February 1942. Just two months after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, at a dark time of defeat and anxiety for America, a bright spot for the military: Harvard researchers led by revered chemist Louis Fieser developed an incendiary weapon that would burn longer than traditional weapons, stick to targets, and extinguish only with difficulty. It was cheaper and more stable than existing alternatives, could survive extremes of hot and cold in storage, and could be mixed by soldiers on the battlefield.
Christened napalm, the deadly new form of thickened hydrocarbons helped win victory for the Allies in World War II. Indeed, although it was used extensively in both Europe and the Pacific, napalm was particularly effective against Japan as it fueled flamethrowers used against imperial troops and was dropped in bombs that incinerated dozens of Japanese cities and killed hundreds of thousands more Japanese than the atomic bombs -- at a fraction of the cost.
A few years later, U.S. forces dropped more napalm on enemy cities during the Korean War than was used in the Second World War. Napalm strikes followed in short order in Greece and numerous other countries from Kenya to Brazil. There was little outcry about the use of this horrific weapon as it won wars.
But napalm lost much of its luster during the increasingly fraught American war in Vietnam. Gruesome photographs of napalm wounds borne by Vietnamese civilians, including small children and infants, stoked the antiwar movement in the United States, and sparked student demonstrations against manufacturer Dow Chemical. After the war, popular culture from books to poems to music and Hollywood movies made the incendiary a monster, and international lawyers codified norms that restricted its use against civilians.
Since then, the use of napalm has been disfavored and restricted under law, although recent reports indicate that napalm-like weapons have killed civilians, including school children, in the Syrian conflict.
For the first time, historian Robert M. Neer tells the complete story of napalm from its American birth and successful use in war to subsequent revulsion and legal restriction in his book Napalm: An American Biography (Belknap Press, Harvard). In this wide ranging cultural and social history of napalm, Dr. Neer provides the historical context of napalm in the history of fire as a weapon of war; sets out technical details on chemical and engineering issues; traces the history of napalm from war “hero to pariah;” explores moral and legal implications of its use; and offers an unflinching account of the human cost of this powerful incendiary in war after war in the past 70 years.
Critics have praised Dr. Neer’s groundbreaking book for its original research, vivid writing, and measured, balanced approach to the history. Historian John Fabian Witt, author of Lincoln’s Code, for example, wrote: “Napalm is a revelation. In a story that takes us from Harvard Stadium to Vietnam, Robert M. Neer retells the past 70 years of American history through a single extraordinary and terrible invention. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the American way of war and its humanitarian dilemmas.” And in Dissent, Thai Jones remarked: “Robert M. Neer's clear-eyed and harrowing new account surveys this infamous technology from both perspectives. This is history, in a literal sense, from above and below. Using napalm as a symbol for American global influence acutely demonstrates the political trajectory of a superpower, from impetuous upstart to tortured giant to--finally -- chastened hegemon.”
Dr. Neer is a Core Lecturer in the History Department at Columbia University specializing in the history of the United States in the context of 20th and 21st century globalization, with a special focus on U.S. military power. He received his Ph.D. in History in 2011, his M.Phil. in 2007, and a J.D. and M.A. in 1991, all from Columbia. His current book project is a global history of the U.S. military, based on a Columbia course he has taught titled “Empire of Liberty.”. In his 14-year hiatus from Columbia after earning his law degree, he worked in international business and politics in London, Los Angeles, Singapore, Hong Kong and Boston. He also is the author of Barack Obama for Beginners, and his journalism has appeared in The Boston Globe, the Asian Wall Street Journal, and other periodicals and websites.
Dr. Neer recently talked by telephone from New York about his book and research on napalm.
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Robin Lindley: What prompted your interest in the history of napalm?
Dr. Robert Neer: I lived overseas for a long time in Hong Kong, Singapore and London. As a result of that