44. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Liberia1

110297. Subj: Liberian Foreign Minister Dennis Calls on Secretary Vance. Ref: Monrovia 3329, Kuwait 1941.2

1. Summary: Liberian Foreign Minister Dennis called on the Secretary for an hour and a half April 30. Most of the meeting was taken up by Dennis’s explanation of the background of the Easter weekend riot in Monrovia.3 Dennis said the principal causes were the radicalization of Liberian university students in recent years, and their disaffection with the government. The situation was exacerbated by the presence in Monrovia of large numbers of half educated unemployed. Although Dennis was certain that there had been some indirect Soviet encouragement of the demonstration, he admitted the authorities could not document a specific connection. He appealed for assistance in the form of a grant to help reconstruct Monrovia, and a development loan to finance projects that would put the unemployed to work. He made no specific suggestions. End summary.

2. Request to call on President Carter: Dennis acknowledged the Secretary’s welcome, conveyed President Tolbert’s greetings to the Secretary, and emphasized that at Tolbert’s direction he had taken special pains to keep the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia informed of Liberian Government views of the background and the events of the riot in Monrovia during Easter weekend. Dennis said Tolbert had entrusted him with a message to President Carter and that he hoped to deliver it in person. Dennis said that, “At this time of national crisis,” the fact that President Carter had received Tolbert’s special emissary would in itself have a favorable psychological effect by underlining U.S. support for Liberia. The Secretary replied that the President was extremely busy, that he could make no promises, but that he would see what he could do.

3. Background of riot: Dennis explained the background of the riot as follows. In 1974 Bacchus Matthews, a recent graduate, was Vice [Page 134] Consul in New York. He was dismissed for misappropriation of funds. He subsequently claimed that he was fired for political reasons, and became anti-government. The Progressive Alliance of Liberia was founded in New York in 1974. From its published statements there can be no doubt of its “alien indoctrination.” It was joined by disaffected students, including some who had lost their scholarships. Dennis described at some length President Tolbert’s interest in the welfare of the people as a whole, and his efforts to enlist the support and participation of Liberian youth, particularly recent graduates. Despite these efforts, the PAL established an office in Monrovia and succeeded in infiltrating the university. There its views were condoned and supported by some professors, many trained in the U.S., who “taught that the free enterprise system was no good.” The PAL and similar groups were critical of the West in general and the U.S. in particular.

4. In response to the Secretary’s question, Dennis said the centers of student disaffection were Monrovia and Cuttington College, but that similar views were being expressed in the interior, because there is no restriction of travel in Liberia. Dennis added that although the spread of education in Liberia had been impressive in recent years, it had also resulted in a substantial increase in the number of “half educated” unemployed in the cities, who were an easy prey to ideologues. Although Tolbert had emphasized education, often at the expense of strengthening the security forces, more attention must now be paid to improving the effectiveness of these forces.

5. External involvement: In response to the Secretary’s question, Dennis said that there “had to have been” external support for the dissidents. Their leaders had no jobs, but lived reasonably well, traveled both in Liberia and abroad, and published a paper. However, the Liberian authorities could not identify a specific link between the alleged instigators of the demonstration and a foreign government. In retrospect, the Liberian Government thought there might be more than coincidence in the facts that a Russian student told a student meeting in Lome that he had to be in Monrovia by the 14th, that North Korean and Cuban delegations were in Monrovia at the same time, that some alleged leaders of the demonstration had been seen in the Soviet Embassy the night before, and that three officers of the Soviet Embassy had visited PAL headquarters on the eve of the demonstration.

6. Proposal to increase rice prices: Dennis explained in detail the background of the Minister of Agriculture’s proposal to increase the price of rice, and the lengthy discussion of this proposal in the Cabinet and with concerned groups in Liberia including the PAL. He said that despite the denial of a permit to demonstrate against the proposal, Matthews and the PAL went ahead anyway.

7. Organization of demonstration: Dennis said the demonstration had caught the Liberian Government by surprise. Although spear[Page 135]headed by unemployed toughs “made brave by dope and liquor” it had clearly required considerable planning, as shown by the skill with which roadblocks were thrown up and by the success with which the leaders later eluded arrest. Dennis thanked the Secretary because the Embassy had denied Matthews asylum. In response to the Secretary’s question Dennis said the purpose of the demonstration was to create a “state of anarchy” in Monrovia. In reply to Harrop, Dennis said the demonstrators were not armed with firearms.

8. Support from other governments: Dennis described the support Liberia had received from other states. Guinea had sent a delegation on the 15th and the next day had sent a second delegation accompanied by 50 troops. The total Guinean strength in Monrovia was just under 300. Dennis did not make clear whether Tolbert had requested Guinean troops or not, but said that when the first group arrived Tolbert “did not turn them away” and implied that the second group of 220 came to complement the first. President Houphouet-Boigny sent a message of support, food and medical supplies. At this point Dennis checked himself and assured the Secretary that Liberia was most grateful for U.S. medical supplies, and for military assistance. The Secretary noted that U.S. military equipment would arrive very shortly.

9. Request for aid: Dennis recalled President Carter’s forthcoming comments to Tolbert during and following his visit to Monrovia in April 1978 on the subject of assistance.4 He said Liberia needs a “reconstruction program.” There was a good possibility that insurance could cover some claims arising from the riots, but “the little man needs help.” Liberia had an obligation to hold the OAU summit on schedule. Liberia had two specific needs: A grant to provide immediate assistance, and help to repair some or all of the dols 50 million in damage caused by the riot; and a long term development loan to finance projects that would take the unemployed off the streets. The Secretary asked if the Liberian Government had appealed to any other donor, and mentioned the African Development Bank. Dennis said that thus far an appeal had been made only to the U.S., Liberia’s greatest friend. He was sure the U.S. would not want to turn down its closest ally in Africa, especially just before the OAU summit. Dennis asked if the U.S. could reexamine the possibilities of encouraging long term investment.

10. The Secretary replied that he thought it important to distinguish between short and long term needs. Encouraging investment took considerable time. He could give no assurances, but the Department and AID would examine the possibilities carefully. The United States valued the special relationship. He asked precisely what the Liberians thought [Page 136] they required. Dennis replied that it was difficult to be specific. He had come, “as a patient comes to a doctor, to be told what he needs.”

11. Middle East: Picking up a complimentary comment Dennis had made regarding U.S. contribution to peace in the Middle East, the Secretary said we are now in the second stage of the peace making process, and must deal with the enormously complex Palestinian question. He said he was somewhat troubled by statements made after President Tolbert’s visit to Kuwait which appeared to indicate little understanding of the situation. The Camp David summit had established the first and only realistic framework for dealing with this extremely difficult problem, and we would appreciate support from our friends. Dennis replied that the Liberians had not expected a communique to be proposed in Kuwait, and said that he had greatly watered down the original draft proposed to him by the Kuwaitis.

12. NAM: The Secretary said he thought it would be disastrous and unfair if Egypt were expelled from the Non-Aligned Movement. To say that Egypt does not have a right to make peace to recover lost territory is shocking. Dennis said Liberia wished to support the U.S. view, and suggested that assisting Liberia to hold the OAU summit might be the best means to this end.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790219–0140. Confidential; Immediate; Exdis. Sent for information Priority to Abidjan, Conakry, Freetown, Accra, Kuwait, and Cairo. Drafted by Smith and approved by Harrop and Tarnoff.
  2. In telegram 3329 from Monrovia, April 27, the Embassy reported on Tolbert’s reasons for the visit of Dennis to the United States. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790193–0800) In telegram 1941 from Kuwait, April 23, the Embassy reported on Tolbert’s visit to Kuwait and his request for aid for Liberia. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790187–0295)
  3. See Document 43.
  4. See Document 34.