"The Unknown Congolese Heroes – Book Review: ‘Spies in the Congo: America’s Atomic Mission in World War II’"
Wilder Alejandro Sanchez and Yves Bashonga
Book Review & Analysis
24 August 2018
International Policy Digest
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. 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.
An Ideal Movie Plot
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.
Williams does an excellent job at explaining how Washington and the
OSS in the Belgian Congo, successfully managed to keep its operations
regarding the Shinkolobwe mine a secret, not to mention the overall
objective of the Manhattan Project. The OSS team in the Belgian Congo,
led by the book’s protagonist, Wilbur Owings “Dock” Hogue (Codename
Teton), managed to successfully maintain a cover to combat the illegal
diamond trade, rather than uranium. There was a constant fear that the
Nazis would somehow figure out the US operations in the Belgian Congo
and attempt to smuggle uranium via Nazi-friendly smugglers and Belgian
officials. The Allies were also unclear about how developed Nazi
Germany’s nuclear program was. In the end, to the Allies’ surprise, said
program was not very developed at all.
Congolese uranium will be eventually used for the U.S. nuclear bombs
(“Little Boy” and “Fat Man”) that were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Thanks to declassified documents and other research, we know more
about OSS operations in the Belgian Congo, as well as the divided
interests of the Belgian government and business community both in
Brussels and Léopoldville (now Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC). Some
were determined to fight the Nazis, while others were sympathetic. There
was also a faction that behaved pragmatically supporting whichever side
was winning the war.
But what about the Congolese themselves? While Spies in the Congo
focuses on the OSS and World War II, Williams does a great job telling
us about the people who actually worked at the Shinkolobwe mine and
helped win the war.
Williams is blunt about the treatment of the Congolese by the
Belgians. Both before and during the war, they were exploited, and the
eventual victory of the Allies did nothing to improve their conditions
until the Belgian Congo’s eventual independence in 1960. She discusses
the role of King Leopold II of Belgium, which transformed the territory
into the Congo Free State in the 19th century.
Leopold’s harsh rule has
been well examined, including the use of the infamous chicotte “which at
the time was made from hippopotamus hide with razor-sharp edges,” to
punish the Congolese. How many Congolese died during Leopold’s rule is
anyone’s guess. Williams cites the number at 10 million “as result of
the routine brutality and executions,” but other authors cite different
numbers, also in the millions; hence the genocide during the Congo Free
State should be more well-known than it is today. (For more information
about Leopold’s rule and Congo, see Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost.)
During World War II, the Allies’ need for Africa’s raw resources,
such as uranium, rubber, cotton among others, dramatically increased.
Williams explains how “between 1938 and 1944, the Union Minière
workforce almost doubled from 25,000 to 49,000; so did the number of
fatal accidents at Union Minière plants.” Even more, Congolese soldiers
were also conscripted into the Force Publique, the Belgian Colonial
Army, which fought in Ethiopia (then Abyssinia), Nigeria, Egypt and
Palestine. The 11th battalion of the Force Publique included 3,000
Congolese soldiers and 2,000 bearers who fought valiantly in Ethiopia.
Unsurprisingly, Congolese soldiers were badly treated by white officers,
and they were told that, if they fled, their families would be
punished. This mirrored the situation of the Congolese in the civilian
world under Belgian rule, as they were treated as second class citizens,
underpaid and segregated from white-neighborhoods in Leopoldville or
Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi).
As a final point, it is important to highlight that the radioactivity
of uranium does not care about skin color. Several OSS personnel would
become sick and die at early ages, partially weakened by diseases like
malaria, but their continuous exposure to uranium certainly did not help
their health. The same can be said about the Congolese workers who
worked at the Shinkolobwe mine without protective equipment. Williams
correctly concludes that the Congolese “were simply used as workers, as
if they had no rights as equal human beings. This was a process for
which the US, the UK and Belgium bear a heavy responsibility.”
Analysis: Who Benefits from Congo’s riches?
In her conclusions, Dr. Williams discusses how, when Congo achieved
independence, it attempted to remain neutral in the emerging Cold War,
“but it was unavoidable: the Congo’s resources, including its uranium,
put the newly independent nation at the very heart of Cold War
This seems to be part of a pattern when it comes to the Congo; over the
centuries, different outside actors have arrived to plunder and steal
(for there is no other term to describe this process) its natural
resources: during World War II, it was the U.S. to defeat the Nazi
empire; today they are transnational companies, rebel movements, not to
mention certain governments. Whether it is diamonds, uranium, copper,
cobalt or coffee, it seems that the entire world benefits from the
Congo, except for the Congolese themselves.
A lot has changed in the past 70 plus years since the end of the War:
the DRC is now an independent nation, but Congolese villagers continue
to work for transnational companies in atrocious circumstances, with said companies giving little back to local communities in exchange for what they extract.
In early June 2018, the DRC signed into law a revised version of the
2002 mining code, which will hopefully mean more tax revenue for the
government from transnational companies that operate in the country.
“The DRC does not have a strong history of obtaining taxes from the
general population, so taxes from these companies are vital for our
development,” explains one of the authors of this commentary.
Unsurprisingly, this move has prompted criticism by mining companies
like Glencore and Randgold, which argue that “the tax hikes and the
removal of exemptions for pre-existing operations are a breach of their
agreements with the government,” explains Reuters.
As for Congolese-Belgian relations, the legacy of the Congo Free
State and the Belgian Congo remains in the minds of the Congolese who
have learned their nation’s history, not to mention the role that the
Belgian government played in the assassination of the Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba
(a renowned supporter of Pan-Africanism) via Katangan separatists in
Brussels has recognized its role in Lumumba’s death: it apologized in 2002 and this past June it inaugurated the Patrice Lumumba square at the entrance to the Belgian capital’s largely Congolese Matonge area. In spite of the symbolic importance of this initiative, bilateral relations have continued to deteriorate
and it will be important to monitor these to see if they improve in the
future after the DRC’s upcoming elections, scheduled for December 2018.
Without a doubt, Spies in the Congo is a great book that
tells a vital, though obscure story about World War II, namely the role
the Congo had in helping the Allies win, and the U.S. development of its
nuclear program in particular. Today Congo continues to supply the
world with critically important resources, and sadly the vast majority
of the Congolese people have yet to profit from them.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors
alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with
which the authors are associated.