In a book review last week, I mentioned that the uranium used to explode Hiroshima and Nagasaki (pictured above) came from the Belgian Congo. Today, I’ll look more at that through Spies in the Congo (2016) by Susan Williams, with an audio book narrated by Justine Eyre. The book is about how OSS agents and their “cut-outs” secured the American monopoly on the uranium from Katanga, a region in what is today southern Congo-Kinshasa.
This history was not well-known before Ms. Williams’ book. Its weighty implications have been picked up by mainstream outlets. Last year, The Economist wrote:
Much of what runs through “Spies in the Congo” will be wearily recognisable to the Congolese, and many Africans. America’s early nuclear supremacy was dependent on African uranium, just as Europe’s industrial pre-eminence had been sustained by African copper, iron and rubber. But Congo’s role in this has been forgotten, deliberately erased from the historical record by officials hailing the success of the Manhattan Project following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Ms. Williams doesn’t flinch from the moral hypocrisy here. It’s clear she respects the patriotism and commitment of the OSS agents who served in the Belgian Congo, but she winds down her book by reflecting on the lives destroyed by uranium extraction. Untold Congolese (as well as a number of OSS agents) died young from radiation poisoning. She leaves the reader to consider the uranium fields of Katanga today. The mines are officially closed, but wildcat mining continues leaving a pock-marked and radioactive landscape. Heavy stuff.
There are some great characters populating Ms. Williams’ narrative. The star of the book is Wilbur Owings “Dock” Hogue. He seemed like a pretty normal dude to be chased around by Nazi agents. He’s interesting to me, mainly because he was an amateur author of pulp fiction. He published Adventure stories under his own name and Mystery stories under the name Carl Shannon, using his own experiences to write a thriller about a spy hunting Nazi diamond smugglers in Africa. He seemed to have a promising little side career going before he died of radiation poisoning at age 42.
I’m even more deeply fascinated by a Frenchman named Jean Decoster, who made his home in Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi) in Katanga. He edited L’Echo du Katanga, the only left-wing newspaper that spoke to the political and economic interests of native workers. His newspaper had a section in Swahili that was meant to be a literacy tool for native workers.
Decoster comes into the story as a cut-out for Dock Hogue. His job was to ferret out information about illegal smuggling channels by trying to buy diamonds. OSS leaders believed standard contraband channels to be uranium’s most likely route into Nazi hands. Industrial diamonds were a good cover. Decoster was entrusted with a large sum of money, which he essentially pocketed. To me, this guy sounds like a folk hero but I haven’t been able to find anything about him on the Internet in English.
The other group of people I think are interesting are the MI6 guys who are double agents for the Soviet Union. I wrote down the names of two or three of them who were stationed in Africa before and during World War II. There’s also Shirley Chidsey, an OSS secretary obsessed with trains and goes on to become an editor for her favorite magazine about trains.
This book would be a great Father’s Day gift for a normcore dad interested in military history or a woke dad interested in the history of Western imperialism.