The Legacy of the Involvement of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the Bombs Dropped on Hiroshima and NagasakiJean Bele
On August 6, 2020, people around the world commemorated the 75th year since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. People gathered with flags and flowers to remember the effects and destruction caused by the thermal and nuclear radiation from the bombs.
No such ceremony took place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And the link between the Congo’s uranium and Hiroshima, where more than 200,000 people were killed, is still largely unknown by the people from the three countries involved: The United States that made and dropped the bomb; the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that supplied the uranium used to build the bomb; and Japan that was the victim. Another ignored link is the disastrous health effect on Congolese miners who handled the uranium, working virtually as slaves of the Belgian mining giant Union Meniere du Haut Katanga (UMHK), the owner of the Shinkolobwe mining site in what was then the Belgian Congo, today the Democratic Republic of the Congo 1.
Spies in the Congo: America’s Atomic Mission in World War II, by the British researcher Susan Williams 1 is the sole definitive book on the topic. Equally important, it pays tribute to a sizable number of individuals who labored in obscurity under dangerous conditions to fulfill their mission with no other explanation than that it was “important.”1
Spies in the Congo provides a well researched and detailed history of the efforts of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America’s first strategic intelligence agency and the forerunner of the CIA, to establish itself in the Congo as well as in West Africa. In telling the OSS story, Dr. Williams reveals two other stories as well: She provides a strategic overview of the joint program among the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada to develop an atomic weapon; and unfolds the story of the Congolese people.1
Search for uranium
Nuclear weapons are made with uranium or plutonium. To get uranium, you need to mine it using workers digging this highly radioactive material. This was the forced work done by Congolese miners without proper protection. Although Article 3 of the Belgium Colonial Charter stated that “Nobody can be forced to work on behalf of and for the profit of companies or private,” the Belgium government closed their eyes on the forced labor imposed on Congolese miners.
When the U.S. began the secret Manhattan Project that led to the fabrication of the first nuclear bombs, the uranium mined from the U.S. and Canada yielded ore with less than one percent uranium, which was not enough to build a nuclear weapon. The only mine that had enough uranium with the potential for making nuclear weapons was the Shinkolobwe site in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the richest uranium mine in the world.
When Nazi Germany occupied Belgium in June 1940, Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist who took refuge in London from Nazi Germany, feared that the Nazis might develop a nuclear bomb. On August 2, 1939, Szilard and Alexander Sachs had drafted a letter that Albert Einstein signed and sent to President Roosevelt. Over Einstein’s signature, it warned Roosevelt of the possibility of an incredibly powerful bomb, of Germany’s cessation of all sale of uranium from the Czech Republic mines, and of the uranium resources of the Congo.
General Leslie R. Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, struck a deal with the Belgian government, which was exiled in London at the time, granting them rights to the Shinkolobwe mine for uranium extraction. Edgar Sengier, director of the UMHK, helped with the project. Production at the mine would continue throughout the war, using Congolese workers to do the secret, dirty, dangerous and radiation-steeped work. Several hundred tons of uranium were shipped monthly to the various Manhattan Project sites. Ultimately, the Congolese mine furnished nearly two-thirds of the uranium used for the bomb (nicknamed “Little Boy”) dropped on Hiroshima2, and it also contributed to the production of much of the plutonium used in the bomb (“Fat Man”) dropped on Nagasaki three days later.
The secret race for Congo uranium
By April 1945, only four members of the U.S. Congress had been given any concrete information about the Manhattan Project. Harry Truman was not informed of the Project before assuming the presidency after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945. The contract was secretly signed in October 1939. Correspondence was limited, and the United States Federal Reserve Bank was directed to omit the uranium transaction from its reports. All transactions had proceeded directly between the Manhattan Engineering District and Sengier. The Belgium Ministry of Colonies and the Governor General in Kinshasa (formerly Leopoldville) were not involved. Sengier sold ore to the U.S. containing tons of uranium without Belgium government approval.
This secrecy extended to everything related to Congolese uranium and the Shinkolobwe mine. The Belgian uranium deals were “one of the most tightly kept secrets” of the war, notes Jonathan Helmreich in a detailed study of United States Relations with Belgium and the Congo between 1940 and 19602. A top-secret American Intelligence report published in November 1943 mentioned the Congolese uranium: “The most important deposit of uranium yet discovered in the world is in the Shinkolobwe Mine in the Belgian Congo.”
The Congo’s “known resources of uranium, which are the world’s largest,” the report concluded, “are vital to the welfare of the United States. Definite steps should be taken to insure access to the resources for the United States.”
General Groves was worried about the Nazis trying to get uranium from the Congo. To deal with this threat, Groves turned to the OSS, which had established a station in the Congo. The United States was determined to obtain all the uranium it needed from the Congo, and at the same time deny German attempts to secure any Congolese uranium. The actual acquisition of the uranium ore was not an OSS function; that was accomplished by the U.S. Military, the State Department, and the Foreign Economic Administration. In 1943, the OSS sent a top agent, Wilbur Owings “Dock” Hogue, to the Congo to tackle the problem of smuggling. Hogue went on to become OSS Chief of Station in the Belgian Congo.
Throughout the course of World War II, the OSS deployed 93 agents to Africa. The one who figures most prominently in Spies in the Congo is Hogue, who arrived in Leopoldville in November 1943. By the fall of 1944, Hogue had learned that the feared scenario had occurred: some Belgian companies in the Congo, one of them Union Meniere, had sold uranium ore to the Germans. Over 1,200 people were sentenced to death for such activities, 242 of whom were actually executed. Groves also was compelled to intervene to prevent Belgian officials from exposing the secret relationship with the Allies and, in a secret White House ceremony in 1946, President Truman awarded the Medal of Merit to Edgar Sengier, the New York-based managing director of Union Meniere, to recognize the company’s contribution to the Allied war effort.
In the 1950s, after winning the race against Germany, the U.S. began another race with the Soviet Union and wanted to keep them from gaining access to Congo uranium. Despite strenuous efforts by the U.S. to find alternative sources of rich ore, Shinkolobwe remained its greatest single source. In 1947, according to figures from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. obtained 1,440 tons of uranium concentrates from the Belgian Congo (now DR Congo). The ore was exported from there in complete secrecy. By 1951, the total quantity of uranium obtained by the U.S. was 3,686 tons, of which the largest amount, 2,792 tons, still came from the Congo. As a result, Congolese miners continued to be underpaid and overworked. They were forced to work under secret contracts to produce uranium at extremely low cost for the sake of U.S. national security. 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 effects of the atomic bomb are still being felt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Belgium understood that if it did not share the uranium with the United States they couldn’t expect U.S. support for their colonial rule in the Congo after the war. The U.S. was pushing for direct open trade with the Congo without Belgian participation, and was clear that it would not accept the colonial system if Belgium were blocking the direct trade of uranium. For the Belgians, the American ideas of loosening colonial ties, emancipation of colonies, and ideology in favor of direct free trade with the Congo threatened the future of Belgium in the Congo. In the end, Belgium gave up much power to the U.S. over Congo uranium.
The Congo eventually gained its political independence from Belgium on June 30, 1960. The new prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, made it clear that he would not give the U.S. the same freedom to control Congo’s uranium as had Belgium. On July 11, 1960, the Katanga province where the Shinkolobwe mine was located seceded from the country. UMHK planned the move to secure the uranium production, no matter who would be running the country.
On July 31, 1960, Prime Minister Lumumba reached out to the Soviet Union for assistance after his government’s request was rejected by the U.S. The move worried the U.S., and Lumumba was assassinated on January 4, 1961. The country then entered a five-year civil war, resulting in around two million deaths. That spiral of human disaster is still going on. It is the world’s bloodiest conflict since World War II, in which more than 10 million people have died by atrocity killings, starvation, and disease, as well as the rape of women throughout the country. The Congo is ranked 176 out of 188 for its human development (UN Human Development Program) and 161 out of 180 for corruption (Transparency International).
Health issues for the Congolese population
Several Americans involved closely with the uranium ore died early deaths. Dock Hogue died at age 42 of stomach cancer. His replacement, Henry Stehli, died at age 52 of brain cancer, and Doug Bonner died at age 58. Whether or not their premature deaths were due to exposure to the radioactive uranium ore is left unanswered, as is the fate of the Congolese workers and Union Meniere managers who were constantly exposed to the threat.
Soon after the war, several studies were done to study the effect of the atomic bomb on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki population. But there was surprisingly no research carried out on the long-term effects of uranium ingestion in humans in the extraction site in the Congo. Still, there is no plan today to protect the population from uranium mining activity which will persist for generations. We will never know the number of Congolese victims as the suppliers of the uranium which ended WWII.
From 1939 to 1960, there was no plan surrounding the Shinkolobwe mine site to monitor uranium in drinking water and to deal with the effect of mining activity on agriculture or residential populations. Uranium is a heavy metal with the potential to cause a spectrum of adverse health effects, ranging from renal failure and diminished bone growth to damage to DNA. The effects of low-level radioactivity include cancer, shortening of life, and subtle changes in fertility or viability of offspring, as determined from both animal studies and data on Hiroshima and Chernobyl survivors.
The dust from the sites and the water used for dust control contain long-lived radioisotopes that spread into the surrounding areas. Low radioactive effects can be delayed for decades or for generations and are not detected in short-term toxicology studies. In the atmosphere, radon decays into the radioactive solids polonium, bismuth, and lead, which enter water, crops, trees, soil, and animals, including humans.
The Congo’s total tragedy due to WWII will never be known. The effects of the war on the Congolese people are still being felt to this day. Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation will be the best remedy to avoid this suffering from ever happening again.
Uranium smuggling and terrorist organizations
Increasingly well-organized and funded terrorist organizations which now have easy access to the know-how needed to build a nuclear bomb have declared their intent to seek the materials necessary for weapons of mass destruction. If terrorists can obtain a sufficient quantity of nuclear material, they could design, construct, deploy, and detonate a nuclear bomb. The consequences would be so devastating for the world that it justifies every effort to prevent it.
And the danger of nuclear material smuggling is real in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
While many countries are taking important measures to secure vulnerable nuclear materials around the globe, it is not the case in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To thank and reward DR Congo for their sacrifice that helped the U.S. build the WWII nuclear bombs, America funded the creation of DR Congo’s nuclear center, Centre Regional d’Etude Nucleaire de Kinshasa (CRENK) in 1958. In the late 1970s, a bar of uranium disappeared from the Center, raising concern about security at the site. Moreover, the site of the Centre is facing erosion problems, bringing fear of a landslide that could lead to a wider disaster.
Further, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has long called into question the Centre’s safety and security. The Guardian reported in 2006 that the shutdown research reactor, together with its used fuel, is protected by little more than a rusty barbed-wire fence and a single padlock. To add to concerns, illegal mining of uranium is believed to continue at the shutdown Shinkolobwe mine in southeastern Congo, although the IAEA has tried and failed to inspect the mine.
In addition to its worries about Iran’s nuclear program, the United States fears that raw uranium and processed nuclear material could make its way from the Democratic Republic of Congo into the hands of terrorist networks. A United Nations report in November 2011 revealed that a Rwandan gang operating in Eastern DRC tried unsuccessfully in 2008 to sell six containers of what was claimed to be uranium mined during the Belgian colonial era. American concern was highlighted by the signing in 2007 of an agreement with the DRC aimed at preventing trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials.
- Susan Williams (Public Affairs, 2016), 332 pp, Spies in the Congo: America’s Atomic Mission in World War II
- Jonathan E. Helmreich, United States Relations with Belgium and the Congo, 1940-1960