Firestorm: Napalm and the American Century

Firestorm: Napalm and the American Century

Napalm: An American Biography
by Robert M. Neer
Belknap Press, 2013, 352 pp.

Pilots release their ordnance. Silver, cigar-shaped canisters drop away. A simple and deadly munitions miracle, the weapon represents American know-how and military necessity. For close-quarters infantry support or undermining an opponent’s fighting will, it has no rival. On impact the bombs emit a distinctive “pop” and a cloud of smoke with fiery glowing tails that resemble fireworks. This is napalm.

In Vietnamese peasant hamlets, Iraqi defensive emplacements, or the ancient passageways of central Tokyo, the approaching noise of American planes brings dismay. Loud explosive reports mark the beginning. House fires burn beyond control. Rivers and canals boil. The heated atmosphere asphyxiates; it incinerates clothes, leaving fleeing naked bodies. Jellied globules of ignited gasoline blister at 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit and stick to melting flesh. Skin crackles and sloughs off like old paper. Muscle and tendon contract, twisting and contorting the dead. This, too, is napalm.

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. “Its history illuminates America’s story,” Neer writes, “from victory in World War II, through defeat in Vietnam, to its current position in a globalizing world.”

During the months leading to American entry into the Second World War, and in the spirit of what Neer describes as “Yankee ingenuity,” early researchers approached the development of napalm strictly as a challenge to be overcome. Scientists understood that the looming conflict would be “a highly technical struggle,” and that incendiaries presented “an exciting line of experimentation.” Late in 1941, military leaders presented some of the nation’s leading academic and industrial chemists with a set of rigorous benchmarks required in a viable firebomb:

It had to be made from widely available, preferably inexpensive, materials, simple enough to be prepared in the field, tough enough to withstand an explosive blast without dissolving into a mist, stable enough to store for long periods, and able to withstand temperatures between the -40 degrees Fahrenheit chill of a high-altitude bomb bay and the 150 degree heat of a tropical storage facility.

Louis Fieser, a professor of organic chemistry at Harvard University, came closest to fulfilling these requirements. The first field test was conducted on Independence Day, 1942, at a soccer field in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while tennis players looked on. Fieser dubbed his creation napalm, combining the first syl...