Congo’s uranium: Rich pickings (The Economist – August 27, 2016)

An intriguing account of why America was so interested in Congo in the 1940s

“A HOTBED of spies”, remarked Bob Laxalt when he arrived in Léopoldville, capital of the Belgian Congo, in 1944. Why, wondered the fresh-faced young code officer for the American Consul-General, was his government so interested in this “dark corner of darkest Africa”? After all: “There’s no war here.”

Laxalt was not alone in his ignorance. America’s interest in the Congo—and, specifically, in the resource-rich south-eastern province of Katanga—was one of the best-kept secrets of the second world war. Beneath its verdant soil lay a prize that the Americans believed held the key to victory. It was the race to control this prize that brought the spooks to Léopoldville. The Germans, they feared, might be after it, too.

The prize, Susan Williams explains in “Spies in the Congo”, was uranium. Congo was by far the richest source of it in the world. As the architects of America’s nuclear programme (the “Manhattan Project”) knew, uranium was the atom bomb’s essential ingredient. But almost everybody else was kept entirely in the dark, including the spies sent to Africa to find out if the heavy metal was being smuggled out of the Congo into Nazi Germany.

The men—and one woman—charged with protecting America’s monopoly of Congolese uranium worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an organisation set up by President Franklin Roosevelt as the wartime intelligence agency, and the precursor to what in peacetime became the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Ms Williams presents the reader with a large cast of characters, some of them quite eccentric. Wilbur Owings Hogue, a civil engineer and the OSS station chief in Léopoldville, was also a part-time author of popular fiction. Two of his colleagues were ornithologists. His assistant, Shirley Chidsey, was a friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who later inscribed one of his books for her.

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