Stephen J. Marmon: The Star-Spangled Shores of Tripoli

Roundup: Talking About History

Mr. Marmon reported on Congress for the New York Times. His new book, The Cheaters: America's Political Sex Scandals, will be published next year.

Rebel forces in Libya raised their nation's old red, black and green banner over two more towns this week, from which they're now preparing to attack Tripoli. As they move to reclaim Libya from 40 years of tyrannical rule, we should recall that our flag was raised there two centuries ago, marking America's emergence as an international military power.

After our Revolutionary War, the Barbary Coast pirates—based in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco—were a major foreign-policy crisis for the new United States. Since the 13th century those marauders had attacked European ships in the Mediterranean, freeing crews and cargoes only after receiving ransom payments. Without the protection of the British or the French navy, American shipping began to fall prey to the pirates in 1784.

More than one-fifth of U.S. trade then was with Mediterranean countries. As Michael Oren (now Israel's ambassador to the U.S.) noted in his 2007 history of American involvement in the Mideast, "Power, Faith and Fantasy," enterprising early Americans could sell lumber, tobacco and tools around the Mediterranean in exchange for delicacies like capers, figs and raisins. A brisk business surrounded the exchange of New England rum for Turkish opium.

With the Barbary pirates threatening both profitable trade and national pride, the new country was in a quandary...

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