 to 1971, and
William R. Tolbert Jr., in power from 1971 to 1980.
President Tolbert, Mr. Sundiata observes, declared himself president for
life, and yet the United States "backed him to the hilt," simply because
he was anti-communist. The position often proved effective in getting
Washington to ignore not only the human-rights abuses Liberia's leaders
committed against their own people, Mr. Sundiata says, but also their
failure to transform their dictatorships into democracies.
"The United States valued loyalty over any particular style of
government or whoever was in power," Mr. Clegg says.
For instance, when Samuel K. Doe, the first indigenous president of
Liberia, overthrew President Tolbert in 1980 and killed him, Doe "very
quickly came around and said 'I'm pro-American,'" Mr. Sundiata says.
President Ronald Reagan even invited him to the White House to thank him
for his support.
But when civil war broke out in 1989 between Mr. Doe's government and
rebel forces led by the future Liberian president Charles Taylor (and
continued off and on between various parties until Mr. Taylor's defeat
in August 2003), successive American administrations reacted to
Liberia's instability with indifference. Ultimately, President Bush sent
the marines to monitor the end of the conflict and ordered a handful to
enter the country to help with humanitarian efforts.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had stretched U.S. troop strength too
thin for another major intervention. The Bush administration decided to
intervene only minimally. "The feeling was, Liberia might be a
quagmire," Mr. Sundiata says. "Although you have hundreds of thousands
of people displaced and killed, the feeling was, if we go in, we will
have to stay a long time."
But both Mr. Sundiata and Mr. Clegg say America had an obligation to do
Given that the United States often has presented itself as the world's
policeman, says Mr. Clegg, extending the history lesson that his book
offers to the present day, last summer's conflict in Liberia "would have
been the perfect opportunity for the United States government and the
American people to say, 'We believe in the principle of freedom. We see
the suffering experienced by not only Africans, but people who are
descendents of Americans, people who are from us.'"
At the time of the Liberian president's ouster in August 2003, U.S.
Secretary of State Colin Powell stated in an interview with Reuters that
America's role was primarily to support African nations seeking to
broker a cease-fire and to remove Mr. Taylor from power.
The Lay of the Land
Looking toward the future, some scholars debate whether the threat of
terrorism will spur the United States to try to stabilize Liberia. But
first America must shake off its ambivalence toward this West African
nation, says D. Elwood Dunn, a political-science professor at the
University of the South and a former government official under President
Tolbert. That ambivalence toward his home country, Mr. Dunn says, runs deep.
"It's there, it's a stepchild of the U.S., but it's also been useful to
the U.S.," he says.
The campaign against terrorism has put U.S. officials on notice that
Liberia could prove useful once again, Mr. Dunn says. Charles Gyude
Bryant, head of Liberia's interim government, has signed an agreement
with the United States allowing it to board Liberian ships on the high
seas to search for terrorists. (Ships registered in Liberia rank second
only to Panama in the number of tons carried to American ports each
year.) Mark Kroeker, a former police chief of Portland, Ore., currently
heads the training of the Liberian police force, Mr. Dunn says.
"Small countries like Liberia, they are not going to be marginalized
like they were in the 1980s," says Mr. Dunn. Back then the United States
could afford to dismiss such small countries. "Precisely because you're
small, you're weak, you're poor," he continues, "you could become a
breeding ground for terrorism. For that reason, we want you to, in your
Another former Liberian official does not want to see his country's
policy toward the United States hinge closely on the campaign against
terrorism. When that threat fades, so will Liberia's importance to the
United States, says Amos Sawyer, who headed an interim Liberian
government from 1990 to 1994. Mr. Sawyer is now associate director of
the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana
University at Bloomington.
"Part of the long-term struggle to ensure Liberia does not become a
haven for terrorists is to engage it along a democratic path," he says.
That involves more than just organizing free and fair elections for
president. "It must go to the level of constitutional reform," he says.
"Now is the time to do it."
Mr. Sundiata agrees that the United States, out of its own
self-interest, must help to maintain Liberia's stability. "If Liberia is
a vacuum where narco-traffickers can come ... people who deal in
weapons, small arms, machine guns on up to missiles, ... 10 years down
the line you could have another Colombia."
Mr. Clegg, however, takes a dimmer view of Liberia's newfound
relationship with America. Such an alliance may include training a new
Liberian army, sending counterterrorism advisers, and dispensing
humanitarian aid, he says in an e-mail message. "I don't necessarily
believe that the U.S. government ... will do much more than form an
alliance of convenience with whatever Liberian government takes shape,"
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