As Liberia’s civil war flashed in the media this summer -- countless dead, more than a million refugees -- there was ready sympathy for a people we’d probably first heard of, and last heard of, sometime in school.
President Bush reminded us of our special tie to the small West African country, when he referred in passing to its “unique history” as a nation founded by freed American slaves. But beyond ritual rhetoric, he was careful to take no responsibility for the tortured country’s future, or its past.
For some of us who knew the story from the inside, that evasion was shocking. The president’s stock, simplistic version of U.S.-Liberian relations hides the sordid reality I knew firsthand as a National Security Council aide for African affairs under presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. In fact, much of Liberia’s agony can be traced directly back to American policy. The “unique history” Bush referred to holds a reckless patronage haunting both nations.
In the White House version, Liberia began as a “beacon of hope.” Bureaucrats used to write the same cliche for the presidents I served. But then, as now, it falsified history. A “beacon” for some, perhaps, but certainly not for all. Backed by guns and money from a 19th-century white America eager to resettle them, our ex-slaves promptly set up a caste tyranny, even their own slave trade, over the indigenous tribes, beginning 159 years of divide-and-rule supported by the U.S. and relentlessly seeding today’s communal chaos.
Liberia, says every U.S. government publication, is Africa’s oldest independent republic. Well, it may be old, but it’s not quite a republic or independent. The Americo-Liberian dictatorship effectively excluded 99% of the population politically and economically. From the 1920s, astride the world’s largest latex plantation, the giant American multinational Firestone all but owned the nation as a rubber colony. The company and an accommodating regime rounded up young men from the interior in Gulag-like labor battalions, while their paramilitary thugs brutalized anyone protesting some of the worst exploitation in Africa. When I was on the NSC staff, Firestone executives -- Liberia’s real rulers -- were far more important in dealing with the country than any Liberian or U.S. official.
During the 27-year reign of President William Tubman, who was a White House favorite when I worked there, Liberia was Washington’s dutiful ward and slavish imitator, ceding listening posts, United Nations votes and other favors, turning into a veritable “mini-me” of the U.S. in West Africa, down to the adoption of the dollar as its currency. In return, Tubman got CIA-paid bodyguards and enforcers and the highest U.S. aid per capita in Africa, which went, we knew, almost exclusively to benefit the coastal elite, if not directly into their pockets. The CIA even flew Tubman regularly to Paris -- a matter of national security, it was said -- for (pre-Viagra) monkey gland implants to revive the aging despot’s flagging libido until he died in 1971.
In the 1980s, according to the State Department, Liberia plunged into “unfortunate internal instability.” But it was not solely internal.
Tubman’s handpicked successor, William Tolbert, continued domestic repression but advanced a less pliant foreign policy -- allowing Soviet and Chinese embassies, renegotiating the deal with Firestone, backing Palestinian rights -- to the dismay of American officials.
In April 1980, Tolbert’s rule came to an end when he was hacked to death in his bed by Samuel Doe, a semiliterate, 27-year-old Green Beret-trained sergeant from one of the persecuted tribes. Doe promptly replaced Americo-Liberian rule with his own clan repression of other inland peoples as well as the old U.S.-backed elite. The CIA had known the coup was coming but had somehow failed to inform Tolbert.
Pursuing business as usual, the Carter administration and then the Reagan administration embraced Doe. When Doe granted new communications posts and staging rights, threw out Soviet diplomats, returned to total support of Israel and allowed a CIA base for covert operations against Libya, I watched in disgust as Reagan welcomed him in 1982 to the Rose Garden, praising lavishly if not quite accurately the statesmanship of “Chairman Moe.” By the mid-1980s, Liberia was receiving some $500 million in U.S. aid, more than that received over the previous century, including unprecedented military aid that would arm the bloody strife to come.
As Doe rigged elections, deepened his tyranny and stole millions in aid, fomenting full-scale civil war, U.S. officials talked blandly of his “movement toward democracy.” By the time rebel forces killed Doe in 1990, the Cold War was ending and Liberia had served its purpose. Washington effectively withdrew, doing nothing to stave off the nation’s disintegration, quietly leaving the money, arms and other results of its policies to stoke the chaos at hand.
Liberia’s plight in 2003, President Bush says, is “an African responsibility.” Even shameful history aside, this is not entirely true. If America was relatively absent from Liberia in the 1990s, our hands were hardly clean. At many points over years of bloody fighting, minimal U.S. leadership of international peacekeeping might have saved tens of thousands.
When warlord Charles Taylor took power in 1997, he sacked what was left of the country and plundered the timber and diamond trades. These “blood commodities” funded civil wars in neighboring Sierra Leone and elsewhere while enriching diamond dealers and bankers in Brussels, London and New York, timber combines in France and China and arms merchants in the United States, Europe and Israel. Beyond porous U.N. sanctions thrown up in 1998, it was not a trade the Clinton administration or other powers truly wanted to end.
U.S. urging of Taylor to take up Nigerian exile this summer also had a hidden agenda. The Bush administration has a renewed stake in a stable Liberia, as the nation is once again a needed espionage and staging center -- now for the open-ended, all-purpose war on terror -- and as West Africa looms as a major supplier of oil and especially natural gas.
The United States, of course, was never solely responsible for Liberia’s national calamity. But we were, and remain, singularly implicated in the torment of a nation we shaped as no other. It is indeed a unique history, and the White House cover-up or ignorance of its uglier realities only adds to the shame.
Roger Morris, who was senior staff officer for African affairs on the National Security Council under presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, is a historian and the author of several books. He is completing a new work for Alfred A. Knopf on U.S. covert policy in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and South Asia.