Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Racism in an Evacuation


evac plane_abidjanThe process of evacuating a country is filled with unexpected challenges. Many of these are logistical, while others include safety concerns that arise as a result of the unstable conditions. In this excerpt from a November 1995 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy, Ambassador James Bishop, Jr. discusses a different type of challenge: a social issue wherein racism and domestic politics complicated the evacuation plans.

 

BISHOP:  One incident occurred which was among the most disgusting I ever witnessed in the Foreign Service. When we made plans [in 1991] to charter aircraft to evacuate Americans out of Monrovia to Abidjan and then on to the U.S., the issue arose as to where in the U.S. they would be brought. The NSC [National Security Council] learned that the Pentagon intended that the planes land in South Carolina–that was the designated terminus for all evacuations.

evac -DakarFlood2005The NSC knew that most of the evacuees would be black Americans and concluded that many would be indigent. So we were instructed to examine the possibility of leaving them in West Africa — Abidjan and Freetown — instead of bringing them to the U.S. The suggestion was made that tent camps could be established for them, even though we were in the middle of the rainy season. This alternative was supposed to avoid the embarrassment that the administration might suffer by adding a substantial number of Americans to the welfare rolls in South Carolina.

The assumption was that immediately upon disembarkation, these Americans would head for the nearest welfare office and apply for benefits. I found the whole idea outrageous. Bob Gates, then the deputy NSC advisor, was the proponent of this plan; he was the NSC representative on the Deputies Committee. I told [Under Secretary for Political Affairs] Kimmitt and [Assistant Secretary] Cohen how disgraceful that idea was. They were as disgusted as I was, although more patient. They didn’t believe that anything so inhuman would be allowed to occur and it didn’t.

In fact, only two Americans ended up on the welfare rolls in South Carolina. Most of the Americans who returned had relatives in the U.S. whom they joined.

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