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Napalm, from Harvard to Vietnam

Since its introduction in World War II, where it was used to firebomb Japanese cities, napalm—highly incendiary and nearly impossible to extinguish—has made its way into American consciousness as a symbol of war gone horribly wrong. Perhaps the most striking photograph to emerge from the Vietnam War was of a little girl, Kim Phuc, burnt by napalm, running and screaming.

Dropping napalm on villages full of civilians wasn’t originally the goal. Napalm was invented at Harvard in the early 1940s, a gel named after the combination of naphthenic and palmitic acid that can turn petroleum or any other fuel into a sticky, burning weapon. Its inventor, a chemist who went on to do much good in the medical field, said that he never expected napalm to be used on people, only things. It’s a weapon that was born a hero, became a pariah, and now lingers on as a “war criminal on probation,” according to Robert N. Neer, a visiting lecturer at Columbia University.

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