In the latest issue:

Boris Johnson’s First Year

Ferdinand Mount

Short Cuts: In the Bunker

Thomas Jones

Theban Power

James Romm

What can the WHO do?

James Meek

At the Type Archive

Alice Spawls

Where the Poor Lived

Alison Light

At the Movies: ‘Da 5 Bloods’

Michael Wood

Cultural Pillaging

Neal Ascherson

Jenny Offill

Adam Mars-Jones

Shakespeare v. the English

Michael Dobson

Poem: ‘Now Is the Cool of the Day’

Maureen N. McLane


David Trotter

Consider the Hare

Katherine Rundell

How Should I Refer to You?

Amia Srinivasan

Poem: ‘Field Crickets (Gryllus campestris)’

Fiona Benson

Diary: In Mali

Rahmane Idrissa

Send more blondesBernard Porter
Spies in the Congo: The Race for the Ore that Built the Atomic Bomb 
by Susan Williams.
Hurst, 369 pp., £25, June 2016, 978 1 84904 638 1
Show More
Show More

Congo​ is a country that has been impoverished by its riches. First it was its human capital that suffered, its people brutally enslaved by Arabs and then Europeans. Then the Europeans took it over, or, to be precise, one European, King Leopold II of the Belgians, who presented himself – the old monster – as a humanitarian, and was given the Congo as a personal fiefdom to prevent his more powerful neighbours squabbling over it. (There’s still a statue of him, incidentally, in the Jardin du Roi in Brussels.) He then sublet it to capitalist ‘concessionaires’ whose exploitation of its rubber and palm oil gave rise to atrocities that are among the most notorious in colonial history. Eventually, after a British-led protest movement, it was transferred to the Belgian state as a formal colony. That hardly improved matters: the capitalists were still there – they were arguably more powerful than the Belgian colonial bureaucracy – and conditions for the Congolese people working for them were dire. There’s a sickening description in Susan Williams’s book, from an American observer in the 1940s, of the flogging of a Congolese man with a chicotte – ‘a whip made of leather thongs tipped with metal’ – for stealing a pack of cigarettes from a Belgian. ‘The black’s skin from neck to waist was a mass of blood with ribs shining through.’ All part of the mission civilisatrice.

In the 1940s European and American attention turned to the mines of Katanga in the southern Congo. These were found to produce uranium of a unique richness – 75 per cent, compared to under 10 per cent from North American sources – at the very time that the US and Germany (and, it later transpired, Japan) were seriously engaged in producing a nuclear bomb. Just think what might have happened if the Nazis had got there before them! The US was determined first to ensure that the Shinkolobwe mine in particular wouldn’t be able to supply Germany with uranium, and then to take control of its whole production. This is the theme of Spies in the Congo.

It’s a clever book, because it’s based on almost no explicit evidence. It’s well known that the Manhattan Project was the best kept secret in the war (except to the Russians, who had good spies) and this didn’t only apply to Los Alamos. The Shinkolobwe mine was deleted from maps, and uranium was never referred to by name in any of the correspondence surrounding it. Williams – who analyses what little evidence there is, much of it only recently released, with great skill – thinks she has spotted it when the word ‘diamonds’ comes up. American investigations into uranium smuggling were disguised as investigations into illicit diamond buying: by studying how diamonds were smuggled out they could learn how uranium could be smuggled out too. Even so, she has found herself stumped by much of the correspondence she has read, such as this gnomic message from an agent in August 1944: ‘I haven’t been able to get any of the iced lobster, but Information Item No. 295 which ANGELLA brewed up will give you a slant on this – perfume or butter?’ Such was the secrecy that most people at the time – even the spies themselves – failed to understand why the OSS (the CIA’s precursor) was devoting ‘so much attention … to a small consular office in a colony so far from the theatre of war’. That was Bob Laxalt, an American code officer in Léopoldville. Told that the Congo was ‘a hotbed of spies’ from other nations, he just couldn’t see what there was in this ‘dark corner of darkest Africa that was important enough’. After all, he added, ‘there’s no war here.’ Later, he and the others were told that Germany needed the Congo’s diamonds for its war production (‘utter nonsense’, according to a later authority). But, like all the others, Laxalt did what he was told, in pursuit of what he assumed must be a greater good, however obscure. In espionage jargon, he had no ‘need to know’.

There’s little evidence presented here of direct German involvement in Katanga – Williams would have needed to go to German archives for that – but a great deal of circumstantial evidence to suggest that Allied suspicion of the Nazis was well founded. First of all there was the obvious German need for high-grade uranium if Heisenberg and the rest were to build their bomb, coupled with Shinkolobwe’s unique value at that time as a source of it. Second, there was the political situation in the colony itself, which appeared to be promising for Germany. Belgium, the ‘mother country’ as Williams persists in calling it (‘master’ might be more appropriate), had surrendered in May 1940. One might have thought the surrender applied to its colonial possessions too. That’s certainly what King Leopold III – a true chip off his old great-uncle’s block – seems to have accepted when he ordered the governor-general of the Congo, Pierre Ryckmans, to keep the colony at least neutral until they saw how the war turned out. Ryckmans, however, declared for the Allies, as did Belgium’s ‘free’ government-in-exile. That wasn’t the end of the matter. Leopold was still in place in Belgium, and Belgian and other European settlers in the Congo tended to follow him rather than the Belgian democrats. So did the leaders of the big Katangan mining and drilling companies, and of the Roman Catholic Church, one of whose luminaries, a Monseigneur de Hemptinne, feared that by teaming up with anti-imperialist America Belgium was ‘on the way to losing its crowning achievement in Africa’. The OSS and British intelligence learned of secret meetings of these men where they pledged their allegiance to Nazi Germany and plotted collaboration. Germany already had some Shinkolobwe ore, imported from Belgium before the war had begun, and there were fears that it could get the rest of what it needed more directly, either by smuggling with the help of collaborators, or by invading the Congo. With so much depending on it, the Allies could take no chances.

Among the Allies the Americans were the most concerned about German activities, since they were the ones building the bomb. But they couldn’t rely on the discretion of their friends in the Belgian colonial administration because of the quislings who might be mixed up with them; many Belgians, too, suspected the US of wanting to take over the whole colony after the war. The Americans also tended to distrust their British ‘opposites’, partly due to their imperialism and supercilious attitudes. ‘It made my hair curl,’ wrote Major Manderstam of the SOE – the OSS’s transatlantic equivalent – ‘to see a sergeant sitting on the edge of his commanding officer’s desk and addressing the colonel by his first name.’ ‘I’ll shoot the first man,’ Rudyerd Boulton of the OSS threatened, ‘who ever suggests again that I work “with the British”.’ (From Britain’s point of view, it wasn’t unreasonable to suspect that despite the US’s rhetoric of ‘partnership’ it really wanted to supplant Britain as top dog in the world: as a secret OSS report surmised in 1944, Britain only had ‘a small chance of emerging as a first-rate power’, so it wouldn’t be hard.) The OSS had enemies nearer home too. The State Department cold-shouldered it, often denying its agents cover in US embassies, for example, in case their disreputable activities caused trouble. Their attitude appears to have mirrored that of the British Foreign Office, which was said to look on SOE ‘rather as a maiden aunt might regard a niece who had become a successful callgirl’. The US was hampered at first by its lack of experience in overseas espionage, but it quickly made up ground, assisted, as British operatives enviously complained, by a much bigger budget than theirs, which, apart from anything else, pushed up the cost of paying bribes.

The people the OSS recruited were a rum bunch, though no rummer than their British counterparts. Indeed, they shared many characteristics, including a privileged education – Ivy League in the American case – and maleness. Women weren’t wanted, save as secretaries and companions. On that front, agent Leonard Davis’s only complaint was that there were too many brunettes among them, so he wired Washington to ask them to please send more blondes. The single exception was ‘plain’ Shirley Chidsey – the ANGELLA of the ‘iced lobster’ letter – who, though her main job was running the OSS’s Léopoldville bureau, proved highly competent as an agent in her own right, and took charge of the office when her boss was away. Williams devotes a chapter to her. Many of the other agents were taken on because they had a special knowledge of Africa – any part of Africa – or professional interests and hobbies that could provide useful ‘cover’. Some worked for oil companies; one for a clothing firm that sourced its silks in Katanga; two were ornithologists; one was an expert on the great apes. All of them were given code names. (The SOE did the same: top agents were named after Greek gods, the more plebby ones after trees.) They tended to be liberal, East Coast Americans, appalled by the racism they witnessed in the Congo. Not all of them were successful in gathering intelligence: the ape man, for example, was too taken up with his primates; ‘I think we have solved the gorilla secret,’ he wrote back to his Secret Service handler in September 1942, while admitting his total failure as a spy. One ‘cut-out’ – a sort of sub-agent – was an ex-journalist and a communist. He was tasked with discovering Nazi sympathies among the mineowners and did quite well until the Sûreté searched his house and ‘found’ 100,000 francs and a note from his superior, ‘Dock’ Hogue. Hogue claimed that this had to have been a ‘frame-up’ job because he’d never written such a note and the ‘cut-out’ had already spent most of the money he’d been given. Hogue, one of the major figures in Williams’s narrative, was twice the victim of assassination attempts, presumably by Nazis, escaping from the second of them in a fashion that could have come out of one of the thrillers he turned to writing after retirement. It involved a well-aimed bullet to his assailant’s belly, a night swim downriver to the port of Matadi, and the friendly captain of a Swedish freighter bound for New York who took him on board. (That is, if we are to believe his account of it – the only one we have.) If there’s a film to be made out of all this – as has been recently made out of one of Williams’s earlier books, about Seretse Khama (A United Kingdom) – Hogue’s escape would furnish a good dramatic climax.

The actual climax of Williams’s book is difficult to pinpoint. That the wartime Congo mission was worthwhile is indisputable, given the place of Shinkolobwe’s uranium in the history of the 20th century – it was used in the Hiroshima bomb – and the different direction world events might have taken if the Germans had got their hands on it. That they didn’t was attested to by two separate inquiries after the war, which found that Germany was much further away from making a nuclear bomb than had been feared. It is part of Williams’s argument that access to the Shinkolobwe ore was the main reason American-based scientists beat the German boffins to the bomb; this opinion was corroborated by a bunch of German physicists afterwards, though they could simply have been making excuses for their failure. If Williams is right, much of the credit could be said to go to the men (and one woman) on the spot in the Congo who got in the Germans’ way. If they did.

The problem is that there is no firm evidence that the American spies actually did stop the Nazis: there were no arrests, no German spies foiled, no shipments of uranium prevented by their agency. Williams is quite open about this. ‘It is difficult,’ she concludes, ‘to measure the success of their mission in the Belgian Congo.’ All she can honestly say is that it is ‘highly likely that Dock Hogue’s activities inhibited the illicit removal of uranium ore’. Otherwise why the attempts on his life, and his ultimate expulsion from the Congo at the bidding (she assumes) of the local pro-German lobby? He must have been having some deterrent effect. Well, perhaps. Or perhaps the Germans weren’t as resourceful as it was assumed. (Again, we really need to see their side.) That doesn’t of course mean that credit should be taken away from Williams’s unsung heroes, none of whom was properly honoured by the US government afterwards.

Williams’s real conclusion is that none can be drawn yet. The story of the Congo’s uranium didn’t finish with the end of the war. For one thing, some of the Shinkolobwe uranium may have got out not to Germany but to the Soviets, and later to North Korea and Iran. The evidence for this is not solid, but it is suggestive. After the Soviet Union’s first successful atomic bomb test in 1949, and the nuclear arms race it gave rise to, it seemed from the US’s point of view more necessary than ever that it control as many sources of uranium as it could. The Shinkolobwe seam was no longer as indispensable as it had been, with fresh discoveries made elsewhere of fairly rich uranium deposits, and new ways perfected of enriching lower-grade ores to make them fissionable – but it would still have been dangerous to let anyone have access to it, and besides, the US needed masses of the stuff to prime the literally thousands of warheads its paranoia had deemed necessary for its security. So it upped its presence in the Congo – at the same time as downsizing in the rest of Africa – and even set its Joint Chiefs of Staff to make ‘contingency plans for the “seizure of critical areas in the Congo by force”’. Decolonisation obviously presented new difficulties, which had to be solved clandestinely, again. The uranium mines were, very probably, a factor behind the Katangan war of secession, the mysterious death of Dag Hammarskjöld, and the murder of Patrice Lumumba in January 1961 after his ill-advised approach to the Soviet Union. At the very least, America’s interventions contravened its own much-lauded war aim, bruited in the 1941 Atlantic Charter, of ‘self-determination’ for everyone. (Churchill wasn’t bothered; he thought the Atlantic Charter only applied to Europeans.) The Congo, wrote Ralph Bunche, later a Nobel Peace Prize winner who was in OSS during the war, ‘has quite enough problems without having the Cold War added to them’. It wasn’t the Congo’s fault that it had become trapped in the ‘very heart’ of the dominant conflict of the later 20th century. ‘The US government was deepening its hooks into the Belgian Congo,’ Williams writes. The result was a new ‘global hegemony, which was entirely reliant’ – at least for a time – ‘on its monopoly of Congolese uranium’. That might not have been OSS’s original motivation, but it was the eventual result.

No​ one asked the Congolese whether the Americans could take over their treasure to make the most terrifying and destructive weapon the world had seen, and then feed the American appetite for hegemony. They weren’t told of the Congolese component of the Hiroshima bomb until 17 years later. Then they got mad. ‘Bang! What a shock,’ Albert Makelele wrote in This Is a Good Country (2008). ‘A Belgian … stole Congo uranium … which went into a bomb … that ended the war … and I am just learning about it in 1962! How important is my Congo!’ Nor were they told at the time of the dangers uranium ore posed to the health of those who dug it out, and to the vast area of countryside that it polluted. Europeans suspected it all along – the ‘brilliant, hideous ore’ with its ‘savage, morbid colour’ always looked poisonous – and were careful when touching it themselves, though this rarely went further than a quick wash of the hands afterwards. That didn’t prevent a disproportionate number of American agents eventually dying comparatively young of diseases that might be attributed to radiation. (Of course, it’s difficult to tell in a climate as disease-ridden as tropical Africa’s, and with such a small sample.) Occasionally miners were asked if they knew of the dangers. ‘Don’t you boys know that this stuff makes you sterile?’ one OSS man asked, only to be met with the reply that ‘they weren’t worried – that they had all had several children.’ How many of the miners, shovelling the stuff all day, died of radiation poisoning we can’t know. According to one ‘Congolese scholar’ (but of religion), the poison is still there. ‘Pollution has been so deep that it has reached the level that we are now giving birth to children without limbs without heads without mouth without legs.’ Whatever the details and the numbers, there can be little doubt that the long-term effect of uranium mining on public health in Katanga has been dire.

There were attempts at rationalisation. ‘What right do we have,’ the colonial agronomist Vladimir Drachoussoff wrote in his diary, ‘to drag the Congolese into our war? None whatsoever. Yet necessity knows no law … and Hitler’s victory here would install a racist tyranny that would make the abuses of colonialism look good.’ Old survivors of Leopold II’s form of colonialism might not agree with the last comparison, but there must be something in this. A similar argument could be made today, in favour of intervention to prevent fissionable material getting into the hands of terrorists or rogue states. One of the reasons nuclear war was avoided after 1949 is supposed to have been the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction hanging over the main combatants. That may not be such a deterrent to fanatics. So the Americans’ original instinct was probably right. But the unintended and undeserved cost for the Congo, the horrendous price it was made to pay for its treasure, is still being felt.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences