How a rich uranium mine thrust the Congo into the centre of the Cold War

The Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, which dropped the first atomic bomb in history. The bomb was made from Congolese ore. Reuters

During World War II the US sought to secure all the uranium from the Shinkolobwe mine in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo for its atomic bomb project. The ore was the richest in the world. The US, determined to prevent any of it reaching Nazi Germany or later falling into the hands of the Soviet Union, took every precaution – including dispatching spies – to secure the supply of uranium. The story of this race for the ore is told in a newly published book, Spies in the Congo. This edited extract is taken from the book’s concluding chapter.

In late 1949 the Soviet Union tested its own atomic bomb, to the profound shock of the US and Britain. Neither of the two had any idea that the Soviet atomic weapons programme was so well advanced. The US had beaten Germany in the first atomic arms race. And for four years, it had enjoyed an absolute monopoly on atomic weapons. But now, a second atomic arms race was under way – and the Cold War heated up dramatically.

The Shinkolobwe mine in Katanga had been reopened in March 1945. It was fully in operation, supplying America with fresh stocks of high grade uranium ore. As a result, observes Congolese historian Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, the Congo was

an important element of Washington’s geopolitical strategy in the context of the Cold War.

Despite strenuous efforts by the US to find alternative sources of rich ore, Shinkolobwe remained its greatest single source in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1947, according to figures from the US Atomic Energy Commission, the US obtained 1,440 tons of uranium concentrates from the Belgian Congo. It obtained none from its own territory and only 137 tons from Canada.

The complex process of importing the ore from the Congo was conducted in absolute secrecy. By 1951, the total quantity of uranium obtained by the US was 3,686 tons, of which the largest amount still came from the Congo – 2,792 tons. A huge amount of money was pumped into building a processing plant near Shinkolobwe and the World Bank extended $70 million in loans to Belgium for the improvement of the Congolese transportation infrastructure to facilitate the export of the ore.

Political embarrassment for the US

The US was vigorously seeking new sources of uranium. In 1950, with Britain, it came to an agreement with the white minority government of South Africa — which by now had introduced the system of apartheid — for the exclusive purchase of South African ore. In so doing, comments Thomas Borstelmann in Apartheid’s Reluctant Uncle, America compromised its principle of support for the self-determination of all peoples, which had been enshrined in the Atlantic Charter of 1941.

By the end of the Truman administration in January 1953, observes Borstelmann, these dealings with South Africa had become a political embarrassment to the US in the “now vociferous Cold War”.

A serious worry, as during World War II, was the possibility that the enemy might get hold of Congolese ore. This had been anticipated in 1946 by Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary. According to an entry in the diary of Hugh Dalton, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Bevin wanted to build a road

right across Africa, passing through the top of French Equatorial Africa and enabling us, if need be, to protect the deposits in the Belgian Congo.

Concern about the mine escalated sharply in Washington after the start of the Korean War in 1950. According to Borstelmann, drawing on official documents, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff began making contingency plans for the “seizure of critical areas in the Congo by force”, in case of a Soviet occupation of Western Europe, including Belgium.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff approved the shipment of $7 million-worth of American military equipment for additional Belgian troops being sent to Katanga, and the CIA planted a “controlled source” in the area to provide early warning of any problems. It also initiated “plans and preparations for covert counter-sabotage”.

In 1953, the US acquired 500 tons from South Africa, which was considerably less than it had hoped for. It was increasingly obtaining uranium from its domestic sources; it also obtained 100 tons from a new source – Portugal. But the Belgian Congo continued to provide the largest amount of ore: 1,600 tons.

Heightened security around the mine

The American atomic project was ambitious: it would require 9,150 tons of uranium concentrates per year when in full operation. The 1953 receipts, therefore, were less than half the required amount. Consequently, the procurement of ore was a source of persistent and acute concern for the US. Meanwhile, the protection and defence of Shinkolobwe was expanded substantially.

“Today,” wrote an Italian journalist in 1954,

it is impossible for a white man to move about unobserved in Shinkolobwe … and for someone to gate-crash the mining zone without the police’s knowledge immediately puts the Union Minière [the huge Belgian company which owned the Shinkolobwe mine] in a state of alarm.

Many voices, he added, were raised about Communist espionage, with the result that the barrier was

moved another mile from the mine and every road, which for one reason or another passed the zone, was sealed off. In addition, a strict check-up was made on all foreigners who came to Jadotville, the town that had to be passed on the way to Shinkolobwe.

Another visitor in 1954 was astonished when he looked at the local paper to see that:

Elisabethville’s newspapers … had startling, inch-high headlines. A Government decree, freshly signed, authorised the shooting on sight of any persons found within the boundaries of the Shinkolobwe uranium mine, who had no right to be there.

Reasons for the official action included the discovery of American journalists lurking behind the bushes near the entrance to the mine, and the alleged uncovering of a Communist plot whereby “red agents” were said to be smuggling away samples of uranium handed over to them by African workers.

A vast military Belgian and NATO air base was built at Kamina in western Katanga, “for the defence of Central Africa against international Communism”.

The Cold War and decolonisation

Towards the end of the 1950s the picture regarding Congolese uranium changed. America no longer needed to be worried about supplies of ore, despite its earlier fears. There were two important reasons for this: first, uranium ore had been found in many other parts of the world; and second, new methods of enriching lower grade uranium, to make it fissionable, had been developed. As a result, the US was no longer so dependent on Shinkolobwe, although it continued to be worried about the risk of the Soviets obtaining Congolese ore.

In the same period, the wind of decolonisation was blowing vigorously through the African continent and the people of the Congo demanded independence from Belgium. This became a reality on 30 June 1960. Patrice Lumumba became the Republic of the Congo’s prime minister in the nation’s first democratic elections.

The year before, Lumumba had been asked by some businessmen in New York whether the Americans would still have access to uranium, as they had when the Belgians ran the country. Lumumba’s response was unequivocal. “Belgium doesn’t produce any uranium,” he pointed out, adding that “it would be to the advantage of both our countries if the Congo and the US worked out their own agreements in the future.” But Union Minière took matters into its own hands: by the time of independence, the Shinkolobwe mine had been sealed with concrete.

Kwame Nkrumah, the president of newly independent Ghana, hoped that Africa could remain above the conflict between the West and the Communist nations. “My policy,” he said in 1960, “has always been that at all costs Africa must not be involved in the Cold War.”

But it was unavoidable: the Congo’s resources, including its uranium, had already put the newly independent nation at the very heart of Cold War concerns.

The Conversation

Susan Williams has published widely on Africa, decolonisation and the global power shifts of the twentieth century, receiving widespread acclaim for Colour Bar (Penguin, 2006), her book on the founding president of Botswana, which will become a major motion picture entitled 'A United Kingdom' in late 2016. Who Killed Hammarskjöld? (2011) triggered a fresh UN inquiry into the death of the secretary general.