110.15 MC/4–1450

Memorandum of Conversation, by Mr. Harold Sims of the Office of African and Near Eastern Affairs


Subject: Mr. Byron H. Larabee’s Visit to Mr. McGhee on April 14, 1950

Participants: Mr. Byron H. Larabee, Executive Vice President of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company
Mr. McGhee—NEA
Mr. Sims—ANE

Mr. Larabee came in today at his own request and expressed his interest in receiving Mr. McGhee’s impressions of the latter’s recent visit to Liberia.1

Mr. McGhee first inquired regarding the status of the labor strikes which recently developed on the Firestone Rubber Plantations in Liberia. Mr. Larabee said the situation was quiet, and that when he left Liberia in March, all plantation and factory operations had returned to normal. He did not expect any further difficulty, now that the principal agitators (mostly British nationals from Nigeria, the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone) had been dismissed from the Plantation. Mr. McGhee said that he obtained the impression from his many talks with important Liberian officials, as well as with Ambassador Dudley, that considerable improvement could be made by Firestone in its treatment of its native employees. By this, Mr. McGhee explained that he was referring to better educational facilities, improved housing, and especially a more tolerant attitude toward the Liberian officials by the management personnel of the Plantation. Mr. McGhee inquired as to whether Mr. Larabee thought Mr. Ross Wilson, Manager of the Plantation, adopted the proper attitude toward the Liberians for the purpose of building and maintaining good public relations. Mr. Larabee remarked that Mr. Wilson was a businessman first, and [Page 1718] a diplomat next, and that their enterprise in Liberia was strictly a business operation. He realized, however, that good relations with the local people are important, but that his company had not been able to find a man who possessed the proper amount of business ability as well as the attributes of a trained diplomat. As a result of recent labor difficulties, and in an attempt to improve the company’s public relations, Mr. Vipond and Mr. Smith, of the Plantation’s Management Staff, have been assigned new duties designed to bring about improvement in the public relations field. Mr. McGhee said he was aware of some of the factors responsible for the absence of closer relations with the Liberians. However, he felt that an organization like Firestone could not afford to lag behind the European nationals in bettering the living and working conditions of their native employees. He referred particularly to the strides which the Belgians have and are making in the Belgian Congo, especially in the great Katanga mineral belt. Mr. Larabee dwelt at some length on the labor system used at the Plantations and the benefits such as hospitalization, schools, subsidized food, household wares and clothing which his company makes available to its employees. He pointed out that the average daily wage paid the unskilled laborer amounts to about 28 cents, but that is not a true picture of what the laborer actually receives, since additional compensation is to be found in the many benefits made available to him. Mr. Larabee said that the wages on the Plantations are, in practically all categories, higher than those paid by other private business operators in Liberia. He further explained that experiments conducted by the Plantations revealed that the native laborers prefer the present system of working for part cash and subsidized food, housing, medical care, etc., than receiving full compensation.

Mr. McGhee said he heard considerable criticism from the Liberian officials regarding the absence of Liberian nationals in positions of responsibility on the Plantation. He said that he obtained the impression that a sizable segment of Liberians feels that Firestone has not made a real effort to train Liberians for the more important skilled and supervisory positions. Mr. Larabee remarked that they had made some progress along this line, and that it was definitely the policy of his company to expand this phase of their operations. He explained that in the past when the Plantations trained mechanics, laboratory assistants, etc., they were invariably drafted into the service of the Liberian government, and his company had experienced a great deal of difficulty in retaining such people after they finished their training courses.

Mr. McGhee referred once again to the great responsibility which rests upon Americans to pursue a progressive approach in their business [Page 1719] relations with the African peoples, and expressed a strong hope that Firestone would evolve a new approach to its problem of management and native employee relationship. He offered the opinion that the recent labor disturbances at the Plantations should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind as to the need and urgency for a more progessive approach.

Mr. Larabee referred briefly to his company’s concern over the Far Eastern rubber supply situation, and stated confidentially that he has received the approval of his Board to investigate the possibilities of obtaining additional natural rubber in French Guinea, the Gold Coast, and Nigeria. He explained that his company did not wish to establish plantations but desired to purchase from small rubber farmers, and from existing plantations. He said that he might, at a later date, need the advice of the Department on ways and means by which he could negotiate with the French and British in their respective territories. Mr. Sims suggested that Mr. Larabee present his plans to the Department and if the Department could assist him in any way it would, of course, be pleased to do so. Mr. Larabee said he would keep in touch with the Department on this matter.

In conclusion, Mr. McGhee told Mr. Larabee that he had been thinking of him as a person who might serve on one of the Department’s missions, particularly one engaged in Point Four activity dealing with underdeveloped areas, and that the Department might call upon him sometime. Mr. Larabee expressed his appreciation for Mr. McGhee’s thoughtfulness in this regard, and said that he would be pleased to serve in such capacity at any time.

  1. Regarding Assistant Secretary McGhee’s visit to Liberia, see the undated memorandum prepared by the Department of State, p. 1715.