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. In addition, for four years, it had enjoyed an absolute monopoly on atomic weapons. 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.
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