Napalm: The Devilish Brew That Changed War

A napalm strike erupts in a fireball near U.S. troops on patrol in South Vietnam, 1966 during the Vietnam War. (AP Photo)  ** zu unserem Paket: 1968 Jahrestag **

A napalm strike erupts in a fireball near U.S. troops on patrol in South Vietnam, 1966 during the Vietnam War. (AP)

Napalm is a devilish brew of jellied gasoline that sticks to human skin and burns all the way to the bone. It was created in a lab across the river on the campus of Harvard University, at the height of the Second World War.

The U.S. military used the new invention to completely destroy 64 Japanese cities with firebombs. They used it in Korea too. And was images of flame-scarred civilians in Vietnam that helped to turn the public opinion against that conflict.

It’s killed more people than nuclear weapons — more than 87,500 in one night in Tokyo alone — and it was used as recently as the Iraq War. It is no wonder that Napalm has seared its way into our popular culture.


Bob Neer, lecturer in the History Department at Columbia University and the author of a new book Napalm: An American Biography.


Boston Globe “Dropping napalm on villages full of civilians wasn’t originally the goal. Napalm was invented at Harvard in the early 1940s, a gel named after the combination of naphthenic and palmitic acid that can turn petroleum or any other fuel into a sticky, burning weapon. Its inventor, a chemist who went on to do much good in the medical field, said that he never expected napalm to be used on people, only things. It’s a weapon that was born a hero, became a pariah, and now lingers on as a “war criminal on probation,” according to Robert N. Neer, a visiting lecturer at Columbia University.”


Here is some video shot from an airplane of napalm being used against targets in Vietnam.


Warning: Some photos of the use of napalm are graphic.

In this June 8, 1972 file photo, bombs with a mixture of napalm and white phosphorus jelly dropped by Vietnamese Air Force Skyraider bombers explode across Route 1, amidst homes and in front of the Cao Dai temple on the outskirts of Trang Bang, Vietnam. In the foreground are Vietnamese soldiers and journalists from various international news organizations. The towers of the Trang Bang Cao Dai temple are visible in the centre of the explosions. (Nick Ut/AP)This file photo dated Feb. 4, 1951 and released by the U.S. National Archives, shows three South Korean women, badly burned in a U.S. air strike with napalm bombs, at an aid station near Suwon, South Korea. Two weeks earlier, more than 200 civilians were killed in a U.S. napalm attack on a cave where hundreds of refugees had sheltered, a South Korean government investigative commission has found. It says the attack was unjustified. Survivors said 360 were killed. (Eugene Fox, U.S. National Archives/AP File)In this June 8, 1972 photo, crying children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, run down Route 1 near Trang Bang, Vietnam after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places as South Vietnamese forces from the 25th Division walk behind them. A South Vietnamese plane accidentally dropped its flaming napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians. From left, the children are Phan Thanh Tam, younger brother of Kim Phuc, who lost an eye, Phan Thanh Phouc, youngest brother of Kim Phuc, Kim Phuc, and Kim's cousins Ho Van Bon, and Ho Thi Ting. (Nick Ut.AP)Dave Wyatt, 22, holds aloft the flaming remains of his Vietnam War draft card while bystanders applaud in Seattle, Washington on Nov. 8, 1967. They were taking part in a demonstration against the Dow Chemical Co., a producer of napalm, which is recruiting employees from graduating seniors at the University of Washington. (AP)This photo shows gnarled tree branches and radio towers rearing up out of the rubble caused by bombs and fire in Tokyo, Japan, during World War II on Oct. 8, 1945. The incendiary bombs, a mixture of thermite and oxidizing agents that sometimes contained napalm, were responsible for burning over 41.5 square miles of Tokyo by the United States in March, 1945. (Dave Davis/AP)


Excerpted from NAPALM: AN AMERICAN BIOGRAPHY by Rober M. Neer. Copyright © 2013 by Robert M. Neer. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Other stories from this show:

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.

Host Meghna Chakrabarti introduces us to newsmakers, big thinkers and artists and brings us stories of relevance to Bostonians here and around the region. Live every weekday at 3 p.m. and 10 p.m.

  • Listen: Weekdays, 3 p.m. on 90.9 FM
  • Live Call-In: (800) 423-TALK
  • Listener Voicemail: (617) 358-0607
Most Popular
This site is best viewed with: Firefox | Internet Explorer 9 | Chrome | Safari