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America's first war on terror

Ecclesiastes 3 - “To everything there is a season….and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” Ecclesiastes 3:8 – “A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

‘Appeasement’, in party-political terms means: To yield or satisfy the belligerent demands of another nation. One of the best examples of ‘appeasement’ in modern times was when Herr Hitler browbeat British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain into believing hisworthless Munich agreement with the Fuhrer had brought “peace for our times.”

Bullies will continue to bully until someone braver and stronger stands up to the bullies. The first American president to grasp this truism was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson threw a hissy fit when ransom payments to Barbary Pirates in 1800 for American vessels, sailors, and citizens in captivity came to 20% of government expenditures.

From 16th into the 19th century, the Muslim pirates of Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli, and Tunis, as well as other North African countries and seaports, raided and pillaged up and down the Mediterranean without significant reprisal. In those centuries alone, an estimated 800,000 to 1.5 million non-Muslims were captured and forced into slavery.

England, France, Spain, and other European countries paid tribute, basically ‘protection money’, to keep their merchant shipping from being molested.

To not comply resulted in extreme brutality. Prisoners could remain in slavery for years, many times for the rest of their lives. One ransomed slave was Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. In 1554, Vieste, Italy was sacked, 5,000 citizens beheaded, another 6,000 abducted for the slave market. Muslim pashas, oghas, deys, and beys became filthy rich. The Netherlands, Ireland, even Iceland coastal towns fell victim.

Over time, the Dutch, Italians, English, French, Spanish, the Portuguese, and other European nations, together or separately, eventually stopped squandering national treasuries for higher and higher ransom demands and put their foot down, including barrages of several thousand cannon balls along the Barbary Coast. Their ports and palaces in ruins, and not quite ready for martyrdom, Muslim chiefs and the Dey of Algiers agreed to a pre-Chamberlain settlement of ‘peace for our times,’ meaning they would pick on someone else. Enter the United States of America.

Before our War of Independence, American merchant vessels fell under the protection of the mighty British Navy.

During the ‘colony uprising’ France filled our protective void on the high seas. Albeit, once America became independent both England and France essentially informed our new republic, ‘Have a nice day and protect your own vessels.”

President George Washington attempted to negotiate with the Barbary States without success. One of his envoys, naval hero John Paul Jones, was basically shown the door and ridiculed. American ambassadors in Europe — Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson — tried to work out deals to free Americans wasting away in Barbary dungeons; all three were told to hit the road.

Our second President, John Adams, paid for peace with the approval of Congress in 1785: Algiers was granted $625,500 cash, a 36 gun frigate, ammunition, and yearly tribute of $21,500; huge amounts of money for that time. Adding insult to injury, a set ransom rate was established for Americans in Barbary prisons: passengers, $4,000; cabin boys, $1,400. Not to be slighted, Tunis and Tripoli demanded their own blood money.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met with an ambassador from the pirate nations in March of 1786 to again attempt negotiations. They wanted to know why American vessels were being assaulted without provocation. As if laying the ground work for ISIS, the North African ambassador replied that Muslim pirates had a right to plunder vessels of the United States because Americans were infidels.

Upon Washington’s death, the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf, informed Adams that when men of prominence pass away in a tributary state said state must offer a ‘gift’ in the deceased’s name to the crown of Tripoli. Yusuf considered our first President to be worth about $10,000, give or take a few bucks. By 1801 Yusuf had received zilch from the US Treasury, threw a temper tantrum, and called for the American representative. Our diplomat was made to kiss Yusuf’s hand before being told the tribute had been raised to $225,000, plus $25,000 per year. If we refused, there would be war. To prove his point, the flag pole in front of our consulate was cut down.

Then rose a quandary for the Barbary pirates: a new sheriff had come to town, our 3rd President, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was infuriated to discover ransoms and favors and tributes had already exceeded two million dollars, over one-fifth of the annual income of the United States Government. Jefferson let it be known: ‘time to show the flag, boys!’

Jefferson dispatched warships to escort American vessels, plus Captain Edward Preble showed up in Tangier harbor with the USS Constitution, opened the gun ports and aimed his cannons point blank at the Sultan’s palace. Do tell, the Sultan signed an agreement not to molest American ships.

However, the frigate USS Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli as she pursed an enemy corsair. Unable to maneuver and facing a slaughter, her crew of 307 surrendered and were put in chains. Negotiations for their release failed, even a $100,000 offer was refused. Captain Preble unleashed his best fighter, a soon-to-be Navy legend, Stephen Decatur. The young lieutenant captured a small enemy ketch, disguised it and his crew as North Africans, and sailed into the dark harbor of Tripoli during the night of February 15, 1804.

The small ketch bumped against the Philadelphia, the Americans flung grappling hooks to join the vessels, then as one of the Barbary pirates reported after the brawl, “The Americans sent Decatur on a dark night, with a band of Christian dogs fierce and cruel as the tiger, who killed our brothers and burnt our ships before our eyes.” Twenty pirates met death; the rest jumped over the side. One American suffered a minor cut. Upon hearing of the venture, legendary British Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson said of the attack, ‘the most bold and daring act of the Age.’

More battles and victories ensued as did the Battle of Derna, resulting in the first time an American flag flew over foreign soil. Marine 1st Lt. Presley O’Bannon led 8 Leathernecks and a polyglot mercenary band of 500 Berber, Greek, and Arab soldiers across a hot desert and captured the Tripolitan city of Derna. The exploit is forever memorialized in the Marine hymn, “……to the shores of Tripoli.”

It seems that England and her former colonies discovered another bone to pick, thus the War of 1812. American navy vessels vanished from the Barbary Coast to search for British shipping. With our navy no longer a threat, the Dey of Algiers decided he needed to increase the number of American slaves. Once again, ships were seized, namely the brig Edwin, people sold into slavery, shouts for more money voiced.

Strange thing; wars do end. Ten weeks after the War of 1812 fizzled to a finale, the United States finally said, ‘enough is enough’ and formally declared hostilities against Algiers. With ten fighting ships and loaded for bear, master seaman Stephen Decatur sailed for the Mediterranean to settle old scores. In June of 1815 Decatur pounced on the flagship of the Dey of Algiers. He shot it to pieces, seized the ship plus 486 Muslim crewmembers, then sent an ultimatum to the Dey: Free all the slaves at once, pay a $10,000 indemnity to the survivors, and cease your lawless behavior forever. The Dey claimed the altercation had been a humble misunderstanding, plus he was more than willing to correct things with the Emperor of America.

The ‘misunderstanding’ cost the Dey $46,000 for the Americans to ‘go away’ plus he was forced to free all his slaves. As the Dey groomed his beard with a diamond-encrusted comb, he whined, “Why do they send wild young men to treat for peace with the old powers?” Sadly for the ‘old powers’, the wild young American was not finished. Decatur set his sights on Tripoli and Tunis.

Tripoli crumbled under pressure and cannon balls, paid ‘Wild Thing’ a $25,000 indemnity and freed all its slaves. Decatur’s decisive and fast action compelled Europe to follow America’s example. The butchery, slave trade, raiding, and ransom racket was over, at least until lately.

Stephen Decatur became a national hero yet lost his life at the age of 41 in a duel with Commodore James Barrow. The County and City of Decatur, GA honor his name.

The present scourge of the Middle East, ISIS, is really nothing new. The bloodthirsty cowards behind the masks are nothing more than Barbary retreads with modern weapons. But the tactics are still the same: mass beheadings, ransoms, the torching of humans, slavery, concubines, fun in the Middle East sun at a hideous cost to precious life.
Stephen Decatur’s specter lives on in the United States military. Highly trained men and women know their jobs and are willing to do whatever is necessary to confront and destroy evil. They can, and should, wrench the diamond-encrusted comb from the hand of ISIS. But America needs patriots, not politicians. We have the means to solve the challenge but our leaders lack the resolve. And let’s pray another Thomas Jefferson is on the horizon.

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at or