Modern warfare changed on a Harvard soccer field in the summer of 1942. On July 4 of that year, Louis Fieser, head of the National Defense Research Committee’s “Anonymous Research Project No. 4,” flipped a switch, triggering a white phosphorous explosion inside a bomb filled mostly with jellied gasoline. The use of flame in war had been on the decline since the spread of gunpowder in the thirteenth century, but Fieser showed that with napalm, planes could drop sticky fire from the sky.
As described by Robert Neer in Napalm: An American Biography (Belknap/Harvard; $29.95), the innovation depended on taxpayer money and academic know-how, and required the fervent corporate desire for more products to sell. To ensure that napalm would have the desired effect, its architects emptied entire villages in the Midwest so they could be test-bombed, and built detailed replicas of German and Japanese homes to see how fast they would burn. White Cheshire pigs were napalmed too, because, Neer writes, their “skin was thought most closely to resemble that of humans.”
Though it is closely associated with the war in Vietnam, napalm was used extensively in World War II, mostly on Japan. On March 9, 1945, US planes dropped 690,000 pounds on Tokyo, killing more than 87,000 people in a single night (more than would die in the atomic blasts at either Hiroshima or Nagasaki). Neer’s account of that bombing is horrific: the fire spread quickly, seizing all the oxygen for itself; everything became too hot to touch; people were lifted from the ground and whipped about by the firestorm’s wind like airborne torches; many who sought refuge from the flames in water were boiled alive; 5,000 feet up, the pilots and crewmen smelled the burning flesh and vomited. It was the beginning of a ten-day campaign that introduced napalm to cities across Japan.
The new weapon’s effectiveness established, it would become an aerial weapon of choice worldwide. Greece dropped it on communist insurgents, European powers on their colonies in Africa and Asia, Brazil on Maoists, Egyptians on Israel, Israel on Palestine, Turkey on Cyprus, India on Pakistan, and Iraq on its Kurds. In Korea, the United States used more napalm than it had dropped in the Pacific in World War II, and in Vietnam it used even more. But as the US public was increasingly exposed to graphic news stories and photographs documenting napalm’s effects on civilians—which appeared everywhere, from left-wing outlets like Ramparts to mass-market glossies like Ladies’ Home Journal—the weapon came to represent all that was needlessly brutal about the American way of war.
An anti-napalm movement started, with protests outside napalm production facilities and on college campuses during visits by representatives of napalm profiteers like Dow Chemical (which also manufactured the defoliant Agent Orange). By 1972, when newspapers around the world ran the now-famous photo of a naked 9-year-old Vietnamese girl named Phan Thi Kim Phúc running down a road with jellied gasoline singeing her flesh, napalm’s demotion from “weapon” to “war crime” was well under way. President Nixon wondered if the photograph was “fixed.”