The incendiary bomb’s global debut was widely applauded and subsequent Cold War deployments little criticized. Vietnam shifted the paradigm.
The jellied gasoline concoction created by Harvard scientist Louis Fieser help defeat the fascists in World War II as part of “Anonymous Research Project No. 4”is mostly recalled today—in a negative light—for its use in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Yet, when 690,000 pounds of napalm was dropped on Tokyo on March 9, 1945, some 87,000 people perished in what was the single deadliest night in the war and the opening round of an incendiary campaign against Japan’s largest cities that in 10 days saw 18.7 million pounds of napalm and ex- in 1942 to plosives incinerate 31 square miles. Few would decry this extraordinary weapon in the arsenal of democracy in World War II or Korea or even when deployed by the French against anti-colonial forces in Indochina. It wasn’t until the U.S. role in Vietnam escalated and napalm’s use skyrocketed, that American public sentiment against it was aroused. In an adaptation from Napalm: An American Biography, author Robert M. Neer examines the beginning of napalm’s slow descent into the realm of weaponry widely condemned as too inhumane for civilized warfare.
AMERICAN NAPALM’S introduction to Vietnam was portentous. On February 27, 1962, two South Vietnamese air force pilots, trained by U.S. advisers, turned their Douglas A-1 Skyraiders and jelly bombs on the presidential palace of Washington’s ally Ngo Dinh Diem in an attempted coup.“The planes made repeated passes over the Presidential Palace at low altitude, dropping napalm (jellied gasoline), firing rockets, strafing,” the Associated Press reported. Officials initially denied the incendiary’s involvement. “There is some sensitivity here on the subject of napalm, which was used against Vietnam by the French,” explained New York Times reporter Homer Bigart. It proved hard to hide.“A check on the attack yesterday showed that the napalm bomb had engulfed the roof of the palace in a sea of flame,” he continued. Damage was so extensive Diem ordered the entire palace, symbol of South Vietnamese executive authority, razed and replaced.
Napalm’s might was apparent to any observer.“A continuous sheet of flames a half mile wide was visible moving across one field,” the AP reported of a February 1963 strike by U.S. pilots against a South Vietnamese village. On May 1, as U.S. military commitments increased, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara watched Vietnamese air force planes drop firebombs in an exercise. Just 48 hours later, reporters filed the first combat reports of napalm strikes by South Vietnamese forces. By the end of the year, its use was routine. “On clear days patrons lunching in the ninth-floor restaurant in the Caravelle Hotel [in Saigon] can watch Government planes dropping napalm on guerrillas across the Saigon River,” Hedrick Smith wrote in the New York Times in December.
In March 1964, publication in London of a photograph of a Vietnamese baby burned by napalm gave some pause but did not produce nearly the reaction that later images did. Washington issued an official statement of concern but denied its instructors had dropped the shell that caused the child’s injury. On March 9, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson expanded napalm attacks to targets in North Vietnam. Gelled fire fell there 11 days later.“Napalm bombs are considered‘conventional ordnance,’”the New York Times explained to its readers when it reported the strike.
Pentagon planners integrated napalm into America’s military bureaucracy as its use expanded. In December 1963, the U.S. Army and Air Force explained in an internal manual that thickened fuel “increases the range of flamethrowers, imparts slower burning properties, gives clinging qualities, and causes flame to rebound off walls or other surfaces and to go around corners.” There were three kinds of napalm powder, the services advised: M1 followed Louis Fieser’s recipe of 50 percent coconut oil, 25 percent napthenic acids, and 25 percent oleic acid; M2 added silica to increase stability; and M4, thickened with an aluminum soap derived from oxidized petroleum, mixed faster and yielded more gel. American equipment included bombs up to 750 pounds, napalm land mines and smaller canisters filled with the incendiary. E.B. Hershberg’s white phosphorus burster design, first tested on the Harvard College soccer field, was the incendiary ignition system of choice.
Some observers applauded the ferocious effectiveness of sticky fire in terms reminiscent of World War II and the Korean War. Nobel laureate John Steinbeck was a particular enthusiast. In January 1966, he proposed the “Steinbeck super ball” in a letter to President Johnson’s special assistant Jack Valenti, who forwarded it to Secretary of Defense McNamara. “I think the most terrifying modern weapon is the napalm bomb,” the novelist wrote. “People who will charge rifle fire won’t go through flames….What I suggest is a napalm grenade, packed in a heavy plastic sphere almost the exact size and weight of a baseball. The detonator could be of very low power—just enough to break the plastic shell and ignite the inflammable. If the napalm is packed under pressure, it will spread itself when the shell breaks. The detonator (a contact cap) should be carried separately and inserted or screwed in just before throwing. This would allow a man to carry a sack full of balls without danger to himself,” Steinbeck advised. America’s national pastime prepared the country’s men perfectly for the weapon.“There isn’t an American boy over 13 who can’t peg a baseball from infield to home plate with accuracy. And a grown man with sandlot experience can do much better. It is a natural weapon for the Americans,” he explained. None appear to have been manufactured.
By 1966 napalm was an integral part of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam. Fighter-bombers dropped perhaps 4,500 tons per month in Indochina overall: about 13 percent of the total weight of munitions delivered by air. The following year, the total approached 5,000 tons per month. It peaked in 1968 at an estimated 5,900 tons monthly. About 388,000 tons of U.S. napalm bombs fell on Indochina in the decade from 1963 to 1973, compared to 32,357 tons used on Korea in just over three years and 16,500 tons dropped on Japan in 1945.Why was the weapon so valuable? “People have this thing about being burned to death,” a pilot said.
New pilots often trained at Dixie Station, an area of the South China Sea off the coast of South Vietnam that hosted a rotating contingent of air- craft carriers. According to military aviation specialist Frank Harvey, Dixie Station was where a pilot learned “how it feels to drop bombs on human beings and watch huts go up in a boil of orange flame when his aluminum napalm tanks tumble into them.”Tacticians considered napalm especially useful for close combat support. Pilots learned to drop 120-gallon tanks, which weighed 800 pounds and were 10 feet long by 3 feet thick, from 50 feet in the air to within 100 feet of targets. The thin tanks tumbled erratically as they fell and blanketed an area about 150 feet long and 50 feet wide in flames. “Anyone who survives a napalm attack is apt to be dreadfully burned and, without first rate medical care, is condemned to a lingering, painful death or, at best, permanent disfigurement,” the New York Times reported in December 1967.
Viet Cong troops, who had no access to combat airplanes, occasionally used napalm in hand-carried flamethrowers, though it was not a large part of their arsenal. “Spraying fire about in great whooshing arcs, the Viet Cong set everything afire,” Time reported of a 1967 atrocity at Dak Son.“Charred children were locked in ghastly embrace, infants welded to their mothers’ breasts.”
Pentagon manuals became more detailed as bombing increased. In 1966 the Army’s Bombs and Bomb Components distinguished “firebombs” from “incendiary bombs” primarily on the basis of shell thickness.“Fire bombs are usually thin-skinned,”the document explained. Pages of schematic drawings detailed precisely what authors meant. By 1970 the service’s Combat Flame Operations Field Manual specified, “Firebombs are used primarily by elements of the tactical air force to support ground operations. Incendiary bombs are generally used by the strategic air force to attack strategic or deep targets.” Both bombs were useful against combatants, the manual continued, but“incendiary”devices could be deployed against “facilities that support enemy operations,” including urban areas. Here, notwithstanding British airpower theorist, law of war expert and napalm defender J.M. Spaight’s precision theories, Army specialists thought area bombing was required: “To be effective as antipersonnel weapons, incendiary bombs must be used in sufficient quantities to overcome existing fire defense measures. Therefore, the object is to surround the personnel with a ‘wall of fire’ to create intense heat and to exhaust oxygen supplies in enclosed spaces.Area bombing must be used to accomplish this.”Dreams of precision urban incendiary bombing died.
Vietnam added an innovation to the tactics of aerial napalm delivery: barrel drops from helicopters, ignited by incendiary grenades. Veteran Bob Parker explained how it was done:“A‘Napalm Drop’ was usually from a CH-47 Chinook cargo copter. [We] hung 20 or so 55-gallon drums in cargo nets under the bird….The pilot would dive on the target until it lined up with the bolts in the rudder pedals, and then release the hook. As the drums cascaded downward, a four-man crew would snatch the nets in through the floor and then stow them away.” Then, Parker continued,“I would lean out the right side and drop a white phosphorus or thermite grenade to try to land with the napalm and ignite it. This sounds really simple, except that a normal drop was at max airspeed and less than 400 feet above the ground.” Results from one such raid underlined the tactic’s effectiveness:“The firing stopped and [a lieutenant] reported that several VC had decided to surrender. They came bursting out of their positions covered in jellied gasoline and ran into the arms of the American troops screaming‘chieu hoi!’ (in effect, ‘I surrender!’). The others stayed in their bunkers and cooked in place.”
Even a massive commitment of this fearful weapon, however, was not enough for victory. In April 1972, the United States deployed napalm in the largest quantities ever seen in history to block a massive North Vietnamese offensive. Time described the frenzied effort: “When a flight of four Phantoms lands on the twin 10,000-ft. runways, the planes quickly taxi to rows of protective concrete revetments. Once a plane is safely parked, the pilot climbs out and is handed a cold can of Budweiser. While he sips the brew, a yellow forklift truck trundles up with armaments, and the ground crew hurriedly rearms the Phantom with an awesome array of weaponry— iron bombs, rockets and napalm canisters. Normally, the entire operation takes only 20 minutes. The beer never gets warm before the pilot climbs back into his Phantom to take off on another sortie.” But the bombardments merely delayed defeat. In 1973 the United States withdrew its last troops. South Vietnam, despite the assistance of perhaps 400,000 tons of napalm dropped on its behalf, surrendered on April 30, 1975. Napalm, and with it America, had lost its first war.
U.S. civilians responded to the use of napalm during the first years of the Vietnam War much as they had during the Korean War: It was not much discussed and,when it was,observers generally explained napalm’s dire effects as an inevitable,if perhaps regrettable, element of war. As America’s involvement expanded in 1965 and 1966, however, debate increased.
British commenters, as during the Korean War, voiced the first objections to American incendiary bombs. Graham Greene, in his 1955 novel The Quiet American, had one of his characters observe,“What I detest is napalm bombing. From 3,000 feet, in safety…you see the forest catching fire. God knows what you would see from the ground. The poor devils are burnt alive, the flames go over them like water. They are wet through with fire.”This was possibly the first criticism of napalm in English literature. Robert Davis, then chairman of the English department at Smith College, dismissed the novel as fatuous in a review for the New York Times: “[Greene’s] caricatures of American types are often as crude and trite as those of Jean-Paul Sartre…a civilization composed exclusively of chewing gum, napalm bombs, deodorants, Congressional witchhunts, celery wrapped in cellophane, and a naive belief in one’s own superior virtue.”
Silence descended on napalm in Vietnam for almost a decade. Then, on April 8, 1963, as the United States expanded its use of the gel, Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell delivered a blistering critique in a letter to the New York Times.“The war which is being conducted is an atrocity. Napalm jelly gasoline is being used against whole villages, without warning,” he wrote. Editors offered a sharp rebuttal: “Napalm has been used by the South Vietnamese air force against real or imagined havens of Vietcong guerrillas. Its use has certainly killed innocent people—as other weapons have done in all wars. American advisors have opposed its employment, on both moral and practical grounds, against all except clearly identified military targets.” Complaints of this nature about napalm, the editors concluded, reflected “an unfortunate and—despite his eminence as a philosopher—an unthinking receptivity to the most transparent Communist propaganda.”
Journalists struggled. To some, napalm’s impact was an enigma. “Tactical air support is used extensively, but it often is difficult to ascertain whether the people killed by napalm or fragmentation bombs were guerrillas or merely farmers,” an AP reporter wrote on July 8, 1962. To others, the gel was counterproductive. French journalist Georges Penchenier, kidnapped and held near Saigon for 16 days in 1964 by the Viet Cong, gave one of the earliest assessments of napalm’s effectiveness, and its costs:“The destructive effects of American planes dropping napalm bombs—the Vietcong are terrified of them—are very great, and the insurgents have no answer to them. Every day, B-26’s strafe the jungle, bombarding anything that looks suspicious and setting fire to what are presumed to be Vietcong crops.” However, he continued: “Whenever a skirmish occurs, the Saigon air force intervenes and whole villages are burned down. How can one expect the countryside not to rally to the insurgents in such circumstances?” Local priest Augustine Nguyen Lac Hoa reached a similar conclusion.“How can we explain to a mother when her child is burned by napalm?” he asked the same year, when he accepted the Ramon Magsaysay Award for outstanding service to Asia. Impartiality, indeed, was difficult given the grievous injuries inflicted by the gel.“One distraught woman appeared at the field medical station holding a child whose legs had been horribly burned by napalm. The child is not expected to live,” Neil Sheehan reported for the New York Times in February 1966.
Pentagon officials, however, had no doubts about their gel’s utility. They labeled critics naive. “The public seems to have an aversion to napalm because people think it’s kinder to blast a man’s head off than to fry him to death,” an unidentified “senior American officer”told New York Times reporter Jack Langguth on March 7, 1965. The next day, 3,500 Marines landed to defend a U.S. air base at Da Nang. By the end of the year, President Johnson had dedicated almost 200,000 U.S. troops to Vietnam.
Objections and praise alternated as American commitments expanded.“I do not remember a single instance of a German military official (not even of an SS or Gestapo official) speaking as openly, callously and shamelessly of the German war crimes as your‘senior officer’ speaks of the frying to death of women, children, helpless peasants and other noncombatants in South Vietnam,” World War II survivor Emily Rosdolsky of Detroit wrote to the editors of the New York Times on March 16, in response to the piece by Sheehan. British parliamentarians compared napalm to poison gas weapons. On the other hand, 33-year-old U.S. Army Captain Joseph House of Birmingham observed of one battle,“If it hadn’t been for the airstrikes…there was a good chance we would have been overrun on our left flank.” When helicopters and fighter-bombers began “pouring napalm over the Vietcong installations,” a reporter recalled of the same clash, the enemy broke and ran.“It was like shooting fish in a barrel” after that, House said.
War correspondent Charles Mohr captured the nation’s uncertainty in a September 1965 New York Times dispatch titled“Air Strikes Hit Vietcong—And South Vietnam Civilians.” He began with an anecdote of “a woman who has both arms burned off by napalm and her eyelids so badly burned that she cannot close them. When it is time for her to sleep her family puts a blanket over her head.”But, he continued,“No weapon is intrinsically bad in war (napalm is one of the very best).” He concluded with this exchange:“‘I wonder if any civilians were killed?’a pilot was asked. ‘Who the hell knows?’ was the answer.”
This was the uncertain context when the Stanford Committee for Peace in Vietnam, a group of about two dozen Stanford University students and faculty, bolstered by a few residents from nearby towns, began to meet. Committee members were “each more or less fitfully active against the war” recalled H. Bruce Franklin, then an assistant professor of English and American literature at the university. “It included a few people who called themselves pacifists, two who called themselves Marxists and most who no longer knew what to call themselves,” he wrote. This small group of thoughtful, committed citizens organized the first protests against the manufacture of napalm, which, in turn, inspired a national movement against the Dow Chemical Corporation, the largest manufacturer of the gel.
The conglomerate United Aircraft Corporation (now United Technologies) owned a firm called the United Technology Center (UTC) that manufactured napalm field mixing units at a rural plant in the small town of Coyote, 15 miles south of San Jose. Stanford Committee members organized a leafleting campaign there in the winter of 1965. It had little effect: Security guards intimidated workers by ostentatiously photographing them, and there was scant publicity because of the facility’s remote location. In January 1966, however, a worker at the firm’s headquarters in Sunnyvale secretly told members of the group that the UTC had won a massive contract to produce napalm itself. Napalm B, developed in 1964, burned hotter, stuck tighter and ignited more reliably than earlier formulations. It was made with 50 percent polystyrene, a synthetic substance manufactured by Dow and 16 other U.S. firms (Dow trademarked one variety as Styrofoam), 25 percent benzene and 25 percent gasoline. In July 1965, an $11 million order for 100 million pounds of napalm went to UTC, and contracts of up to $5 million for at least 25 million pounds each to runners-up Dow and Witco Chemical. Dow constructed a mixing line staffed by 10 employees at a factory in Torrance, near Los Angeles.
Activists saw an opportunity, and seized it.“[W]e thought we could at last do something concrete: stop local production,” recalled Professor Franklin.“And practically all of us saw a great potential for some kind of mass campaign that would swiftly educate people about the ‘immoral’ nature of the war and the illusions of our government.”Company chiefs at UTC agreed to a parley on Jan. 25, 1966. Executives, Franklin wrote, invoked economic necessity, humanity and patriotism to defend the company’s work: “Even if we didn’t want to work on napalm, we would have to just to stay in business….Napalm will help shorten the war….Besides, whatever our government asks us to do is right,”the professor paraphrased their arguments.
Stakes rose in March 1966, when it was revealed that UTC had agreed not only to manufacture napalm, but to deliver it ready to use, in bombshells. Executives announced their firm would sublease two “ugly, marshy” acres of a Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) storage facility for its bomb factory in the port of Redwood City, a town of 56,300 north of Stanford. Because public property was involved, the transaction required approval by the Redwood City Port Commission.
Commissioners met to discuss the matter on March 21 at the port manager’s office in an old frame building set amid unused oil storage tanks. A dozen protesters jammed the manager’s office and left barely enough space for the officials to gather. Outside, 70 more filled a reception room and overflowed into a porch. When a clerk asked for public comments, napalm’s public relations disaster began.“If you could actually see the bodies of men, women and children burned by this weapon, you would act to prevent Redwood City from becoming a name to go down in history with Buchenwald,”declared one protester. Dozens waited in line to comment. Board members decided to reconvene at the larger county office building in downtown Redwood City that afternoon.
About 200 people assembled when the hearing resumed. Debate grew more heated. Olive Mayer, a local engineer who had inspected the ovens at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, asserted that “local government and professional people had to be involved in providing locations for the manufacture of those ovens, just as you commissioners are now called upon to make a decision concerning a napalm factory.” Franklin gave a speech about napalm’s effects on civilians that caused the chairman to crack his gavel and roar,“Get that man out of here.”A pair of policemen dragged the teacher out of the room. Board members hastily voted to approve the sublease. Production was scheduled to begin on May 1 and last for eight months.
City regulations required a referendum on any vote by the port’s board if requested within 30 days by 10 percent of registered voters. The Redwood City Committee Against Napalm launched a petition drive. Journalists found the conflict irresistible. The New York Times’extensive coverage of the West Coast protest stood in sharp contrast to its dismissal three years earlier of Bertrand Russell’s complaints about napalm. A local newspaper reported that the UTC had harassed protesters. The Palo Alto Times editorialized, “While there may be some question about the use of napalm in warfare, it is not a question to be decided by the voters of Redwood City or any other municipality.” NBC and CBS gave the debate national prominence. Passions ran high.
On April 20, 1966, the Committee Against Napalm submitted a petition signed by 3,761 Redwood City voters—well over the 2,416 required. Officials claimed the sublease was not a matter subject to referendum rules and refused to accept the petition. Committee members sued.
Napalm production started while the parties waited for their case to come to trial.Acres of stacked crates of 500- and 750-pound bombshells lined the causeway that led to the plant. Activists organized vigils. Eric Prokosch, then a graduate student, recalled: “The empty aluminum bomb shells were brought in by truck (thoughtfully marked ‘Do Not Drop’); the polystyrene powder, used to thicken the napalm, came in by train and was mixed with the incendiary fuel in vats. The mixture was then piped into bomb cases through a tube, and the filled bombs were loaded on barges, to be towed across the San Francisco Bay to a naval storage site from which they would be shipped to Vietnam.” On May 16 and 17, in the first acts of civil disobedience against napalm, jazz musician Aaron Manganiello, joined by a Palo Alto psychiatrist and, a day later, two Stanford students, lay down in front of trucks delivering empty bombshells. Police arrested them.
On May 20, 1966, Judge Melvin E. Cohn rejected the committee’s filing, largely on a technicality. The judge stated, however:“I have no intention of trying to decide whether the United States should be fighting a war in Vietnam. Nor do I intend to try to decide whether the armed forces should be dropping napalm bombs in that fighting.” With those words, Judge Cohn launched the campaign against napalm that swept the country over the next three years.
Rallies spread during the summer of 1966. As the public’s awareness of napalm grew, the Johnson administration dispatched “truth teams” across the country to explain Vietnam policy. War opponents put napalm front and center. Paul Soglin, a student leader, recalled the discussions at the University of Wisconsin–Madison:“The representative of the Defense Department was asked, ‘What does napalm do?’ So he gave a technical description of napalm, being a gel and so on. The crowd was rumbling.” Students repeated the question.“He says,‘Well, it can catch you on fire.’” Finally, “the General said, ‘Well, you really want to know what it does? It burns. It burns people.’” Truth was served.
The Redwood City protests and antiwar movement failed to hinder napalm’s deployment, but the awareness it spawned and the wide exposure of napalm’s effects on innocent civilians catalyzed its transformation from a hero of World War II into what author Neer calls a “worldwide synonym of American brutality.” Indeed, one of the 20th century’s iconic images was Nick Ut’s photo of Kim Phuc running naked, burned by napalm. It was a marker on napalm’s trajectory toward international condemnation in 1980 when a U.N. weapons convention protocol made incendiary attacks on “concentrations of civilians” a war crime. It took nearly 30 years, but the U.S. finally ratified the sentiment in 2009.
Historian and attorney Robert M. Neer is a Core Lecturer in the Columbia University history department.
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.