By Rev. Dr. Samuel E. Vanisea
Those who downplay Tubman’s development initiatives cannot deny that his regime marked the only prosperous era in Liberia’s history thus far.
The Open Door Policy
Tubman proclaimed his “Open Door” Policy in 1944 but it was not operational till after his re-election in 1951. He advocated, long before he became president, that Liberia needed foreign investments to buttress its economy. One writer noted, “Since early in his career, Tubman has consistently advocated partnerships with responsible foreign interests on the premise that Liberia lacked the necessary capital and technical knowhow to develop itself.” The same writer said Tubman argued that “riches buried in the ground are valueless to an owner who cannot afford to buy a shovel.” As senator, he introduced the bill that brought Firestone to Liberia in 1926 (Liberia’s Open-Door Policy by Lawrence A. Marinelli. 1964).
The policy attracted productive businesses to the country. The economic growth and impact of the policy was enormous (Historical Dictionary of Liberia by D. Elwood Dunn, Amos J. Beyan, and Carl Patrick Burrowes, 2001).
The implementation of the Open-Door Policy was the most sophisticated performance of Tubman on the international, albeit the American scene. Though the policy enticed investors from many countries, its aim was to network with American business enterprises. What really was the “Open-Door” and how did it operate? More on that later. But first, was there another person behind the “Open Door?”
Edward Reilly Stettinius, Jr.
The name Edward Reilly Stettinius, Jr. is unknown in Liberian history. He was US Secretary of State in the 1940s and an ambitious businessman. He was guest of President Tubman in 1945. A bond beyond politics was established between the two men. Through a complicated web of events and networking, Stettinius will serve as Tubman’s righthand man in Washington to champion almost all the international business events to Liberia and ensure the success of Tubman’s Open-Door Policy.
Who Originated the idea of the “Open-Door” Policy?
Toward to end of World War 2, the US was looking for ways to create favorable markets in developing countries where American free enterprise system would flourish. That idea was called the American Century ideology. The theme of the American Century ideology was “The Open-Door.” The US was opening the door to invest and stimulate the economy of small countries in a way that will protect and extend US financial interest. That ideology was also called “Dollar Diplomacy.” Tubman’s friend Stettinius was at the center of all that. When Tubman launched his Open-Door policy, it looked like it was a signal, perhaps to his friends in Washington, to make sure the American Century’s “Open Door” opens only to Liberia. Some analysts believed that was the case. Historian and author Rodney Carlisle observed that “Tubman’s election slogan of an “Open Door Policy” towards investment was well-chosen, for it matched the American corporate drive to expand the concept of an Open Door by coupling profits and social progress in the underdeveloped world (The American Century Implemented by Rodney Carlisle, 1980).
The Liberia Company
Tubman succeeded in turning the American Century’s “Open Door” primarily to Liberia. But the process was not that simple. With Tubman’s permission, Mr. Stettinius created the Liberia Company, which was actually a high-level America organization, an elaborate network with intermediary agencies. The company was based in America and did all its operations there. It consisted of big names in American business, military, and politics. Interestingly, their sole purpose was to promote Liberia and ensure the success of Tubman’s Open-Door Policy through the American Century strategies. Almost all the big companies, mining concessions, and banks that used to be in Liberia (Like Chase Bank, International Trust Company, Liberian Mining Company, Liberian Airway, etc.) were strategically selected by, and through the Liberia Company and funneled to Liberia (Liberia Begins Its Second Century by Charles H. Wesley. 1948).
Liberian Maritime Registry
The best example of how the Liberia Company operated is how the Liberia Maritime Program was acquired. Panama had the world’s largest maritime registry prior to 1949. Maritime registry is deemed one of the world’s most “lucrative businesses.” A country makes millions by allowing shipping lines to fly its flag (that is all, no real capital investment). It is called Flag of Convenience (FOC) and is a competitive industry in the world. Countries like Egypt, Portugal, and the United States were vying for FOC (Flying a Questionable Flag: Liberia’s Lucrative Shipping Industry by Khadija Sharife. 2010).
How did Liberia get in the picture to win? How did the world’s biggest maritime registry get moved from Panama to Liberia in a short span of time? That is a story of political and economic genius of a president who would take any risk to get the best for his country.
Panama vs Liberia Part 1
Panama’s maritime program was a major part of its economy. But in time, they allowed corruption to replace best business practice. As a result, shipping lines started to question the integrity of the Panamanian Maritime Bureau.
The news reached President Tubman and he was immediately interested. He and Mr. Stettinius launched the biggest operation that changed the outlook of the world’s maritime industry in the 20th Century. Their goal was to snatch the maritime program from Panama and pass it to Liberia. They did. Reading the story is like watching a mafia movie with plots, counter plots, smoke screens, etc. In the Liberian local lingo, we will say “It was full of too much dedebas.” Mr. Stettinius and his associates weaved their way through the American business bureaucracy, the CIA, the US Department of Defense, and so on. All the while, President Tubman remote controlled the process from thousands of miles away in Liberia. Strangely, they had people in the Panamanian maritime authority working for them. Tubman and Stettinius succeeded (The American Century Implemented by Rodney Carlisle. 1980).
As a result of those operations Liberia became a maritime registry nation 1948. By 1959 she had taken the lead ahead of Panama to become the world’s largest fleet registry. By 1978 Liberia had gained over $11 million dollars from the program (Flying a Questionable Flag: Liberia’s Lucrative Shipping Industry by Khadija Sharife, 2010). Tubman did the work and Liberia enjoys the benefit to this day.
US State Department’s Concern
Here is the interesting part. Apparently, the US State Department was sidelined in the details of the operations. Baffled that such a huge world-class operation occurred undetected in the US, the State Department launched an investigation into the Liberian Maritime deal.
Tubman got tipped that a probe was underway. What he did was both remarkable and unprecedented for president of an undeveloped country. Instead of offering an appeal, he slammed Washington with a threat. He warned the State Department not to risk a “political backfire” from Liberia. He further instructed that the result of the investigation be kept confidential until it is first delivered, person-to-person, to Tubman himself. With that action, it seemed, President Tubman sealed the outcome before the investigation was concluded (The American Century Implemented by Rodney Carlisle). It was that kind of networking and power playing that characterized the operations of the Liberia Company and the success of Tubman’s Open-Door policy.
Panama vs Liberia Part 2
Unfortunately, as it was with Panama, so it was with Liberia. Corruption put the integrity of Liberia’s FOC at risk. A classic example was in the 1990s when Charles Taylor pawned Liberia’s maritime to his arms dealer Gus Kouwenhoven who also ran Hotel Africa. Liberia’s failure to heed warnings from the maritime world caused some shipping lines to withdraw from Liberia. A simple Google search will show that Liberia has slipped into second position and Panama has regained its status as the leading maritime registry in the world (Flying a Questionable Flag: Liberia’s Lucrative Shipping Industry By Khadija Sharife).
Tubman’s Determination What is the point of all this? President Tubman worked the hardest and smartest to create wealth for Liberia and set the country on a trajectory for prosperity. But where and how did he spend the country’s money? In the next and last segment, we will follow the money.