Spies in the Congo: America's Atomic Mission in World War II

Image of Spies in the Congo: America's Atomic Mission in World War II
Release Date: 
August 8, 2016
Reviewed by: 

The Manhattan Project, the so-called American mission to develop an atomic weapon in World War II, was rightly accorded the highest secrecy of any operation of the Federal government, notwithstanding its infiltration and compromise by apparently multiple Soviet agents, according to the book. The ultimate goal and even the various theoretical and other steps in the process were kept secret by those in the know from those who worked on it.

When it came to the vital resource, uranium oxide, necessary to realize the objective much less complete and deploy a successful working weapon, that secrecy and security remained the order of the day. Given that that resource was in Africa, specifically the Belgian Congo and its Shinkolobwe mine, a colony whose mother country was under German occupation, it was just as vital to obtain it for United States use as it was to deny it to the Germans.

Even with much of Africa remote and still relatively unknown to most Americans in the 1940s, there didn’t seem to be any problem recruiting American personnel necessary to staff a station of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) even as these personnel were recruiting “cutouts”—local residents willing to assist in this operation in West Africa without knowing the real reason behind it—in order to accomplish their mission.

Therein lies the basis of the story in question. The American agents trained in every facet of OSS operations from communications to hand to hand combat.  Over the course of two years, many were engaged, all while occasionally suffering the debilitating effects of malaria, dysentery, and other illnesses, in the intrigues and machinations of dealing with the Belgian colonial administration, its security apparatus and industrialists, and their possibly dubious loyalty to the Allied cause.

At the same time, it was necessary to avoid blowing one’s cover as a “special assistant” to the American consul, silk and fabric expert, or even an ornithologist and risk becoming persona non grata to the state and being expelled as a foreign agent, notwithstanding any possible lack of wartime neutrality on the part of the colony.

This was evident to the extent that one of the main figures, Wilbur “Dock” Hogue, whose cover was eventually blown, forcing him to leave the country, was the target of three attempts on his life by Belgian operatives while working on an “illicit diamond smuggling” operation.

As it was, diamonds, primarily, were the cover, or euphemism as it were, employed by the these agents as a means of diverting attention from their real goal, essentially monopolizing uranium ore production, purchase, and transportation to the United States. Congolese ore was the finest available in the world at the time, dwarfing the quality of the sources found in the United States and Canada.

Additionally, noted in this story is the history of the Congo prior to the war, the Congolese themselves, their oppression by the Belgians, labor strikes and work stoppages for better pay and conditions and, as a result of mining the uranium ore, the health effects, present and future.

As one would expect in a study of undercover work and espionage, there is considerable use of organizational acronyms, code names, and numbers, and one should be cautioned, and it is occasionally necessary to consult the included list of abbreviations and code words as well as the cast of characters in the table of contents in order to maintain individual separation and avoid confusion over the course of reading.

Extensively researched as a result of the recent declassification of many files, American, British, and Belgian, the book is well written in spite of the caution mentioned above. It contains a section of 42 photographs and illustrations. The three maps show the air and sea transport routes between the United States and West Africa, Africa at the time of the war (including the Belgian Congo’s location) and the overland routes employed to ship the uranium ore.

Given that this story has been little told or covered previously, it is a commendable addition to the literature on the subject. If nothing else, it shows the single minded purpose, if not mania, of the United States to win the race for the bomb once the energy and destructive potential of such technology became apparent.

Unfortunately, American principles of popular self-determination were sacrificed in this effort and not surprisingly, the Congolese people, ultimately pawns in the Cold War, got left behind, a legacy which has continued to the present day.