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Rubber - The Firestone Era

Rubber Trees

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Package Rubber
The Firestone Era

Looking around the globe for cheaper source of rubber, Firestone ended up with a real coup in Liberia in 1926. It secured one million acres of land at an annual rent of only 6 cents per acre, with gross income taxed at only 1%. The company employed 20,000 workers, 10 to 15% of Liberia's labor force, but elevated few to management positions. With Firestone's assistance, Liberia built a port and a railroad. Firestone assisted in the development of the country's first hydroelectric dam. Firestone Rubber Plantation in Liberia became the largest rubber plantation in the world.


The Scandal in the 1930's

Spanish colonials in Equatorial Guinea needed laborers for their cocoa plantations. In 1905, Liberia agreed to supply the workers on contract. Village chiefs rounded up young men and supplied them to the contractors; the laborers received no salary until they returned to Liberia. The League of Nations published a scathing report equating the system to slavery and implicating both President Charles D. B. King, and his vice-president as part of the syndicate of Liberians receiving a cut in the lucrative venture. Liberia's "Watergate" ended with both the president and vice-president resigning.


World War II

WW II solidified Liberian-American relations. The USA built air bases and black Africa's first international airport at Robertsfield. About 5000 black American troops were stationed in Liberia during the war and anti-submarine patrols were flown by sea planes based at Lake Piso, near Robertsport. During the war, the US dollar was made Liberia's official currency. America built a number of military installations in Liberia during this period, including a radio transmitter (Voice of America) near Monrovia, and a satellite tracking station (Omega). Numerous military and private investments were made to Liberia in exchange for Liberian land and loyalty during and after WW II.


Scars of the War

Roberts Int'l Airport,
destroyed during the war -
Picture taken July 30, 1998



E.J. Roye Building
stripped during the war



Foreign Ministry before renovations



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A Synopsis of Liberia's History

"Liberia: A Casualty of the Cold War's End"

by Reed Kramer

Half a decade ago, with the Berlin Wall coming down and the Soviet Union entering its final days, a small-scale conflict in West Africa quietly put post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy to an early test. Liberia's civil war, which began with a cross-border raid by a tiny rebel band in late 1989, has claimed the lives of one out of 17 every 17 people in the country, uprooted most of the rest, and destroyed a once-viable economic infrastructure. The strife also has spread to Liberia's neighbors, contributing to a slowing of the democratization that was progressing steadily through West Africa at the beginning of the decade and destabilizing a region that already was one of the world's most marginal. U.S. taxpayers have footed a sizable bill -- over $400 million to date -- for emergency aid that arguably never would have been needed had their government used its considerable clout to help end the killing.

As fighting escalated in early 1990, the Bush administration faced a serious conundrum. Western European and most of Africa looked to the United States to take the lead in seeking a peaceful resolution of the Liberian crisis, since the country's history bears an unmistakable "made in America" stamp. But senior administration officials, determined to limit U.S. involvement in what was viewed as a "brush fire," rejected the notion of inherent American interest or responsibility. "It was difficult to see how we could intervene without taking over and pacifying the country with a more-or-less-permanent involvement of U.S. forces," Brent Scowcroft, President George Bush's national security advisor, said in a 1993 interview with the author after leaving office. In addition, Scowcroft continued, U.S. attention was "dedicated towards other areas most involved in ending the Cold War.

" There was the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August of 1990, the build up the war in the Gulf. "You can only concentrate on so many things at once," Scowcroft said. But a range of senior U.S. officials did focus considerable attention on Africa's oldest republic. During a crucial period of increasing carnage in mid-1990, Liberia was a regular item on the agenda of the Deputies Committee of the National Security Council, where most major foreign policy problems were handled. Later in the year as the crisis deepened, the Deputies dealt daily with both Liberia and Kuwait, according to participants in the sessions. "We missed an opportunity in Liberia," Herman J. Cohen, assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Bush administration, said in an 'exit interview' (CSIS Africa Notes, Number 147, April 1993). "We did not intervene either militarily or diplomatically."

The fate of a West African country, about the size of Tennessee with a pre-war population of 2.6 million, was of scant interest to most American. But Liberia was the first of a series of once-stable countries whose disintegration has seriously strained the world's peacekeeping capacity and tested international commitment to humanitarian relief. By an accident of timing, crisis management in the new age had its trial run in Africa.

The following account of the U.S. decision-making process during Liberia's disintegration is drawn from some 30 interviews with policymakers at all levels in Washington and abroad, and from a review of historical materials and public records, Some of the interviews were on the record, but most were with officials who agreed to talk only if their names and positions were not cited. Born in the U.S.A. Liberia's relationship with the United States is the most extensive and long-standing of any African nation. The first settlers to reach Liberia's shores arrived on a U.S. Navy ship supported by grants from the U.S. Treasury. Comprising freed slaves and a few African Americans who had been born free, the group was sponsored by the American Colonization Society (ACS), which had been established in 1816 to spearhead black resettlement on Africa's west coast.

Among the founders of the ACS was the incumbent president, James Monroe, as well as Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington (nephew and heir of the nation's first president) and such other notables as Andrew Jackson, Francis Scott Key, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. The motives of these Society organizers were "decidedly mixed," according to Indiana University political scientist J. Gus Liebenow, author of Liberia: The Quest for Democracy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).

Wealthy southern plantation owners who feared the impact on their slaves of free African Americans lent backing, as did a number of church leaders, "who saw American blacks as a beachhead in West Africa for Protestant Christianity." Among the earliest settlers were Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist missionaries. "The first missionaries to go directly from the United States were blacks, and their efforts were directed toward Liberia," wrote Peter Duignan and L.H. Gann of the Hoover Institution, in their history, The United States and Africa(New York: Cambridge University Press and Hoover Institution, 1984).

The ACS had regional offshoots with similar aims. For example, emigration efforts launched by the states of Maryland and Pennsylvania led to the establishment of encampments that remained separate from the original settlement for years before opting for inclusion in Liberia. The severe conditions (which included harsh climate and deadly diseases) took a high toll on both settlers and missionaries. Tom W. Shick, in Behold the Promised Land: A History of Afro-American Settler Society in Nineteenth-Century Liberia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), cites census records suggesting that only about half of the 4,571 persons who emigrated under the tutelage of the ACS survived during the first 23 years after the initial landing . In addition, the new comers faced fierce resistance to their presence from the indigenous population; the result was a simmering civil strife that festered for decades. Still, the settlement endured. And in 1847, the settlers severed their relationship with the sponsoring society and established Liberia as a sovereign state.

Americo-Liberians, as they came to be called, eagerly emulated their former homeland, however painful their experience in the New World had been. They used the Declaration of Independence as the vehicle for launching their fledgling nation and the U.S. Constitution as the model for their new government. They designed a flag with red and white stripes and a single white star on a field and used the American dollar as their currency, a practice that continued until the mid-1980s. They named their capital after the fifth president of the United States, and gave other places American names as well.

Over the years, Americo-Liberians by the thousands -- including 16 of the 19 men who have served as Liberia's president -- were educated in U.S. high schools and colleges. Liberians have been singing American music, reading American literature and watching Hollywood films for as long as Americans themselves have. The equivocal attitude that characterized American attitudes in the beginning has persisted. The American Colonization Society, in spite of its pedigree, failed to persuade Congress to adopt the West African settlement as a colony. When Liberia claimed its independence with Washington's assent, the country had to wait 15 years for formal diplomatic recognition, finally extended by the Lincoln administration in 1862, (when, according to Liebenow, "the civil war had removed the principal objectors to the presence of a black envoy in Washington, D.C."). Nevertheless, the American mantle proved invaluable as the new Liberia struggled to survive its first decades. Resistance from indigenous groups continued, and occasional port calls by American naval vessels provided, in the words of Duignan and Gann, "a definite object lesson" to restive locals. A case in point was the "sudden appearance of the USS John Adams" in 1852, which had "a noticeably quieting effect upon the chiefs at Grand Bassa," the coastal region to Monrovia's south.

Whenever the British and French seemed intent on enlarging at Liberia's expense the neighboring territories they already controlled, periodic appearances by U.S. warships helped discourage encroachment, Liebenow notes, even though successive administrations rejected appeals from Monrovia for more forceful support. President Grover Cleveland, in an 1886 message to Congress, spoke of the "moral right and duty of the United States" to help Liberia. "It must not be forgotten that this distant community is an offshoot of our own system," he said. But when Liberia asked for military assistance against an internal uprising, which the French were thought to have helped instigate, Cleveland's secretary of state refused on grounds that Liberia lacked standing to make such a request. Eventually, what Duignan and Gann call "the French appetite for African territory," and Paris' willingness to use military might to obtain it, forced Liberia to cede to the Ivory Coast a large area it had long controlled. Ambivalence and Dependency At the turn of the century, Liberia still faced serious challenges to its existence.

As journalist Bill Berkeley wrote in the December 1992 Atlantic Monthly: "While the settlers along the coast developed an elaborate life-style reminiscent of the ante-bellum South, complete with top hats and morning coats and a society of Masons, the indigenous peasants endured poverty and neglect."

In 1903, the British forced a concession of Liberian territory to Sierra Leone, but tension along that border remained high. In addition to continued internal unrest, the country faced a severe economic crisis and huge indebtedness to European creditors. A three-person commission appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt recommended that the U.S. government help the African nation to reorganize its finances and to negotiate territorial settlements with European governments. As a signal of American support, Roosevelt dispatched three warships to transport the commission to Monrovia. But the commission firmly "recommended against U.S. guarantees of Liberian independence or territorial integrity" (Duignan and Gann), upholding instead "the traditional U.S. policy of avoiding anything that might be considered an alliance." Liberia named an American to supervise the treasury, and Britain and France accepted U.S. proposals to resolve border disputes. Washington also arranged a 40-year international loan totaling $1.7 million, with the proviso that four outsiders (American, British, French and German) be given control over customs receipts and taxes, which were earmarked for loan repayment. "The presence of foreign receivers was a major irritant to Liberian sensibilities, and violence was directed at Europeans and Americans in some parts of the country," according to The Emergence of Autocracy in Liberia (San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies Press, 1992) by Amos Sawyer, the Liberian political scientist who served as interim president of the country from 1990 - 1994.

In 1912, President William Howard Taft opened a new chapter in U.S.-Liberian relations by sending three black former army officers to train the new Liberian army, then called the Frontier Force, which was charged with protecting the country's border and suppressing internal opposition. The international loan provided temporary relief but failed to solve Liberia's troubles. In 1915, the coastal Kru people, who had long resisted Monrovia's authority, rose in rebellion, declaring their loyalty to Great Britain and demanding annexation by Sierra Leone. The USS Chester was diverted to Africa on route home from Turkey to help quash the uprising.

By the early 1920s, Liberia's financial crisis had worsened and the Harding administration proposed a new $5 million loan from the U.S. government. The House gave its approval but the Senate refused, creating what Sawyer calls "a sense of desperation among Liberian officials," who worried that British and French designs on their country might now prove unstoppable. Liberia had become a charter member of the League of Nations in 1919, and Monrovia was determined to safeguard its sovereignty. Instead of a European takeover, however, Congressional inaction opened the way for a new American foothold in the country -- the establishment of the world's largest rubber plantation by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.

Millionaire tire maker Harvey Firestone of Akron, Ohio was seeking new sources of supply to meet the rising needs of an expanding auto industry and to offset a British effort to gain control over world pricing. With British colonies dominating global production, Liberia offered an attractive alternative, and its rubber proved to be of high quality. In 1926, after protracted negotiations, the government awarded Firestone a 99-year lease of a million acres of land as part of an agreement guaranteeing both the rubber and the labor the company required for a long and profitable stay. The tenancy was not without controversy, however. Before the decade ended, Firestone was implicated in a scandal over forced-labor profiteering by the Liberian elite, who were accused of coercive recruitment of laborers for the domestic market and for export to neighboring countries. Despite Liberia's firm denials and a refusal to cooperate, the League of Nations initiated an inquiry, and President Herbert Hoover briefly suspended relations to press Monrovia into compliance. Firestone's presence in Liberia paved the way for another milestone in bilateral ties -- the inauguration of air service by Pan American Airways.

Alarmed by overtures to Liberia from Hitler's Germany, the Department of State official in charge of Africa, Henry Villard, journeyed to Monrovia in 1938 to shore up relations. Veteran Africa correspondent Russell Warren Howe, in his history of U.S.-Africa relations, Along the Afric Shore (New York: Harper and Row, 1975) , says that Villard sought to counter German interest in iron ore concessions and an air link by alerting the U.S. Bureau of Mines and Pan Am to the opportunities Liberia offered. In 1942, soon after the United States entered World War II, Pan Am reached agreement for construction of a modern airport, Roberts Field, which became a major wartime transit point for thousands of American soldiers and for Allied operations in North Africa and southern Europe. Following a stopover at Roberts Field by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1943 on route from a Casablanca meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the U.S. government provided Lend-Lease funds for the construction of a seaport at Monrovia, which in turn made accessible the country's huge iron ore deposits, just as the worldwide demand for steel was growing. Republic Steel took a major stake in the venture, prompting construction of a rail line and roadway and providing new openings to Liberia's interior. For the next phase of the country's history, iron ore paid the way to relative prosperity.

Ready-Made Cold Warrior It became the job of William Tubman, a reform-minded career politician who was electe4d president in 1943 and inaugurated the following year, to lead the country into an era when the global spotlight turned towards Africa. As the doyen of the continent, Tubman's Liberia positioned itself as champion of African independence in various world forums -- particularly the United Nations, of which Liberia was a founding member. For the first time, Liberia's elite built ties with leaders in the region and throughout the continent, and the government expanded economic and diplomatic links with Europe. At home, rising revenue from iron, timber and rubber enabled Tubman to widen his power base beyond the traditional constituency of the ruling True Whig Party. A native of Harper, Liberia's southern-most coastal town, he was the first president to be born outside the Monrovia area. "His first move was to revise the law so that women and members of indigenous communities could be enfranchised," said Sawyer, "a radical departure from past practices." At the same time, the new president consolidated his hold on power with what Sawyer calls "an enormous patronage network and an elaborate security network." Tubman also ruthlessly suppressed efforts to organize opposition parties, both by the growing indigenous intelligentsia and by dissident members of the Americo-Liberian elite. The core of his platform was the "Open Door" policy, designed to promote the development of the country's largely undeveloped interior based on joint ventures between the government and foreign investors.

According to Liebenow, the effect was "double-edged," providing such benefits as roads and education for rural residents, while at the same time making it easier for the government to collect taxes and recruit laborers and soldiers "under less than voluntary terms." The elite also was able to acquire vast acreage that had been the sole province of peasants, in what Liebenow describes as eventually constituting one of the largest "land grabs" in African history. It was during this period that Liberia began encouraging the registration of foreign ships with favorable laws on safety, employment and taxation and thus emerged as a major maritime nation. According to Liebenow, "the system of Liberian registry was actually created at the urging of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff to encourage the building of ships which might be needed by the United States during wartime." The Open Door policy attracted a greater diversity of investors to the country, but Tubman also carefully cultivated ties with the country's chief patron. As it had done in the two World Wars, Liberia steered a decidedly pro-American course as the Cold War engulfed the globe. The United States set up a permanent mission to train the Liberian military and began bringing Liberian officers to American institutions for further training.

"Liberia: A Casualty of the Cold War's End" continues...

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