Napalm: A True American Tale

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Co Rentmeester / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Napalm in action, Vietnam, 1967.

Napalm is one of those American inventions that you wish weren’t, sort of like Agent Orange, killer drones, or nuclear weapons. Sure, their invention might have had to happen eventually, but why should the U.S. have to shoulder credit – culpability? — for being the first to develop ever-better and more lethal weapons? Was that something the Founding Fathers ever envisioned?

Despite its heritage and horror, napalm – the word is a marriage of its two original components, naphthenic and palmitic acids – has played a major role in the history of war. That’s why Robert M. Neer, a historian at Columbia University, elected to write a book about it. Battleland conducted this email chat with Neer earlier this week:

What is the bottom line in your new book, Napalm: An American Biography?

Napalm was born a hero but lives a pariah.

Its story shows how defeat on the battlefield, grassroots protest, vilification in popular culture, regulation under international law, development of alternative weapons, and the rise of a global civilian culture can constrain military power.


Belknap Press

Why did you pick that particular subtitle, “An American Biography”?

First, because this is napalm’s life story, from its birth on Valentine’s Day 1942 to President Barack Obama’s signature on his first full day in office of the first U.S. treaty to limit its use.

Second, because it is an American weapon: it was invented in America and has been used longer, more widely, and to greater effect by the United States than any other country.

Third, because this is a story of America, from global authority at the end of World War II to its increasingly constrained position in a globalizing world.

Sum up napalm’s development, briefly.

It was invented in a top-secret 1942 war research collaboration between Harvard University and the U.S. government, used to devastating effect in Europe and the Pacific in World War II — most notably to incinerate 64 of Japan’s largest cities — and in most major military conflicts after 1945, notably in Korea and Vietnam.

“Napalm,” according to its inventor, means any form of thickened petroleum. Its most recent large scale use was by the United States during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

How is it related, if at all, to the flame-throwers of World War II?

Most of the flamethrowers used in World War II shot napalm: it tripled the range and increased the amount of burning material delivered to the target by almost 10 times, compared to earlier gelled fuels.

Is there a “father of napalm”? If so, tell us a little about him.

Louis Fieser is the father of napalm.

He was 43 years old and the Sheldon Emery Professor of Organic Chemistry at Harvard when his research team invented the incendiary.

He was from Columbus, Ohio, went to Williams College, got his Ph.D. from Harvard, and taught at Bryn Mawr before he returned to Harvard in 1930.

In the mid-1930s, with the help of his wife Mary, who was also a chemist, he published the first of a series of influential textbooks. In 1937, he became a full professor.

In 1939, he was appointed to the prestigious Sheldon Emery professorship and announced the first successful synthesis of Vitamin K — a procedure that had important medical implications because of the role the vitamin plays in blood clotting.

He was a genius, and ultimately authored 341 research papers, including 40 written as a sole author and 36 that he wrote with his wife, and 13 books, many also written with his wife, of which five went through three editions.

He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1940. Many thousands of students took his classes during his almost four decades at Harvard.

He saw his public image damaged as opinion turned against his creation. “We thought you were a great guy, and now you’re a bum,” he summarized his correspondence in a 1967 comment to The New York Times.

Discuss the morality of napalm. Why do lead bullets seem to be viewed as “good weapons,” while napalm – and others, like chemical and biological weapons – seem to be viewed as “bad weapons”? Is there a logic to these groupings? If so, what is it?

I’m not sure I accept the premise of your question quite as you phrase it.

Napalm is legal to use against combatants under international law, for example, while chemical and biological weapons in general are not. It is also illegal to use bullets, to take your example, in certain ways: for example, to execute babies.

To fully understand my view about what happened to napalm, and discussions about its morality, naturally, you need to read my book. I will note, however, that Fieser asserted that he envisioned that napalm would be used against things, not “babies and Buddhists,” as he phrased it.

He likened his research to the role of a gun manufacturer, and denied culpability for unanticipated uses of his creation.

This is what Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the little girl in the 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Terror of War” photograph had to say about this topic when I asked her: “The rules comes from the people who are using it. A knife can be used for good, in the hands of the people who are using it. If you are using that to destroy people, it is so wrong. So terrible, so evil.”

Copyright Daniella Zalcman.

Daniella Zalcman

Robert M. Neer

When was napalm last known to have been used in war?

It was used by U.S. forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

There have been reports that Sudanese forces have also used it more recently, but I haven’t found any definitive confirmations. If your readers have additional information, I would be grateful if they could please contact me through the website I made to accompany my book:

How is napalm supposed to work as a military weapon?

It can be used to incinerate cities as at Tokyo on March 9, 1945 when it kindled fires that incinerated over 87,500 in a night: the greatest cataclysm in the history of war, and more than died in either of the atomic explosions.

In 1945 we “scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined,” U.S. General Curtis LeMay, who directed all three attacks, wrote after the war.

It can also be used with precision on the battlefield: skilled pilots can drop napalm to within tens of yards of desired positions. The film We Were Soldiers shows this kind of delivery (although, in that film, mistaken targeting results in a disaster).

Does it?

Yes, although hydrogen bombs are a more efficient way to immolate a city, and smart bombs are more precise.

How expensive is it?

It is relatively cheap.

Harvard’s “Anonymous Research Project No. 4” development project, at $5.2 million, was over 5,000 times less costly than the $27 billion bill for the Manhattan Project’s two bombs.

Measured solely in terms of development expenses per Japanese city incinerated, napalm cost $83,000 per metropolis, compared with $13.5 billion for each atomic annihilation.

It is still relatively cheap today.

What nations other than the U.S. have used napalm in war?

Many nations with air forces and wars to fight: it is most effectively delivered by air, as discussed in the book. Napalm’s chemistry is so simple the United States didn’t even try to keep it secret.

In 1952, as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg sat on death row for passing atomic secrets, the U.S. Patent Office issued certificate 2,606,107 for “Incendiary Gels” and made napalm’s precise formula available worldwide.

Countries that have used napalm, in addition to the United States, include: Greece (the first use after World War II), France, Britain, Portugal, United Nations forces in Korea, the Philippines, South Vietnam and North Vietnam (in flamethrowers), Cuba, Peru, Bolivia, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, India, Iraq, Nigeria, and Brazil.

Has its use been banned anywhere?

Its use against “concentrations of civilians” has been banned under Protocol III of the 1980 United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. There are at present 106 states parties to the Protocol.

The United States signed it almost three decades after the General Assembly adopted it, on January 21, 2009: President Barack Obama’s first full day in office. America’s ratification, however, is subject to a diplomatic reservation that says it can disregard the treaty at its discretion if doing so would save civilian lives.