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Robert M. Neer
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Napalm was invented on Valentine's Day 1942 at a secret Harvard war research laboratory. It created an inferno that killed over 87,500 people in Tokyo-more than died in the atomic explosions at Hiroshima or Nagasaki-and went on to incinerate 64 Japanese cities. The Bomb got the press, but napalm did the work. Robert Neer offers the first history.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-07545-0
    Subjects: History, Political Science, Law, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Prologue: Trang Bang Village, South Vietnam, June 8, 1972
    (pp. 1-4)

    Trang Bang, thirty miles northwest of Saigon, shuddered under artillery shells on the morning of June 8, 1972. It was the third day of a fierce battle between Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army infiltrators, who had seized the town, and South Vietnamese army units that had surrounded them. Rotors thumped. Propellers roared. Machine guns echoed in the streets. Smoke filled the air. Phan Thi Kim Phúc, nine years old, huddled with her mother and father, aunts, young brothers, cousins, and neighbors, about thirty villagers in all, in two outbuildings at a temple complex on the edge of town. A...

  4. HERO

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 5-6)

      America’s first Independence Day of World War II, July 4, 1942, was idyllic at Harvard University. On campus tennis courts nestled between the college soccer field’s verdant green and the golden dome of the Business School library, players in whites gathered for morning games. They volleyed as university maintenance workers armed with shovels arrived, cut into the field, and built a circular parapet a foot tall and sixty yards in diameter. Fire trucks from the City of Cambridge rumbled up, and men flooded the circle to make a wide pool four to nine inches deep. Revelations 22.2—“On each side...

    • 1 Harvard’s Genius
      (pp. 7-28)

      Harvard’s soccer-field test was one of the first progeny of the “military-academic” and “military-industrial” unions between academia, business, and the armed forces created after 1940 by the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC). Vannevar Bush, cofounder of armaments giant Raytheon and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) electrical engineer, conceived the system. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established it on June 27, 1940, with a budget of about $100 million. In addition to napalm, the committee supervised creation of the atomic bomb, radar, sonar, proximity fuses, bazookas, amphibious landing craft, and some 200 other projects. By the war’s end, five years later,...

    • 2 Anonymous Research No. 4
      (pp. 29-44)

      Fieser’s team was already off and running. The professor stopped teaching and threw himself full time into incendiary weapons development, listed as “Anonymous Research No. 4” in Harvard’s ledger. University funds paid his salary. A $5.2-million NDRC grant, in today’s dollars, covered research expenses.¹

      An improved metric was the first requirement for a comprehensive investigation. Researchers moved their burning-test apparatus out of the basement window wells and into a glass-walled room-within-a-room in the Gibbs Chemistry Laboratory on the third floor of the same building. Physicist Theodore W. Richards designed the facility to house precision balances for atomic weights—work for...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • 3 American Kamikazes: Suicide Bomber Bats
      (pp. 45-51)

      A plan to turn millions of bats into suicide bombers bearing tiny napalm time bombs was the most spectacular of the special projects at Louis Fieser’s Harvard laboratory. Dr. Lytle S. Adams, a Pennsylvania dentist, pilot, and inventor conceived the idea when he heard about the Pearl Harbor attacks on his way home from a visit to the bat-filled Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. In the late 1920s, Adams patented a system for nonstop pickup of mail sacks by airplanes using a weighted cable and a special pickup rope. He organized the system as a business, and caught the attention...

    • 4 We’ll Fight Mercilessly
      (pp. 52-74)

      American strategists had little interest in incendiary weapons after World War I. Gas, as Louis Fieser’s research directives demonstrated, was deemed the weapon of the future. Flamethrowers seemed particularly problematic because operators ran terrible risks and most of their fuel burned before it hit its target. “Taken all in all, the flame thrower was one of the greatest failures among the many promising devices tried out on a large scale in the war,” Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) chief Amos Fries wrote in 1921. “[I]t is easy to see how service in the [German] flaming gun regiments is apparently a form...

    • 5 The American Century
      (pp. 75-86)

      A windstorm ripped the skies over Tokyo on the night of March 9, 1945. Gusts of sixty miles per hour roared through narrow streets and over wooden houses that sheltered the city’s millions. Blasts rose to eighty miles per hour as midnight approached.¹

      Far at sea, sentries on Japanese navy ships heard the roar of hundreds of U.S. bombers as they flew north at low altitudes. Radar stations on the Bonin Islands, 600 miles south of Tokyo, also detected the attackers. Warnings flashed, but it was unclear exactly where the airplanes were going. It was not until just after midnight...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 87-90)

      On Friday, June 2, 1967, as war loomed in the Middle East, the U.S. Navy spy shipLiberty,a grey warship jammed with electronic eavesdropping equipment and armed with four heavy-caliber machine guns on its deck, departed Spain for “Point Alpha.” Her destination was a map coordinate in international waters about thirteen miles off the coast of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, east of the city of el-Arīsh, and near the Egypt-Israel border. Orders from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who controlled the intelligence vessel from above the normal chain of command, directed it to sail west along the coast toward the...

    • 6 Freedom’s Furnace
      (pp. 91-108)

      Incendiary gel was a revelation embraced around the world after World War II. Louis Fieser’s devastatingly simple chemistry was so obvious, once demonstrated, that the United States didn’t even try to keep it secret. In 1946, the professor and his colleagues published a thorough discussion of their achievement in the journalIndustrial and Engineering Chemistry. 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.¹

      Governments wealthy enough to control air forces rushed to exploit the marvel. America...

    • 7 Vietnam Syndrome
      (pp. 109-125)

      American napalm’s introduction to Vietnam was portentous. On February 27, 1962, two South Vietnamese air force pilots, trained by U.S. advisors, turned their Douglas A-1 Skyraiders and jelly bombs on the presidential palace of Washington’s ally Ngo Dinh Diem in an attempted coup. “The planes made repeated passes over the Presidential Palace at low altitude, dropping napalm (jellied gasoline), firing rockets, strafing,” the Associated Press reported. Officials initially denied the incendiary’s involvement. “There is some sensitivity here on the subject of napalm, which was used against Vietnam by the French,” explainedNew York Timesreporter Homer Bigart. It proved hard...

    • 8 Seeing Is Believing
      (pp. 126-133)

      A trio of articles published in January 1967 described napalm’s effects on South Vietnamese civilians, especially children, to a mass U.S. audience for the first time. They reenergized the movement. Magazines at opposite ends of U.S. journalism, geographically, historically, and demographically, broke the story: on the one hand, five-year-oldRamparts,from the West Coast, with an audience of about 100,000; on the other, the eighty-four-year-oldLadies Home Journaland sixty-four-year-oldRedbookwomen’s periodicals, edited in New York, with circulations of 6.8 million and almost five million, respectively. All concluded that napalm, far from the modern marvel described by earlier correspondents,...

    • 9 Indicted
      (pp. 134-148)

      Towering political thunderheads had gathered above napalm by the end of the summer of 1967. Its effect on civilians was increasingly widely understood. The war was burning hotter: draft boards pulled in 119,265 inductees in 1963; 112,386 in 1964; 230,991 in 1965; and 382,010 in 1966, the most since the Korean War. Dow Chemical was as close as a campus recruiting visit or, as Eric Prokosch noted, local supermarkets. Ferocious clips of combat appeared nightly on television. Passions ran high. “Perhaps if you accept the war, all can be justified—the free strike zones, the refugees, the spraying of herbicide...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)

    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 149-150)

      Napalm made its mass-market screen debut in the 1979 blockbusterApocalypse Now,the first film to show a napalm strike to a global audience. Its power was undeniable, but the results it achieved proved illusory on examination, or even counterproductive. Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall, ordered a daybreak assault on Charlie’s Point at the mouth of the fictional Nung River. His objective was to secure a famous “point break” wave formation, where currents met the land, for champion surfer and patrol boat crewman Lance Johnson. A secret mission by Special Forces captain Benjamin Willard, played by Martin...

    • 10 Baby Burners
      (pp. 151-164)

      During and immediately after the Vietnam War, U.S. writers, artists, musicians, and many leading politicians, adopted the thesis first articulated by the Redwood City protesters: napalm was cruel, lamentably American, and a metaphor for defeat in Vietnam. Arbiters of popular culture, led by Hollywood, developed this message about weapon, country, and conclusion in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and sold it to hundreds of millions of people worldwide. By the mid-1980s “napalm” had acquired a slang meaning that connoted almost anything extreme—with an underlying implication of violence. After September 11, 2001, as demands for vengeance swept the country,...

    • 11 Trial of Fire
      (pp. 165-173)

      International lawyers largely ignored napalm until the Vietnam War began to turn against the United States. As it became clear, however, that the war would end in an American defeat, or even debacle, a global effort to regulate the gel so intimately associated with U.S. involvement in Indochina gathered strength. Initial legal criticisms came in 1965 from Soviet Bloc countries. American diplomats dismissed them as propaganda. Investigations under the broader auspices of the United Nations, however, began in 1968 and 1969. Groups of government experts met to discuss napalm from 1972. North Vietnamese attacks intensified, U.S. withdrawals accelerated, and “The...

    • 12 The Third Protocol
      (pp. 174-192)

      Vietnam shattered this postwar consensus, and ushered in years of wrangling that ended in the world’s first treaty to criminalize napalm deployments under particular circumstances.

      Soviet Bloc countries, arrayed against the United States and its allies in Vietnam, raised the first objections. In April 1965, as napalm bombing increased dramatically in Indochina, a joint communiqué issued by the USSR and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam, condemned “the use of barbarous weapons of annihilation, including napalm bombs, against the peaceful population.” A few months later, on January 24, 1966, the president of North Vietnam specifically protested napalm attacks...

    • 13 Judgment Day
      (pp. 193-207)

      It took about two decades after America’s defeat in Vietnam for the arguments advanced by protesters in the late 1960s to percolate around the world and coalesce into a near-universal antipathy to napalm backed by international law. During that time, military forces deployed the incendiary on every continent except North America, Australia, and demilitarized Antarctica: jelly bombs fell in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe. Gradually, however, what started as articles, artworks, and protest signs in Redwood City, New York; Madison, Wisconsin; and napalm’s birthplace Cambridge, Massachusetts, spread throughout popular culture and became a consensus—a kind...

    • 14 The Weapon That Dare Not Speak Its Name
      (pp. 208-222)

      On January 6, 2003, the American modular cargo delivery system ship S.S.Cape Jacobdocked in Kuwait. U.S. sailors and civilian contractors boarded and began a series of twenty-four-hour shifts to unload napalm, hand grenades, and bombs for the Third Marine Air Wing (MAW). By early February, as Secretary of State Colin Powell reviewed his speech on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction for the United Nations Security Council, and Pentagon planners announced that a bombing wave could quickly break the Iraqi army, the work was almost complete. “Everything from hand grenades to 2,000-pound bombs and napalm are shipped, ready for...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
  7. Epilogue: The Whole World Is Watching
    (pp. 223-228)

    Napalm was conceived in truth, the motto of America’s oldest university, and born in Boston, the cradle of liberty. Its nationality is American. Although it has fought under many flags in most of the world’s major military conflicts since its invention, it has burned more people, across more of the earth’s surface and over a longer period of time, in the name of the United States than in that of any other nation.

    “Wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us,” John Winthrop, another famous Bostonian, prophesied in 1630.¹ His prediction,...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 231-300)
  9. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 301-304)
  10. Index
    (pp. 305-311)