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Napalm: An American Biography

 by Robert Neer, Belknap Press, 2013

Created in a Harvard lab in 1942, napalm revolutionized incendiary warfare and helped propel the United States to victory in World War II. President Harry Truman awarded its creator, renowned chemist Louis Fieser, a Certificate of Merit in 1948. Within the space of a generation, however, the incendiary gel became a discredited weapon of dubious distinction and a symbol of unbridled American brutality.

Columbia University lecturer Robert M. Neer recounts in rich detail the extraordinary evolution of napalm from hero in the gilded age of post-WWII American power to pariah in the aftermath of Vietnam in his evocative new book, Napalm: An American Biography.

Experimenting under the auspices of “Anonymous Research Project No. 4,” a top-secret incendiary weapons collaboration between the U.S. government and Harvard, Fieser produced an incendiary gel composed of gasoline, aluminum naphthenate, aluminum palmitate and sawdust on Valentine’s Day 1942. Fieser, borrowing letters from the words naphthenate and palmitate, dubbed his ingenious creation “napalm.”

Sticky, highly combustible and measurably more destructive than thermite, napalm—ultimately made of gasoline, aluminum naphthenate and coconut oil soap, not aluminum palmitate— debuted in Sicily in August 1943. There American troops brandished napalm-fueled flamethrowers and torched a wheatfield suspected of harboring German soldiers. Four months later, napalm-powered flamethrowers were utilized against the Japanese. Napalm tripled the range of previous portable flamethrowers, adhered to human flesh like glue and burned at temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. No Allied munition, in fact, would prove more successful at eliminating stubborn Japanese holdouts in caves and other redoubts during the Pacific campaign.

Bombs loaded with napalm, moreover, provided extraordinary tactical support to Allied troops in Europe and the Pacific. Napalm strikes aided the Allied efforts in Normandy in July 1944, burned German forces trapped in the Falaise pocket and scorched Japanese troops from the Philippines to Okinawa. Opposition within the American military to strategic incendiary bombing gradually receded as well, and in time Americans joined the Japanese, British and Germans in conducting area incendiary attacks on population centers. Abandoning the policy of “precision” bombing for the admittedly less discriminate practice of “area bombing,” American air strategists used napalm to incinerate dozens of Japanese cities, none worse than the apocalyptic bombing raid of March 9-10, 1945. More died in the firestorm that napalm ignited in Tokyo on that fateful night than in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Americans, according to Neer, generally applauded the use of napalm in World War II. Inexpensive and undeniably effective, the gel had saved American lives and had brought U.S. overseas adversaries to heel. Napalm’s use in subsequent conflicts, including the war in Korea, where it was again employed extensively against civilian and military targets, produced only muted criticism despite broader public awareness of its effects on human beings. Nor did the gel, which served under a variety of flags during the Cold War, elicit a great deal of international condemnation.

Vietnam shattered the global status quo, violently and irretrievably. Neer traces this upheaval, and napalm’s undoing, back to a small group of antiwar protesters in California in 1966. Known as the Redwood City Committee Against Napalm, the group sought to block the establishment of a napalm bomb factory in Redwood City. Journalists flocked to cover the story. The group lost the courtroom battle that followed, but its defeat spawned a national campaign against corporate giant and napalm manufacturer Dow Chemical. Students staged protests on college campuses, articles in widely read journals published photographs of burned Vietnamese children, and by 1969 the movement had metastasized into a crusade. Vietnam, said Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan, speaking on behalf of many in the antiwar camp, was the “land of burning children,” and American napalm was to blame.

Neer ultimately moves beyond the protests to examine how antiwar grassroots activism, art, journalism and politics during and immediately after the Vietnam War radically reshaped cultural attitudes about napalm and the United States. Once lauded as a modern marvel, napalm by the 1980s was no longer the heroic slayer of fascism but a “baby burner,” responsible for the iconic image of a naked South Vietnamese girl running to escape the searing pain of an incendiary burn. Meanwhile, the United States, in the eyes of many, was looking less like a “shining city on a hill” and more like barbarous tyranny. “Movies, songs, artworks, poems, books, and articles produced during and especially after the Vietnam War,” Neer observes, “popularized the antiwar movement’s argument and made napalm a worldwide symbol of American brutality.”

Today the United States observes an international covenant restricting the use of napalm and other incendiaries.


Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.