Hey r/history, I’m reading a really good book about the history of the Congo at the moment, and just finished the chapter on World War 2. I learned a really cool story that I would like to share with you.
In 1939, the director of a Belgian uranium mine in the Congo (as it was still a Belgian colony), Edgar Sengier, learned about the military implications of weaponized uranium. Fearing what would happen if the uranium mine or stock fell into the wrong hands, he secretly shipped most of it to a warehouse in New York in 1940. Luckily for him as well, the Governor General of the Congo declared that on the day of Belgium’s fall to Nazi Germany, the Belgian Congo would support the Allies, unlike most of the French colonies that aligned themselves with Vichy France.
Sengier moved to New York and was contacted by the U.S. military in 1942 to buy uranium for the Manhattan Project. He told them that “You can have the ore now. It is in New York, a thousand tons of it. I was waiting for your visit.”
The U.S. Army also secured the remaining 3,000 tons left in the Shinkolobwe mine. The uranium from the Congo was much more plentiful and in much higher quality than the previous uranium being studied by U.S. scientists from North America, and much better and more plentiful than what Germany had access to in Europe.
He was the first non-American civilian to receive the U.S. Medal of Merit. Sengier was also made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Commander of the French Légion d’honneur, and Officer of the Order of Leopold and the Belgian Order of the Crown.
The agreement between the United States, Great Britain, and Belgium lasted 10 years and continued after the war. The uranium agreements in part explain Belgium’s relative ease in rebuilding its economy after the war, as the country had no debt with the major financial powers.
I thought that was super interesting that one man very few people have probably heard of had such an enormous impact on history, and that the thousands of Congolese workers that died and toiled in the uranium mines could have never had any idea how much they were to change the course of world history.
The book is Congo: An Epic History of a People if you’re interested in 600 pages of African history. 🙂
So this is getting a lot more attention that I thought it would! I expected maybe five upvotes. To clarify a few things:
I didn’t mean to necessarily characterize the Belgians as heroic in this story, as they did truly evil things in the Congo. But I think that it’s interesting that because of two Belgian colonial officials, instead of Congo joining the Axis powers like many French colonies joined the Vichy government and the world’s largest and best supply of uranium going to Germany and the Axis powers, it instead went to the United States, irrespective of people’s opinions on nuclear weapons and the use in Japan. Ultimately, they did end up doing a lot of good in that one regard to keep nuclear weapons away from Germany, that I think would have been far more devastating than in the hands of Americans, even if in other ways, they were still oppressors of the Congolese people. History is complicated as is right and wrong, and I think it often in war comes down to a lesser of two evils at times.
Additionally I think sub-Saharan Africa and its people’s role in World War 2 is extremely undervalued and underrepresented topic, as Congolese involvement went well beyond just supplying uranium, but Congolese soldiers also fought Italy in the Horn of Africa, in Egypt, Palestine, and medics served as far as Burma. What should also be taken away from African involvement in WW2 is that the events of the war led to a lot of independence-thinking mindsets and movements that worked towards the end of colonialism on the continent. This is just one chapter of one country in Africa that ended up being in the long run really important for how the rest of history unfolded and I wanted to point out how momentous events in history can be influenced in an unexpected way, like the role of Congo and Belgium is different from what most people would probably expect in regards to the Manhattan Project.