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Edwin James Barclay (1882 – 1955) was a Liberianmarker politician. A member of the True Whig political party, he served as the 18th President of the country from 1930 until 1944. Under his leadership, Liberia was an ally of the United Statesmarker during World War II.

Early life

Edwin Barclay's paternal grandparents moved from Barbadosmarker to Liberiamarker with their children in 1865. Edwin's father, Ernest Barclay, and uncle, Arthur Barclay, were also important Liberian politicians. In 1901, at the age of 19, Edwin wrote a Liberian patriotic song, "The Lone Star Forever."

Career

Edwin Barclay, a member of the True Whig Party which ruled at that time, served as foreign minister and secretary of state of Liberia in the government of Charles D.B. King from 1920 until 1930. He became President of Liberia in 1930 when President King and Vice President Allen B. Yancey resigned because of a scandal. He was elected in his own right for the first time in 1931.

Presidency (1930-1944)

Barclay was selected to complete King's term as president. One of his first official decisions was to repeal the famous Port of Entry Law of 1864 that had restricted the economic activities of foreigners in the country. Subsequently, in the early 1930s concession agreements were signed between the Liberian Government and Dutch, Danish, German and Polish investors.

Renegotiation of loan payments

The depression of the 1930s brought Liberia to the verge of bankruptcy. By 1931, it became apparent to the Liberian administration that continued loan repayments were not possible. The government asked for consideration from the lending bank and Firestone but to no avail. Firestone attempted to use the United States government to force the Liberian government to comply with the loan agreement through the use of gunboat diplomacy. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt rejected this interference in Liberian internal affairs; in a memorable memorandum to the State Department, Roosevelt wrote: "At all times we should remember that Firestone went to Liberia at his own financial risk, and it is not the business of the State Department to pull his financial chestnut out of the fire except as a friend of the Liberian people."

Ultimately, the Liberian Legislature passed the Moratorium Act suspending payment of this loan until terms could be negotiated that were more suitable to Liberia's ability to pay.

Threats to Liberia's sovereignty

Barclay is credited with helping the country survive some of Liberia's greatest threats to its sovereignty in that country's history. These included threats by the League of Nations led by Germanymarker, the United Kingdommarker and the United Statesmarker to recolonize the country unless reforms were made, aggressive actions by Francemarker and a coup attempt by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company which owned much of Liberia's land.

When Barclay appealed to the League of Nations for financial aid, the Council of the League of Nations expressed a willingness to assist Liberia with certain stipulations. The League of Nations drew up a plan of assistance which could have, if it had been implemented, eventually abrogated the independence of Liberia. One chief sticking point was the League's requirement to have their delegates placed in key positions within the Liberian government. Barclay and other Liberian officials considered this request to be an infringement upon the sovereignty of Liberia.

When Liberia refused to accept the League's plan, the major powers, including the United States, withdrew recognition of the Barclay administration. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt restored diplomatic relations with Liberia, after President Barclay implemented some of the measures that had been proposed by the League of Nations. After three years of negotiation, an 'agreement' was reached along lines suggested by the League, which were beneficial to Firestone. Two key officials were placed in positions to advise the government, but with limitations set forth by the Liberian government. Loan payments were continued with the assistance of the League.

World War II

In 1937 President Barclay, under pressure from the United States, withdrew the concession agreement with the German investors, who were accused of sympathies with the Nazi regime in their home country.Until January 3, 1944, Barclay was Liberian President, to be succeeded by William Tubman.

Strategic importance of Liberia

After the fall of Malaysia and Singapore to the Japanese during World War II, Liberia became very strategically important as its rubber plantation was the only source of natural latex rubber available to the Allies, apart from plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lankamarker).

Natural rubber was needed to build tires for war planes, military jeeps, aircraft guns and sensitive radar equipments. Natural rubber was also required to build portable bridges, gliders, oxygen masks and many other war supplies. American civilian industry also needed rubber for commercial uses, especially tires for private and commercial vehicles.

As a result of the simultaneous sharp increase in demand and drastic reduction in supply, the price of natural rubber rose to astronomical levels. This situation created a national crisis in the United States because natural rubber was a strategic commodity in the war effort.

The civilian and military demand for rubber was so monumental, and supply was so exiguous relative to demand, that a law was enacted in the United States, reducing the speed limit to 35 miles per hour, and limiting the mileage of individual cars to 5,000 miles per year, to preserve the life of tires.

Writing in his memoirs, former U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull wrote, "With Japan's occupation of the Rubber producing areas in the Far East, Liberia became of greatly increased importance to us as one of the few remaining available sources of natural rubber."

President Barclay assured the Americans that Liberia would supply all the natural rubber that the United States and its allies needed for the war effort.

Defense Pact with the United States (1942)

In 1942 Liberia signed a Defense Pact with the United States. This commenced a period of strategic development including the construction of roads, airports and other infrastructure projects. Robertsfield Airportmarker was built with runways long enough for B-47 Stratojet bombers to land for refueling, giving Liberia the longest runway in Africa to this day. In addition, a deepwater harbor was also built at Monrovia thus making accessible the country's huge iron ore deposits, just at the time that worldwide demand for steel was growing. The American company 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.

Provision of war supplies to the North African theater

The provision of war supplies to the North African theater was difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. German U-boats had taken complete control of the North Atlantic Ocean routes, making shipping in the North Atlantic Ocean hazardous to American warships and merchant vessels. In order to transport American soldiers and war supplies to North Africa, it became necessary to open up a South American-Liberian air corridor.

Because of its proximity to South America, Liberia became the first major West African bridgehead for the South Atlantic air ferry route. For this reason, the Liberian Government also granted to the United States use of its territory to store war supplies and to construct military bases in Montserrado Countymarker and Grand Cape Mount Countymarker at Fisherman's Lake. United States military supplies were collected in Florida, transported through South America to Brazil, then flown from Brazil to the military depot at Roberts Field, where 5,000 African-American troops stored and maintained the inventory. From Roberts Field, the war supplies were flown to their final destinations in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

Franklin Roosevelt's visit to Liberia (1943)

President Roosevelt travelled to Liberia in 1943 with four key issues to negotiate with the Liberian government:
  1. finalize plans to establish United States military bases in Liberia, which were to be used as a springboard to transport American soldiers, military hardware, and supplies to North Africa;
  2. reaffirm Liberia's commitment to continue supplying the United States with natural rubber;
  3. persuade the Liberian Government to expel German citizens, because they posed a security threat to the United States and its allies; and
  4. persuade Liberia to abrogate its neutrality, and declare war on Germany and its Axis.


Declaration of war on Germany (1944) and severing diplomatic relations

Despite the invaluable assistance and cooperation that Liberia gave to the Allies, it was not until January 1944 that Liberia renounced its neutrality and declared war on Germany and Japan. On January 27, 1944, Liberian new President William Tubman officially entered World War II. In April 1944, Liberia signed the Declaration by United Nations.

Severing diplomatic relations with Germany and expelling all German citizens from Liberia was a difficult decision for Liberia to make for several reasons: (1) German merchants in Liberia ran the Liberian economy; (2) Germany was Liberia's major trading partner; and (3), most of the doctors in Liberia were Germans. Despite the fact that Liberia found itself between a rock and a hard place, she willingly agreed to expel all German residents and declare the full might of the Liberian economy against Nazi Germany and the Axis.

Impact of World War II on the Liberian economy and society

Prior to 1940, most parts of the Liberian hinterland were completely lacking in infrastructure. There was virtually no public education, piped water, road system or electrification.

The American military presence in Liberia gave the Liberian economy a huge boost. From 1939 to 1945, Liberia registered a favorable balance of trade, which amounted to $25.9 million during the six-year period; that equates to $754 million in current dollars. Liberian Government revenue rose from $827,000 in 1939 to $1.9 million in 1945, an increase of 133.9 percent.

Liberia began this special relationship with the United States by converting its national currency from the British pound sterling to the United States dollar; United States Lend Lease funds were made available to the Liberian Government, to subsidize the construction of Liberia's first port, the Freeport of Monroviamarker; the first major airport, Roberts Field, was constructed by Pan Am and the U. S. Government; American military engineers began the construction of major roads from Monrovia to the interior of Liberia.

The American military presence also had a stabilizing effect on the social and political relationship between the Liberian state and indigenous Liberians. The artificial boundary drawn between Liberia and its provinces was broken. Thousands of laborers from the interior of Liberia descended on the coastal region, especially to Roberts Field and Firestone Rubber Plantations, in search of jobs. This massive migration of indigenous Liberians, which the Liberian Government had previously attempted to restrain by legislation (Liberian territory extended for 40 miles in the interior), and through an agreement with Firestone Plantations Company in the 1920s, was subsequently erased.

Indigenous Liberians and their families began to get some of the social and economic benefits that they paid for through the hut tax. Their children attended Liberian public schools; they received health care and other services that were not present on the same scale, or not present at all, in the interior. On September 14, 1943, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull wrote President Roosevelt the following in a letter about United States relations with Liberia: "Our relations with Liberia from a strategic point of view have never been of more importance ... as a result of the war, Liberian economy has been oriented almost entirely to the United States".

Retirement

Barclay retired in 1944 and was replaced by William Tubman. On May 27, 1943, Edwin Barclay became the first black man to appear as a guest of honor before the United States Congress and be officially introduced from its rostrum. He was repaying President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the trip he had made to Liberia after the Casablanca Conference.

References

  1. Fred P.M. van der Kraaij, ‘The Open Door Policy of Liberia. An Economic history of Modern Liberia’ (Bremen, 1983), Chapter 2, The origins of the Closed Door Policies and Open Door Policies 1847-1947, pp. 12-46.
  2. Hull, Cordell. The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, (Volume II, p. 1186),


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