Little is known of Africa’s role in the Manhattan project, the secretive operations that led to the development of the Atomic Bomb. A new book Spies in the Congo by Dr. Susan Williams discusses U.S. intelligence operations in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo: DRC), to secure uranium during World War II while also preventing Nazi Germany from obtaining said mineral for its own nuclear weapons program. This is a very well-written book that effectively narrates the activities that members of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency) carried out in the Belgian Congo. W. Alex Sánchez and Yves Bashonga review the book in The International Policy Digest
Without a doubt, Williams’ book combines both a deep discussion about World War II geopolitics while also bringing these individuals, too many of whom died at a young age, to life. Moreover, Spies in the Congo discusses the other unknown heroes of this massive operation, the people of the Congo itself, who suffered then and continue to suffer, because of the richness of their country.
What transpired in the Belgian Congo during World War II is a plot worthy of a movie or a Netflix miniseries. On 2 August 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, explaining that uranium reserves in the U.S. were very poor and in moderate quantities. He added that some good ore may be found in Canada and the former Czechoslovakia, while the most important source of uranium is in the Belgian Congo. As war in Europe was looming – Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in March of that year and invaded Poland only a month later following Einstein’s letter in September. As a consequence, it was important for the U.S. to push forward with its own nuclear program which required rich ore.
The book discusses in great detail the activities of OSS members in the Belgian Congo as they attempted to procure all uranium out of the Shinkolobwe mine in Katanga, and how it was transported from there to the coast: first to Lobito in Angola, a Portuguese colony at the time, and later through Matadi in the Congo and from there to the U.S. As the OSS members set up and monitored this massive operation, we learn more about them, as well as other individuals and entities that were involved in the uranium game: the sometimes unhelpful US consuls in the Congo, the British intelligence officers; Belgian officials, like the governor general of the Congo, the Belgian state police and intelligence agency Sûreté de l’État, which operated in the Congo; Belgian companies like Union Minière du Haut Katanga (which operated the Shinkolobwe mine) and Société Générale (which controlled the UMHK) not to mention the several often-unreliable individuals that the OSS had to work with. Everyone had his own interests and objectives.