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Napalm, from Harvard to Vietnam

In 1942, Harvard scientists conducted the first test of a napalm bomb in a pond dug behind the Business School. Photo from Louis Fieser, “The Scientific Method.”

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.


Neer’s new book, “Napalm: An American Biography,” is the first comprehensive history of napalm, and tells the story of how a weapon deemed so useful in World War II and Korea hit a turning point in Vietnam. During that time it became the target of antiwar protestors, who mounted a nationwide campaign to stop Dow Chemical Co. from manufacturing it.

Today there is an international consensus against the use of napalm anywhere near civilians, but it’s still part of military arsenals, and has been used by America as recently as the Iraq invasion. It has survived, too, in popular culture as a symbol both of power and brutality. It’s no surprise that the pioneers of one brand of extreme punk rock is a band called Napalm Death.

Neer spoke with Ideas from his home in Cambridge about his new book.

IDEAS: I understand that the first napalm bomb was tested on the Harvard College soccer field. Please tell me no Harvard students were harmed.

Harvard scientists collected the remnants after the explosion. Photo from Louis Fieser, “The Scientific Method.”

NEER: No, no. They knew what they were doing. The Harvard maintenance staff members dug a big, shallow pool and built a little earthen embankment, and the Cambridge Fire Department sent some pumper trucks and they filled that pool with water. Then they put the napalm bomb in the middle of that, and they had wires that went to the edge so they could push a button and blew up the bomb remotely. It didn’t go outside of the pool. Though it apparently did freak out some people who were playing on the nearby tennis courts.


IDEAS: Napalm was used during World War II to firebomb Japanese cities, and you argue that this fact made dropping an atomic bomb seem more acceptable, in a way.

NEER: People at the time didn’t really appreciate that dropping the bomb was a significant departure from actions they had taken before, which seems strange to us today. But when you understand that many dozens of Japanese cities had already been incinerated by napalm bombs prior to the detonation of the atomic bombs, and when you further understand that the damage of the atomic bomb was indistinguishable—or in some cases even less than—the fires that were created by napalm, then it helps to explain how it was perceived as just one bomb that would accomplish more efficiently what you could do with several hundred thousand napalm bombs.

IDEAS: America also had the bizarre idea to attack Japan with napalm-armed bats?

NEER: It was called Project X-Ray....The US spent about $24 million, in current dollars, on this plan to arm millions of American bats with tiny napalm time bombs and transport them to Japan in giant, ventilated bomb shells that would be cooled to keep them in hibernation. The shells would then be released, pop open, and the bats would revive from contact with the warm air, flying away and sheltering in houses or buildings where they would then detonate 15 to 30 minutes later. They did lots of testing and had several airplanes requisitioned for the project, but unfortunately the only thing they managed to destroy was a brand new US Army Air Force base in New Mexico.


IDEAS: You write that by the 1960s and 1970s with Vietnam, napalm became iconic, something palpably real for Americans.

NEER: Two things happened with Vietnam. For one thing, the United States lost the war, and since napalm had become for the protest movement a symbol of our misguided actions in Vietnam, this loss had profound consequences for the way people perceived the weapon. And the second thing was that coverage of the Vietnam War and specifically descriptions of the effect of napalm on civilians were far more dramatic and extensive than in World War II. In World War II, much of napalm’s impact was in Japan, where there wasn’t much opportunity for correspondents to report on what was happening at the time, because they couldn’t go there.

IDEAS: The inventor of napalm, Louis Fieser, seems to have had a complicated relationship with his invention.

Robert Neer.

NEER: Fieser said that he never imagined napalm would be used against people. He thought it would be used to target things. And he devoted his entire life to medicines and chemicals that could help people. He helped synthesize Vitamin K. He was a beloved teacher to students at Harvard. He was part of team that determined smoking was a cause of death. So he’s a complex person. But with respect to his assertion that he never thought napalm would be used against people, it’s a little bit hard to completely credit that, since many of the tests that they did with the gel that they invented were on residential buildings, specifically on models of German and Japanese houses. The man was a genius, so it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t see the obvious implications of how it would be used.


IDEAS: You also mention in the book that napalm experienced a kind of cultural revival after 9/11.

NEER: After 9/11 there is a strain of the culture that celebrates napalm’s power. For example, if you play video games, like me, you know that napalm add-ons and weapons systems are very powerful. And the word itself has lost some of its specific historical allusions and has become a synonym for anything that’s really extreme. For example, John Mayer said his love life with Jessica Simpson was like “sexual napalm.” Instead of being a horrifying symbol of war gone wrong, it was a patriotic example of American martial prowess.

IDEAS: Today, you call napalm is a “war criminal on probation.”

NEER: In the 1980s, the UN General Assembly adopted a treaty that defined the use of napalm or other incendiary weapons against concentrations of civilians as a war crime, even if there were military facilities there as well. At that point, napalm became a war criminal when used directly against civilians, but only with respect to that type of use, and therefore on probation. It’s still not illegal to use napalm under current international law in many contexts.


Gal Beckerman is a journalist and author. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” was named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post in 2010, and has been released in paperback.