[Marxism] Napalm invented at Harvard University

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 21 06:34:52 MST 2013

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Thursday, February 21, 2013

By Peter Monaghan
The Weapon That Sears Flesh

In an iconic 1972 photograph from the Vietnam War, a naked 9-year-old 
girl runs screaming from a bombing, her skin burning from the napalm 
attack on her village. The image helped rally opposition to the weapon's 
use in Vietnam and beyond.

Yet, with all napalm's notoriety, Robert M. Neer's Napalm: An American 
Biography, forthcoming from Harvard University Press, is marketed as the 
first history of the incendiary gel. It demonstrates that napalm has had 
far more severe an effect, and far more curious a life, than is commonly 

Napalm, in raining hellfire on Vietnamese villagers, brought the United 
States infamy but not victory, Neer writes. And yet few historians have 
asked how it emerged and became so terrifying a weapon.

"The most striking thing about my whole project, for me, was the 
silence, as I came to call it," says Neer, by phone from New York. So 
little has been written about napalm that "basically the best public 
source of information at the moment is Wikipedia, I would say, which is 
really quite amazing."

Neer had no doubt that napalm's story was worth telling. The author, a 
lawyer and core lecturer in history at Columbia University, writes that 
the explosive, embraced by U.S. commanders as a means to stop German and 
Japanese war efforts dead in their tracks, was "born a hero but lives a 
pariah. Its invention is a chronicle of scientific discovery as old as 
Yankee ingenuity and as modern as the military-academic complex."

Napalm's history began at Harvard University, where it owed its creation 
to Louis Fieser, a brilliant organic chemist who had been entrusted with 
a secret war-research project. The first demonstration took place on a 
soccer field near Harvard Stadium, on July 4, 1942. Using such tools as 
a meat grinder from a Harvard dining hall, Fieser developed a method of 
exploding thickened petroleum into 2,100-degree "burning gobs of sticky 
gel," as he put it.

The weapon was later tested on life-sized replicas of German and 
Japanese houses, and shaved white Cheshire pigs. Fieser and his 
colleagues even tried to develop a method of arming Mexican free-tailed 
bats with small amounts, putting the animals into clustered containers, 
flying them over Japanese cities at night, and then parachuting them 
down into warm air, where the bats would awaken, wiggle free, and 
explode inside houses. Ultimately the effort failed; the bats just 
wouldn't cooperate, and many died even before their release. In one 
instance, armed bats blew up a test facility. After many millions of 
dollars of expense, the project was called off: "uncertainties involved 
in the behavior of the animal," one observer reported.

Throughout their development of napalm, Neer says, Harvard scientists 
steered around any discussion of its morality.

The use of incendiary weapons dates back to ancient times: flaming 
arrows, fiery mud poured over city walls onto attackers, foxes set 
alight and driven into fields of crops, increasingly lethal 
flamethrowers. In 1937, German planes devastated the Basque town of 
Guernica with incendiary bombs.

In 1945, the U.S. military used napalm, recently perfected and far more 
sophisticated and lethal than earlier incendiary devices, to kill about 
90,000 citizens of Tokyo and to incinerate 64 other Japanese cities. 
Neer notes that Gen. Curtis LeMay, who directed the incineration of 
Tokyo and the atomic-bomb attacks later that year, wrote after the war 
that his forces had "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."

The United States gave Greece napalm so it could bomb Communist 
positions in 1948, and American forces used it during the Korean War. 
Many other deployments followed before its infamous use in Vietnam.
The Weapon That Sears Flesh

Harvard's role resulted from an innovation in weapons development. In 
1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set up the National Defense 
Research Committee to coordinate collaborations among military, 
industrial, and academic personnel. It was, says Neer, the beginning of 
the military-industrial-academic "complex," providing many thousands of 
scientists with virtually unlimited funds for the atomic bomb and other 

Louis Fieser's boss and, earlier, instructor at Harvard was by then the 
university's president, James B. Conant, who nurtured Harvard's 
prominent role in the new approach. He described it as "the beginning of 
a revolution" that would transform the relationship of the university to 
the federal government.

Conant had the stomach for napalm's effects. Late in his career, he 
mused that he did not see "why tearing a man's guts out by a 
high-explosive shell is to be preferred to maiming him by attacking his 
lungs or skin," and that civilian casualties were "not only a necessary 
consequence of bombing, but one might almost say an objective."

Neer believes that the paucity of scholarly analysis of napalm may be 
due to its fading as a continuing or immediate threat to the West, 
particularly by comparison with nuclear weapons. That diminished danger 
was cited in 1980, when United Nations delegates nonetheless outlawed 
napalm's deployment against civilians as part of the Convention on 
Certain Conventional Weapons. The need for such an agreement became 
apparent when Serbian forces used napalm in 1994, as did the United 
States in Iraq in 2003, according to Neer. (The U.S. military's denials 
of that use depend on ignoring the generic definition of napalm as any 
kind of "thickened incendiary," he says.) U.S. officials did not sign 
the U.N.'s napalm provision until 2009.

Neer considers the U.N. agreement an optimistic sign: "A global 
consensus has been produced that even the mighty United States, after 
decades of trying to avoid the issue, has finally, at least to some 
degree, accepted." he says. "The consensus of the world is that napalm 
should not be used against concentrations of civilians."

When Neer took napalm as his subject, primary sources, including 
military, industrial, and scientific documents, proved easy to find. 
They included Fieser's memoir, The Scientific Method: A Personal Account 
of Unusual Projects in War and in Peace (1964), out of print but 
available in research libraries. Neer's biggest challenge, he says, was 
to frame his analysis and narrative because so little scholarly 
interpretation of the history existed.

The subject appealed to him in part because he felt a personal 
connection to the events: The lab where Fieser did his first experiments 
with napalm, near Harvard Square, "was a block away from the lab where 
my mom worked as a biochemist at Harvard Medical School," he says. "I 
literally grew up going to the library a block away."

He also knew, of course, that napalm figured commonly in movies, songs, 
and other works of popular culture, particularly in video games, as an 
emblem of destructive power. In the minds of creators of such works, as 
in the experience of napalm's millions of targets, the weapon had become 
"a worldwide synonym for American brutality."

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