Africa News Service (Durham)

1 July 1995

Liberia: A Casualty of the Cold War's End

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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.

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