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Congolese uranium and the Cold War

Congolese uranium and the Cold War
  • PublishedJanuary 13, 2017

Why was the Congo such an intense theatre in the Cold War? Providing a compelling reason in her new book, Spies in the Congo, Susan Williams provides this analysis.

Eight months before Hammarskjöld’s death – on 17 January 1961 – Patrice Lumumba was assassinated in Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi) in Katanga, the southern province of Congo, on the other side of the border from Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). Not only were their violent deaths close in time, but they were also close in terms of territory: it is less than 120 miles’ flying distance between Lubumbashi and Ndola.

What was it about this small region of central Africa that made it the backdrop for the tragic deaths of such prominent men on the global stage?

An important component of the answer to these questions involves a Congolese mine called Shinkolobwe, which has had a profound impact on global history. This mine produced the uranium that was vital to the development of America’s atomic bomb project in WW2 and which was used to build the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan in August 1945.

Shinkolobwe’s ore was the richest in the world: an average of 65% uranium oxide, the active ingredient for nuclear fission; in comparison American or Canadian ore, contained less than 1%. The Shinkolobwe mine was just over 75 miles from the place where Lumumba died, and less than 200 miles from the crash of Hammarskjöld’s plane.

During World War II the US obtained all the uranium available at Shinkolobwe and ensured it was not smuggled to Nazi Germany. It was unable to prevent Union Minière, the huge Belgian company that owned the mine, from supplying Germany with some of the Congolese uranium that had already been exported to Europe, but this was a relatively small amount.

In this atomic arms race, the US beat Germany. After the war, the US engaged in a second race for the ore. But this time, the race was with the Soviet Union. 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 (now DR Congo).

It obtained none from its own territory and only 137 tons from Canada. America’s need for the ore grew more urgent in late 1949, when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, to the profound shock of the US and Britain – who had no idea that the Soviet atomic weapons programme was so well advanced. For four years, the US had enjoyed an absolute monopoly on atomic weapons. Now, the Cold War heated up dramatically.

The ore was exported from the Congo in complete 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 $70m in loans to Belgium for the improvement of the Congolese transportation infrastructure to facilitate the export of the ore.

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, the US 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, who 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 $7m-worth of American military equipment for additional Belgian troops being sent to Katanga, and the CIA planted a source in the area to provide early warning of any problems.

It also initiated “plans and preparations for covert counter-sabotage”. A vast military Belgian and NATO air base was built at Kamina in Katanga, “for the defence of Central Africa against international Communism”.

During World War II the US obtained all the uranium available at Shinkolobwe and ensured it was not smuggled to Nazi Germany.

In 1953, the US acquired 500 tons of uranium 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 it was still the Belgian Congo that provided the largest amount of ore: 1,600 tons. 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 gatecrash the mining zone without the police’s knowledge immediately puts the Union Minière in a state of a larm.”

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 to see that Elisabethville’s newspapers had startling, inchhigh 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.

Towards the end of the 1950s the picture regarding Congolese uranium changed. America was no longer so acutely 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. But it was still 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 US 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. About a week after Hammarskjöld’s death, on 27 September 1961, a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna accepted the Congo as its 77th member. Joseph Kahamba, the Congolese delegate, who was the Minister of Mines, announced that his country, “rich in uranium deposits – was now free to review the agreement which Belgium concluded with the US and UK on the supply of this raw material”.

Underlying Kahamba’s speech was the message that Shinkolobwe may have been sealed, but the Congolese government had the right to make their own decisions about what to do with the mine.

“My policy has always been that at all costs Africa must not be involved in the Cold War.”

Kwame Nkrumah,1960

Ralph Bunche, a senior official at the United Nations, took the same view, especially in relation to the Congo. The former Belgian colony, he said, “has quite enough problems without having the cold war added to them”. But it was unavoidable: The Congo’s uranium had already put the newly independent nation at the heart of Cold War concerns. 

Written By
Susan Williams

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