On the contrary, Firestone supported—and perhaps aggravated—a simmering Liberian social problem: the division between resettled African-Americans and their descendants, known as Americo-Liberians, and native Africans, whom the Americo-Liberians relentlessly exploited and derisively called "aborigines." As Meisler explained,
The importance of the Firestone loan became evident in the early 1930s. Citing the charges of near slavery in Liberia and reports that Liberian soldiers, under command of an American black, had massacred Kru tribesmen in Liberia, Britain demanded that the League of Nations take over Liberia as a mandate. That would have meant the end of Liberian independence. As a British or even an American colony, Liberia surely would have come to independence in the 1960s with power in the hands of representatives of the tribal masses, not a settler elite. It probably was only the presence of Firestone and the commitment of the U.S. government that enabled the Americo-Liberians to resist the pressures of the British and the League and keep Liberia independent.
While Liberia remained in the hands of the Americo-Liberians, the exploitation of the native Africans continued. Although Meisler wrote that there was "little evidence of overt friction between the Americo-Liberians and the tribal people," the tension simmered just below the surface. Although outsiders saw promise in the 1971 transfer of power from President William V. S. Tubman to Vice President William Tolbert, a more reform-minded ruler, neither man did much to improve the situation of native Africans. In 1980, the simmering tension exploded. As Sanford J. Ungar recounted in his 1981 Atlantic article A Revolution, or Just Another Coup?, an "angry band of soldiers," led by native African Samuel Doe, "broke into the executive mansion, rushed upstairs, and surprised Tolbert in his luxurious quarters. They shot and killed the President, disemboweled him, stuck a bayonet through his head, and tossed his body into a mass grave." That was only the beginning of Doe's rampage. Soon after, "the army took thirteen of the wealthy Americo-Liberian officials who had been arrested... marched them nearly naked through the streets of Monrovia, to ensure that they lost their dignity, tied them to seaside post at the Barclay Training Centre, and executed them at point-blank range."
Doe's sudden and brutal rise to power surprised Americans. "Few outsiders—especially those in the U.S.—thought it was possible for this sophisticated African political dynasty, so schooled in the ways of the West, to be overthrown," Ungar wrote. "Liberia had a reputation as an outpost of stability in a continent of chaos." But "in retrospect," Ungar argued, "rarely has an explosion anywhere in the world been so inevitable." As Ungar put it,
[T]he fact is that for 133 years, a settler elite—a black-settler elite—which made up no more than 4 percent of Liberia's population, had monopolized all political power and controlled access to the country's resources. Its methods and its attitudes made those of the later-arriving white-settler elite in Rhodesia seem mild by comparison.
At least initially, Doe's regime seemed as if it might improve Liberian society. Atlantic contributor Bill Berkeley explained Doe's potential—and his ultimate failure—in the 1992 article Between Repression and Slaughter:
Casting himself as the liberator of Liberia's indigenous masses, [Doe] promised to put an end to the corrupt and oppressive domination by the Americo-Liberian elite and to establish a more equitable distribution of the nation's wealth. He pledged to return the country to civilian rule. But he soon proved to be a lawless and brutal tyrant. In October of 1985 he brazenly stole the election that was to have ushered in civilian rule. A month later he put down a widely applauded and nearly successful coup attempt with horrific violence, killing hundreds—mostly members of the Gio and Mano tribes, from the remote border region of Nimba County.
But as Berkeley explained, Doe suffered few consequences for his brutality:
[T]he United States contributed half a billion dollars in economic and military aid in the first five years of Doe's regime—a third of Liberia's operating budget. President Ronald Reagan invited Doe to the White House... There was concern that the young soldier and his populist backers might tilt toward Libya or even Moscow. There was also an "implicit bargain," as one American diplomat told me at the time, "that the military would let go if its needs were looked after."
But when the military failed to let go, the Reagan Administration did not challenge the results of the rigged election... On the contrary, Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker, the Administration's chief spokesman on African affairs, issued a series of unforgettable statements during that critical period, about "positive aspects" of the election and about the standards of "a part of the world where the norm is single-party rule," which Liberians to this day regard as plainly racist.
In the end, Doe's regime did little more than transfer control of the Americo-Liberian power structure to members of Doe's own Krahn tribe. At the same time, however, Doe became an increasingly valuable Cold War ally who allowed American broadcasting and navigation equipment to be stationed in his country. In exchange, the United States continued to ignore his abuses. But Doe's decision to "ethnicize the armed forces of Liberia [by] stacking the officer corps and key units with Krahn" had disastrous results, Berkeley explained. When Charles Taylor launched a war against Doe in 1989, his "method was to exploit the genocidal rage of the Gio and the Mano," the two tribes that had suffered the most under Doe's Krahn tribe. "No one has the slightest idea how many people died in the ensuing bloodbath," Berkeley wrote. "Conservative estimates put the number of casualties at 20,000 to 25,000. That would be about one percent of Liberia's population of 2.5 million. But a visitor soon realizes that virtually everyone lost a relative."