Development & Early Use
During the World War I, gasoline was used in combat flamethrowers. However, the essential problem with gasoline was that it burned out too quickly to be effective. To increase its effectiveness, the U.S. Chemical Warfare used latex from rubber trees to jell gasoline. With natural rubber, the mixed gasoline now could shot further, stuck to the target better, and burned longer. Nonetheless, when the U.S. entered the Pacific War, natural rubber was in shortage. From 1942 to 1943, a team of chemists led by Louis F. Fieser at Harvard University successfully developed a replacement later known as Napalm.
Napalm was formulated by mixing naphthenic and palmitic acids with gasoline. It was first employed in incendiary bombs and later for flamethrowers. On March 6, 1944, the first napalm bomb was dropped on Berlin by an U.S. aircraft. Later, napalm began to be used widely and proved its highly effectiveness. In the Pacific Theater of the World War II, napalm was one of the tactical weapons against deeply dug-in Japanese troops. On the night of March 9, 1945, 330 American bombers headed for Tokyo and dropped 690,000 pound of napalm within an hour. Tokyo was bathed in firestorm. In that one night, napalm probably killed over 100,000 men and almost destroyed Japanese’s will of fighting. In Korean War, napalm was described as “the most outstanding weapon” and without it North Korea and their Chinese allies would have conquered South Korea.
Napalm in Vietnam
Napalm, which was considered as one of the most successful weapons, was quickly employed in the Vietnam War in 1963. 388,000 tons of napalm was dropped in Vietnam during 1963 -1973 period – more than ten times the amount of napalm used in Korea. At the beginning, napalm was used in flamethrowers for U.S. and ARVN ground forces and soon became an effective weapon in clearing bunkers. Even if the flame could not penetrate into the entire bunker, it still consumed all the oxygen and suffocated those inside. Flamethrowers were also used to destroy enemy’s villages.
Later on, U.S. bombers began to drop napalm bombs. The explosion of napalm bombs caused a lot more devastation than flamethrower’s. A 2,500-square-yard area could be engulfed in flame by a single bomb. However, dropping napalm from high-speed aircraft was not so accurate. This resulted in a large number of innocent civilians suffering serious harm.
The wound caused by napalm is too deep to heal. When contacting human, napalm immediately clung to the skin and melt off the flesh. The only way to put it out is to smother it as trying to wipe it off only spread it around and expanding the burnt area. Napalm gradually became a symbol of the brutality of the Vietnam War.
Effects on American Public
Unlike many wars before when the brutality of napalm was censored by the government, in Vietnam, it was exposed massively by the media. Thousands of pictures and videos about napalm’s devastation were reported daily in the press and on television. One of the most indelible pictures about the cruelty of napalm was the “Napalm Girl” – a photograph of a nine-year-old girl and a group of children are running down the road after a South Vietnamese napalm attack on her village. The girl was naked and screaming because napalm was burning her body.
The more the media emphasized on the pain caused by napalm, the more it helped to strengthen antiwar movement. In October 1966, the first demonstration against the use of napalm was conducted at the Berkeley campus of the University of California and Wayne State University in Michigan. In the following year, hundreds of protests continued in larger scale. The Dow Chemical Company who manufactured napalm for the U.S. government from 1965 to 1969 and its products were boycotted all over the country. Dow recruiters also faced a storm of protests by college students, who called them as “baby killers”.
Napalm continued to be used in Iraq (1980–88, 1991), Angola (1993) and Yugoslavia (1991-1996). However, because of its brutality, its use against concentrations of civilians was banned by the United Nations in 1980.