In This Review

Spies in the Congo: America’s Atomic Mission in World War II
Spies in the Congo: America’s Atomic Mission in World War II
By Susan Williams
PublicAffairs, 2016, 432 pp

The uranium used to build the first U.S. atomic bombs came from the Shinkolobwe mine in Katanga Province in what was then the Belgian Congo. The mine was attractive because it yielded an especially fine grade of uranium, and it would serve as a main source of material for the U.S. nuclear arms program well into the 1950s. The focus of Williams’ engaging book is the challenge posed by transporting thousands of tons of uranium 1,500 miles, by rail and truck, from the mine to the Atlantic coast, and then moving it by ship and airplane to the United States—all in the middle of World War II. After Belgium’s defeat and occupation by Germany, the Belgian Congo formally sided with the Allies. But the colony was not without its Nazi sympathizers, particularly when it seemed as though Germany might win the war. So the Americans also had to make sure that the Nazis did not find a way to tap into the area’s uranium mines for their own nuclear efforts. The story’s main players sometimes seem like stock characters: the handsome young American spy from Idaho; the mean-spirited, racist Belgian colonial official. But plenty of intrigue livens up the narrative, and Williams also offers a useful discussion of the strategic issues both sides faced.