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Napalm: An American Biography

Napalm: An American Biography

2.8 5
by Robert M. Neer

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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. Neer offers the first history.


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. Neer offers the first history.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this engrossing study, historian Neer recounts the prodigious youth and reviled old age of an iconic weapon. He follows the career of napalm—an incendiary jellied gasoline that sticks to everything and is almost inextinguishable—from its clever design by idealistic Harvard chemists during WWII, a time when any contrivance in the furtherance of victory seemed justified. (Experiments with napalm-armed bats fizzled after the critters escaped and burned down an army base.) The results, Neer shows, were both potent and horrific. American napalm did far more damage to Japan than did the atomic bombs, but the mass incineration of civilians raised persistent moral qualms. During the Vietnam War, napalm became a symbol of American military-industrial cruelty; photographs of napalm-ravaged children became a fixture at antiwar demonstrations, and recruiters for its manufacturer, Dow Chemical, were hounded from campuses. The author brings the story up to the present, when napalm has become a cultural signifier of extremist mayhem while international conventions place ever-tighter restrictions on its use. Neer’s thoroughly researched, well-written account mixes lucid discussions of chemical engineering and the law of war with gut-wrenching depictions of napalm’s nightmarish effects. More than that, it furnishes a thought-provoking lesson on evolving attitudes toward military means and ends. 41 halftones, 1 table. Agents: Sandra Dijkstra and Elise Capron, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. (Apr.)
Andrew J. Bacevich
Napalm is a brilliantly conceived, masterfully executed, and deeply disturbing book. Robert M. Neer offers a vivid examination of the military-technological partnership that drives the evolution of warfare, with moral considerations lagging far behind.
Michael S. Sherry
No one else has told so deeply and compellingly the story of how 'Napalm was born a hero but lives a pariah'--a terrifying weapon associated with America's Vietnam War whose history went back much further, as did the dishonest efforts of leaders to cope with its reputation.
John Fabian Witt
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.
Bookforum - Chris Bray
[Neer has] a brilliant eye for the horrible detail...Neer constructs this early narrative with exceptional skill and intelligence, vividly tracing the path that connects gleeful scientists on Cambridge soccer fields to streets and basements choked with human ash in Europe and Asia.
Vietnam Magazine - Warren Wilkins
Neer recounts in rich detail the extraordinary evolution of napalm from hero in the gilded age of post-WWII American power to pariah in the aftermath of Vietnam...Neer ultimately moves beyond the protests to examine how antiwar grassroots activism, art, journalism and politics during and immediately after the Vietnam War radically reshaped cultural attitudes about napalm and the United States.
San Francisco Chronicle - Nick Turse
Napalm: An American Biography is...meticulously researched and vitally important...Napalm came to be employed the world over. Neer's chronicle of its use by American allies and client regimes against opponents in the Philippines, Greece, Cuba, Egypt, Peru, Bolivia, Cyprus, Tunisia, Algeria, Kenya and Angola, among other nations, is a revelation and one of the most enlightening portions of Napalm...Napalm: An American Biography is a fascinating and long-overdue study of one of modern warfare's signature weapons. Neer has provided a valuable book that fills in historical gaps and sheds much-needed light on a history that many would rather forget.
Boston Globe - Gal Beckerman
[This] is the first comprehensive history of napalm, and tells the story of how a weapon deemed so useful in World War II and Korea hit a turning point in Vietnam. During that time it became the target of antiwar protestors, who mounted a nationwide campaign to stop Dow Chemical Co. from manufacturing it.
Times Higher Education - Marilyn Young
Neer's biography covers the post-Vietnam years of napalm, its appearance in song and story (the scabrous military call-and-response Napalm Sticks to Kids, the film Apocalypse Now), U.S. resistance to international efforts to ban its use (overcome finally in 2008, although with reservations) and, albeit with a name change, its ongoing use in the war in Iraq...[A] disturbing book.
In 1942, in a secret lab at Harvard University in Massachusetts, chemist Louis Fieser and his team created napalm--an incendiary gel that sticks to skin and can burn down to the bone. Robert Neer's harrowing story veers from Fieser's tests on 'kamikaze' bats fitted with napalm bombs to the 1944-45 incendiary bombing of Japan that killed 330,000 people.
New Statesman
[Napalm's] history is a parable of the vicissitudes of modern American power...Neer shows that it played a role as important as the atomic bomb in hastening Japanese surrender in the Second World War.
The Times - Sam Kiley
Napalm was not developed as anything other than a weapon to burn people. Neer provides damning proof of this...Napalm killed hundreds of thousands and helped the Allies to win the Second World War. But it helped to lose America the war in Vietnam. Photographs of napalm victims turned opposition to the war into a national movement.
The Scotsman - Michael Kerrigan
As described by Neer in this hideously readable account, napalm--developed in 1942--was one of the first fruits of the academic-military-industrial complex which has done so much to shape America--and the world--in the decades since. Its history seems quintessentially American, too, in the combination of ingenuity and ingenuousness which went into its development and deployment; the moral blindness to what all the world except the U.S. can see.
South China Morning Post - Kit Gillet
Neer has created the first comprehensive history of napalm, meticulously charting the early years when the weapon--developed by scientists at a secret war research laboratory at Harvard--was treated as a glorious new instrument of war at the tail-end of the second world war, to its controversial image in the aftermath of Vietnam and the protest movements that grew around it...Neer doesn't hold back his punches in describing the nightmarish scenes following napalm strikes, quoting heavily from accounts of those caught underneath and journalists who arrived on the scenes soon after...There is no question that Neer has done a masterful job of writing a compelling history of one of the major villains of the 20th century.
Tampa Bay Times - Chris Patsilelis
[A] gripping, meticulously documented study of a devilish weapon...Besides giving us an accurate description of the political and military landscape of the time--the relentless bombing of North Vietnam, the antiwar protests, the endless arguments over the war's morality, the outcries over napalm-producing Dow Chemical's recruiting on campuses--Neer vividly makes clear how napalm earned its satanic reputation as an indiscriminate incinerator of children...[A] thought-provoking and heart-rending book.
Los Angeles Review of Books - Jan Mieszkowski
Neer help[s] us understand why the events of 1945 linger on as exemplars of both the pinnacle of military engineering and the essence of what war should not be.
PopMatters - Shyam K. Sriram
This book should really appeal to everyone. There is no bias here, no leftist or conservative agenda. This is simply an exhaustive history of napalm, from its beginnings as kind of a scientific puzzle for technocrats to one of the most widely despised symbols of war. This book is historical enough for history buffs, yet laden with enough military and chemistry jargon to make the viewers of the History Channel and Discovery Channel, respectively, go dry-mouthed with anticipation. Neer has a penchant for making even the most technical and obtuse topic insanely readable.
Irish Times - Tom Clonan
Provides us with a meticulous account of the development of napalm as a chemical weapon that would eventually be responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent civilians around the world. At a time of increasing paranoia about weapons of mass destruction in general and chemical weapons in particular, Napalm is a timely contemplation of the political, economic and sociological factors that combined to produce such a seemingly simple yet diabolical munition...[A] chilling account of this indiscriminate weapon of mass destruction.
Times Literary Supplement - Victor Davis Hanson
Neer systematically follows the story of napalm that originally empowered an often outnumbered American military to fight far abroad against the Japanese, and later, North Koreans, Chinese and Vietnamese--only to become a byword for the pathologies of the military-industrial complex of the United States...Neer is often highly critical of the American use of napalm; yet his narrative of its origins, production and use over the past seven decades is not a jeremiad, but learned, fair and historically accurate...Neer is especially insightful in showing how Vietnam was a turning point in public perceptions about napalm...For all its infernal destructiveness and the terror it instills in hapless ground troops, this savage weapon has probably not changed the thinking behind age-old warfare all that much.
Dissent - Thai Jones
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.
Times Higher Education - Joanna Bourke
For jaw-dropping horror, there is little to beat Robert M. Neer’s history of napalm.
Mother Jones - Dave Gilson
In the era of drone strikes, Napalm is a timely look at what it means to (literally) rain death from above. Developed at Harvard during World War II, napalm was explicitly designed to destroy civilian targets: It was even tested on mock-ups of German and Japanese houses. The horrific firebombing of Japan and the use of napalm in Vietnam figure prominently, but the book also details lesser-known uses of the weapon in Korea and Iraq (where the U.S. military insisted its ‘firebombs’ were different than napalm). An excellent and disturbing history of a weapon that’s synonymous with the horror of modern warfare.
Library Journal
Napalm, the sticky petroleum gel that when combined with white phosphorous burns at 2,000 degrees, is a slice of hell seared into the American psyche as a symbol of the U.S. failure in Vietnam, claims Neer (history, Columbia Univ.) in this rigorously researched investigation, which is accompanied by a helpful website (napalmbiography.com). The author details napalm's creation by Louis Fieser (1899–1977) at Harvard and its pre-Vietnam use, wreaking mayhem in Japan during World War II and later in the Korean War. Neer's coverage of napalm's toll on thousands of Vietnamese citizens and the growing American awareness of these atrocities, which sparked the antiwar movement against Dow Chemical, napalm's largest producer, is gripping. However, the chapters on post-Vietnam napalm diplomacy are slowed by formal, legalistic language. Not until 2009 did the United States sign, with reservations, Protocol III of the Convention of Certain Conventional Weapons, prohibiting the use of napalm. VERDICT This concise, often fascinating, story of this weapon's place in warfare and American popular culture will appeal to informed general readers and specialists in modern U.S. history. It is complemented by Denise Chong's The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War, likely the best personal account of napalm's devastating consequences.—Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Township Lib., King of Prussia, PA
Kirkus Reviews
The book begins with the story of the iconic 1972 photograph of a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running naked down a road after being severely burned in a napalm attack. Readers expecting a polemic may be pleasantly surprised at this lucid account of the technical, political and ethical features of a notorious symbol of American inhumanity in war. Neer (History/Columbia Univ.) writes that napalm is a thickening agent mixed with flammable petroleum. An advantage over traditional incendiaries is that the thick gel sticks to its target and burns far longer. Developed by Harvard researchers in 1942, it was soon put to use in flamethrowers against dug-in Japanese troops and in B-29 raids on Japanese cities, which killed far more civilians than the atomic bombs. Although less publicized, even more napalm fell during the Korean War, producing vast devastation and death in North Korean cities. Only mildly controversial at this point, its use against guerillas in Vietnam produced gruesome civilian casualties and international revulsion which persists. A 1980 U.N. treaty banning the use of incendiaries against civilians was quickly adopted by most nations but not the United States. However, in deference to world opinion, military spokesmen no longer used the word. When accused of dropping napalm during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, they denied it, explaining that these were firebombs. President Barack Obama signed the treaty on his first day in office, although it includes a reservation allowing the U.S. to ignore it. Long superseded by other widely denounced emblems of American exceptionalism (drones, cluster bombs, torture), napalm receives an overdue but thoroughly satisfying history.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 5: The American Century

A windstorm ripped the skies over Tokyo on the night of 9 March 1945. Gusts of 60 miles per hour roared through narrow streets and over wooden houses that sheltered the city’s millions. Blasts rose to 80 miles per hour as midnight approached.

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 that sentries on tiny islands near the capital heard the thunder of propellors and radioed “Major air raid on Tokyo.”

“Pathfinder” bombers reached the city minutes later, flying at about 5,000 feet: low enough to see individual buildings, parks and streets. Searchlights flared, anti-aircraft guns on ships in the harbor and land batteries boomed, and a few dozen fighters scrambled. Too late. The pathfinders dropped 100-pound M-47 bombs painted gray-blue and banded in purple to indicate their incendiary payloads—twins of the shells tested in Boston three years earlier—and burned a flaming cross about four miles by three into the heart of the city. “[W]ithin this target area of approximately 10 square miles, the average population density is 103,000 people per square mile, an average probably not exceeded in any other modern industrial city in the world,” reported crew information sheets. Manhattan’s Lower East Side immigrant neighborhood, by comparison, had a peak density of 106,240 people per square mile in 1910. Commanding general Thomas Power steered his bomber to 10,000 feet and circled as a “Master of Ceremonies” for Operation Meetinghouse, following a British technique developed in night attacks on German metropolises.

Bombers followed in a line that stretched for hundreds of miles back over the sea. French journalist Guillain wrote of the Superfortresses, “Their long, glinting wings, sharp as blades, could be seen through the oblique columns of smoke rising from the city, suddenly reflecting the fire from the furnace below, black silhouettes gliding through the fiery sky to reappear further on, shining golden against the dark roof of heaven or glittering blue, like meteors, in the searchlight beams spraying the vault from horizon to horizon.” As they passed, around 6,500 clusters of Standard Oil’s M-69 bombs dropped from their bellies, burst as they fell, and scattered around a quarter of a million individual “Molotov flower baskets,” as the Japanese called them. Bright green 40-inch streamers unfurled to point the bombs down head-first. They smashed through roofs to spatter blazing napalm and belch thick clouds of white phosphorus. “[C]ylinders scattered a kind if flaming dew that skittered along the roofs, setting fire to everything it splashed and spreading a wash of dancing flames everywhere,” Guillain recounted. About 690,000 pounds of napalm fell in less than an hour.

Meet the Author

Robert M. Neer is an attorney and Core Lecturer in the History Department at Columbia University.

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Napalm: An American Biography 2.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm feeling frisky. *she said. She had a tattoo saying, "fu ck me" on her back.*
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Say what?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Falls asleep. ((Gtg. Bbt. Too tierd and has a very bad headache...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Poured over them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago