II. A Century of Blood, Sweat and Profits

(Matt Rota for ProPublica)

To understand the ferocity of the fighting that erupted in 1990 — and why Firestone and its plantation inevitably became central in it — one needs to know something of Liberia’s unusual history. 

The country was settled in the 1800s by freeborn American blacks and freed American slaves, the result of a back-to-Africa movement by the American Colonization Society, a philanthropic organization. It was supported by President James Monroe and the U.S. Congress.

Harvey S. Firestone Sr. (General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

Even after the colony declared itself independent in 1847, naming itself Liberia, or “Land of Freedom,” the country duplicated many of the economic and social structures of the American South. The settlers, known as Americo-Liberians, had a complex relationship with the indigenous Africans who lived in the region. Some of the settlers built Southern-style mansions and exploited the locals’ labor and land. 

Firestone arrived in Liberia in the 1920s. By that time, Harvey S. Firestone Sr., the farm boy from Ohio who founded the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., had become one of the top industrialists of the gilded age. 

He dreamed of finding a rubber source beyond the grasp of the British Empire, which controlled much of the world market. In Liberia, he found a spot in the narrow band around the equator where rubber trees thrived – and a nation that was in debt and desperate for business.

After two years of negotiations, Firestone and Liberia announced one of history’s great sweetheart deals. Liberia gave Firestone the right to lease up to 1 million acres — roughly 10 percent of the country’s arable land. The cost? Six cents an acre. The term? Ninety-nine years.

The deal survived an early controversy in 1930, when investigators from the League of Nations found officials in the Liberian government had engaged in forcing indigenous villagers to work on private farms, including Firestone’s plantation. 

The investigators found no evidence that Firestone “consciously employs labor which has been forcibly impressed.” Soon after the scandal, Harvey Firestone Jr., the founder’s son, launched a public relations campaign, delivering a series of radio addresses that described the company’s work in Liberia.

The five-minute spots depicted a company that respected local customs, provided workers with health care and built roads for a benighted nation — all the while benefitting American car owners.

“To the little Republic of Liberia, Firestone has brought a new day of hope and advancement,” Firestone said in one broadcast. “It has been a gratifying thought to us that by means of commercial progress we have been of service to mankind.”

The 1950s were golden years for Firestone and Liberia’s elite. Firestone was Liberia’s largest private employer and the largest exporter in the country. Firestone’s profits after taxes amounted to three times the government’s total revenue for 1951, according to one study.

Former president William Tubman and Harvey Firestone Jr. symbolized the tight links between Liberia and the tire giant. (Courtesy of the Indiana University Liberian Collections)

The company tightened its relationships with the country’s ruling class in part by helping them become rubber farmers, providing free saplings and agricultural advice. When the rubber began to flow, Firestone purchased it.

Former presidents Charles King, Edwin Barclay, William V.S. Tubman and Tolbert all owned large rubber plantations.

To preserve its plantation, Firestone worked closely with whoever ran Liberia, no matter how they came to power or what they did to hold onto it. 

In office for nearly 30 years, Tubman turned into a virtual dictator, quashing dissent, imprisoning political opponents and creating a spy network to track ordinary citizens. Firestone maintained such close ties with him that when the daughter of one plantation executive got married, she and her husband honeymooned at Tubman’s summer retreat outside Monrovia.

Tolbert, Tubman’s longtime vice president and successor, had the most fractious relationship with the rubber giant. As president in the mid-1970s, he renegotiated the government’s contract with Firestone, insisting on raising taxes and hiring more Liberians in senior management. Firestone executives complained that the plantation’s profitability began to decline.

About four weeks after Doe’s bloody coup in 1980, Firestone sent Don L. Weihe, the affable executive in charge of the company’s overseas rubber operations, to meet the new dictator.

“When you’re the big frog in the pond, you’re sort of wondering who is in charge of the pond,” Weihe explained.

Doe suspended the 1976 rubber deal struck by Tolbert that had so pained Firestone executives. Until world rubber prices rebounded, he decided, the company would enjoy generous tax exemptions. “Firestone and Liberia have enjoyed a long and unique historical relationship,” Doe said in a speech to Firestone’s executives. “We therefore consider this relationship as a contract of survival.”

Taylor ensured that Doe’s role in the relationship would be limited.

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