Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Liberia

Western African nation, approximately 38,000 square miles in size, bordering on Sierra Leone, Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, and the Atlantic Ocean. In 1945, the population of Liberia was approximately 730,000 people. In 1820, former U.S. slaves began to colonize lands populated by many indigenous groups, and on 26 July 1847 they founded the state of Liberia. The new nation closely followed the political and constitutional model of the United States, from which its founders (known as Americo-Liberians) had come. The Americo-Liberian minority monopolized political power, denying citizenship to indigenous peoples until 1946.

With the outbreak of World War II, Liberian President Edwin Barclay sought to strengthen Liberia's historical ties to the United States by entering the war on the Allied side (although the tiny Liberian military never fought in the war) and granting the United States the right to build and maintain military bases in Liberia. In exchange, Liberia received American assistance in developing its infrastructure, which included the construction of Liberia's first deep-water port of Monrovia.

Barclay's successor, William Tubman, continued this pro-American policy throughout most of his nearly twenty-eight years as president (1944–1971), receiving significant U.S. aid and in return welcoming extensive foreign investment, especially from American companies. Under this policy, however, Liberia's economy remained weak, and sharp divisions between the prosperous Americo-Liberians and the impoverished masses led to increasing social unrest. Tubman also supported the United States politically, backing its stance on African decolonization as well as the war in Vietnam.

Over the course of his tenure, Tubman increased his personal power by effectively banning political opposition and setting up a vast internal security apparatus. He consolidated Liberia's modest military (including a national guard, militia, and coast guard) under a joint command and rechristened it the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). He also expanded its forces from 3,000 men in 1962 to 4,000 at the time of his death in 1971. In 1980, the AFL counted 5,000 troops. Throughout this period, the Liberian military received significant training and equipment from the United States.

When Tubman died in office in 1971, he was succeeded by his vice president, William Tolbert Jr. The late 1960s and the 1970s witnessed the deterioration of Liberian-U.S. relations. Complaining that the United States was taking Liberia's support for granted, first Tubman and then Tolbert turned toward Pan-Africanism and Cold War neutrality, while economically Liberia sought to expand trade and political contacts with Europe. Under Tolbert, Liberian relations with the communist bloc improved dramatically. Liberia engaged in diplomatic exchanges with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, formally recognized Cuba in 1976, and opened relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC) after Tolbert visited the PRC on a state visit in 1979.

Economic weakness and popular discontent mounted during the 1970s, reaching a peak in 1979. Liberia's so-called year of ferment began when the government proposed reducing subsidies on rice, effectively doubling the price of this Liberian staple food. The ensuing Rice Riots soon evolved into sustained, broad-based social protests against government corruption and ineptitude, which Tolbert met with harsh repression and the imprisonment of political opponents.

Amid this atmosphere of instability, a group of enlisted soldiers led by Samuel Doe staged a coup in April 1980, killing Tolbert and most of his cabinet while decimating the upper ranks of the military. The new regime promised a more equitable distribution of wealth and power, but the regime in fact enriched its members at the nation's expense and developed an extensive system of patronage, with political and military positions going disproportionately to Doe's own Krahn ethnic group.

Afraid that the new regime might turn to the Soviet Union and Libya for support, President Jimmy Carter's administration rushed an economic and military aid package to Liberia in 1980. President Ronald Reagan further expanded U.S. aid to Doe. In exchange, Liberia closed the Libyan embassy, reduced Soviet embassy staff, and cracked down on alleged leftist radicals. Despite Doe's brutality against his opponents and his fraudulent victory in the October 1985 presidential election, Reagan continued to back his regime. But under President George H. W. Bush, the United States slashed economic aid to the corrupt government.

Toward the end of the 1980s, discontent in Liberia manifested itself in the appearance of regional rebel groups. In December 1989, these groups allied with an Americo-Liberian former military officer, Charles Taylor, who led a guerrilla war against Doe from neighboring Côte d'Ivoire. The United States and the West declined to intervene in the conflict, although Doe received support from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which sent a peacekeeping force to Liberia in August 1990. In September 1990, rebels captured and killed Doe, precipitating a seven-year civil war among the rebel factions.

Elun Gabriel


Further Reading
Bamberg, James. British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-75: The Challenge to Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.; Pham, John-Peter. Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State. New York: Reed, 2004.
 

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