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.