Can it be by chance or a felicitous turn of fate that the first war vessel to set forth from American shores in quest of Osama bin Laden should be the aircraft carrier USS Teddy Roosevelt?
The Barbary pirates operating out of North Africa – lands we know today as Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya – were a constant plague over the centuries to countries which used the Mediterranean for shipping. Century after century vessels were seized, merchandise confiscated, crews and passengers taken as slaves (anyone who had personal wealth would be ransomed). England, France, Spain, Germany and Italian principalities were helpless faced by the wretched excesses of the Barbary pirates (the name comes from the original tribes, “the Berbers”).
In the tender days when our republic was taking its first baby steps as a nation, Washington, and then Adams, had been forced to endure the humiliation of having to purchase treaties with three of these North African states (Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis), and of sending them hundreds of thousands of dollars in protection money.
In a fine bit of irony, almost at the very time when the citizens of the new republic were shouting themselves hoarse with the slogan, “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute,” an American ship arrived at Algiers with 26 barrels of blackmail dollars.
The ultimate humiliation came in October 1800, when the Bey of Algiers forced a United States man-of war, embarrassingly named the George Washington, to haul down the flag of the young republic – replace it with that of Algiers – and set sail for Constantinople bearing an ambassador and presents to the sultan. When the American captain protested, the Bey replied: “You pay me tribute, by which you become my slaves. I have, therefore, a right to order you as I may think proper.”
When Jefferson was minister to France, he had been charged with ransoming captive American sailors from the Barbary “hellhounds” (Jefferson’s term). Spurred by the distress of his fellow citizens, Jefferson then made a proposal that the Powers of Europe band together and wipe out these “pyrates” (Jefferson’s spelling).
European powers paid him no heed. But, shortly, he was elected president, and was barely in office, when the Pasha of Tripoli, feeling neglected in the apportionment of tribute, declared war on the United States by cutting down the flagpole at the American consulate.
Now Jefferson was pledged to economy (war with Tripoli would be costly) – he disliked the navy and, even more, he detested war. Jefferson went for the bold move, ordering warships to Mediterranean waters. In 1805, he wrung the most advantageous treaty any nation had yet secured from Tripoli. By the time the War of 1812 was over, the United States dictated in 1816 an altogether satisfactory treaty with Algiers at the cannon’s mouth – thanks, in large measure, to Steven Decatur’s heroic actions. Jefferson’s courageous action inaugurated a policy that freed American commerce, strengthened American nationality and awakened a new respect in the world for the United States.
And here we bring in Teddy Roosevelt, nearly a century later, busily employing his Big Stick policy. In May 1904, when the Republican National Convention was then meeting in Chicago, a certain Ion Perdicaris, a naturalized American citizen, was seized by one of the native Moroccan chieftains, Raisuli. The president ordered our Mediterranean and South Atlantic squadrons rushed to Tangier. The Republican Convention was dragging along which displeased Roosevelt even though he was sure of being nominated again.
Although arrangements had already been made to release Perdicaris, the president had Secretary of State Hay draft and send off a famous telegram to the American consul general at Tangier, insisting that the United States must have “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” The telegram read aloud at the convention in Chicago created a sensation.
In 1975, John Milius directed “The Wind and the Lion,” starring Sean Connery as Raisuli and Candace Bergen as the widow Perdicaris. As I recollect, there was a touch of “Anna and the King” floating about Connery and Candace riding out in the desert, the wind blowing their robes prettily about them, although neither broke into song. Wonder who they’ll cast as Osama bin Laden? Tim Roth?