Send more blondes

Bernard Porter

  • Spies in the Congo: The Race for the Ore that Built the Atomic Bomb by Susan Williams
    Hurst, 369 pp, £25.00, June 2016, ISBN 978 1 84904 638 1

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’.

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