American Hellfire: Historian Robert Neer on "Napalm"
Historian Dr. Robert M. Neer on His Groundbreaking Book Napalm: An American Biography
by Robin Lindley
A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order
and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.”
This business of burning human beings with napalm . . .
cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967
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.
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, I developed a strong sense that the perception of America outside the United States was often quite different than it was inside the United States. In traveling around in many different countries, I was able to see firsthand the extent of the U.S. military presence overseas in many different contexts.
I wanted in the broadest sense to tell a story about America in the world and how there might be one perception of the country outside and another inside. Specifically, people inside the country often think of America as extremely just, well meaning, perhaps at the worst misunderstood. Outside, some people consider the United States to be quite brutal, ignorant and dangerous. There are many falsehoods in both of those ideas, but I wanted to bridge that gap.
And I wanted to focus on military developments and the position of the United States in a global context.
Then I enjoyed reading books like The Making of the Atomic Bomb and The Social History of the Machine Gun, and books like Cod, Salt, and others that were biographies of things that talked about the power of technology and the environment to influence history.
I suggested to my advisor that this might be the basis for a dissertation. He, a wonderful advisor, said, “Great. You just need to choose a weapon and a period.” I thought about different weapons and napalm was the most dramatic weapon I could think of. When I looked, I discovered there wasn’t any scholarly treatment of its history, or, really, any treatment of its history at all. In fact, the best publically available source of information when I started the project was Wikipedia: there weren’t any scholarly articles in any journals at all. So that was a good dissertation topic, and it developed into a book.
Robin Lindley: In your book, you include a history of use of fire in warfare back to ancient times. I recall the scene in the movie Spartacus where the slave forces were rolling burning logs over the ranks of Roman soldiers.
Dr. Robert Neer: You may also remember in the movie Gladiator that they used incendiary weapons in a battle between Romans and Germanic tribes: flaming arrows and catapulted fire pots.
Fire is a very powerful weapon for a variety of reasons. First, it releases energy and can do more damage later than at the moment of impact. Explosives, by contrast, carry their energy with them and, although they can be very damaging, they’re limited in a sense that fire is not. Also, in more intimate combat, it’s very effective because people have an instinctive fear of fire that’s very deep set. That’s evident in conceptions like the fires of Hell or fire-breathing dragons, and many different manifestations of frightful things that are closely associated with fire. So people have sought to take advantage of that from very early times. There are many descriptions as early as the Bible and all the way through the Middle Ages.
Tactically, however, a weapon is only as useful as the range with which you can use it. Although fire early on, as with Greek fire famously used during the Byzantine Empire and in many other contexts, was useful, the development of cannons made many fire weapons obsolete. Before the fire could be delivered to a target, the people could be killed by a projectile. An illustration for the principle that I use is the scene in Indiana Jones when he is confronted by a fearsome swordsman and he pulls out his pistol and shoots him. That’s an example of range being an important consideration in combat.
Closely associated with the history of napalm as a weapon is the development of the airplane because, when airplanes were invented and perfected in terms of reliability and quantity—which happened to a significant degree in World War II—fire came back into vogue because people could drop it on other people and stay out of range of bullets or artillery shells. Although people have tried to use fire throughout the history of combat, around the 1400s it stopped being so effective until World War II. So there was a 500-year interregnum in the use of fire weapons that napalm spectacularly ended.
Robin Lindley: You mention the use of flamethrowers in combat in World War I.
Dr. Robert Neer: People experimented and tried to use incendiary weapons straight through from the 1400s with all kinds of experiments using different delivery technologies. During World War I, different incendiary bombs were tried. The Germans dropped firebombs on London from zeppelins. Mixtures of rubber and gasoline were used in flamethrowers. Because there weren’t very effective air delivery systems, and also because the mixtures they used weren’t as effective as later mixtures as napalm, those weapons were not very effective or significant.
Robin Lindley: And you mention the use of incendiaries just before World War II, such as the German bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.
Dr. Robert Neer: At the same time as napalm was developed, other incendiary weapons were also developed that proved to be quite effective although not as effective or as used in as great quantities as napalm. For example, the cities of Dresden and Hamburg were burned to the ground by the British using magnesium weapons. And the Germans at Guernica in the Basque region of Spain used thermite weapons to destroy that town.
Robin Lindley: And, by 1942, the chemist and Harvard professor Louis Fieser had created napalm. Why did the U.S. need napalm then?
Dr. Robert Neer: Just prior to the beginning of World War II, a group of leading research scientists, spearheaded by Vannevar Bush—a prominent American scientist and academic leader—organized a committee to develop technologically advanced weapons of war that they thought would be needed by the United States in what they expected would be a war that would involve this country. With the support of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the government established the National Defense Research Committee [NDRC] to develop a new relationship between the government and universities for war research through a practice that is now common, but that was very innovative at that time. The government provided money to universities to use their facilities and people to do research on military technologies.
Through that program, the first research into incendiary weapons began at Harvard in the chemistry department led by Professor Fieser. The goal was to respond to what was perceived as the probability that the United States would need incendiary weapons in the expected conflict. Their initial research focused on mixtures of rubber and gasoline following the technologies that were used not very successfully in World War I. But after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America’s supplies of rubber were dramatically reduced, so the chemists switched their focus to experimenting with different chemical and petrochemical combinations to make thickened gel incendiary weapons.
Robin Lindley: It seems that magnesium was an effective incendiary. How was napalm an advance as a weapon?
Dr. Robert Neer: This research was perceived as a solution to a technical problem. The reason the United States didn’t want to use magnesium is that it was afraid it wouldn’t be able to get enough magnesium. They moved away from rubber because they couldn’t get enough rubber. And they thought they might have other needs for magnesium besides use in weapons.
And then, through what you might call a fortuitous circumstance, the ultimate concoction that they devised, the method of thickening gasoline using other chemicals, produced a weapon that was far superior in its military characteristics. For example, flamethrowers that shoot napalm could shoot three times farther than the previous types. Also, with the previous types, about 90 percent of the mixture they delivered would burn up before reaching the target. Napalm increased the delivery fraction by about ten times. Instead of having most of the incendiary material vaporize before reaching the target, the napalm would shoot a much larger flaming rod onto whatever they aimed at.
In addition, from the perspective of using napalm in bombs, it was extremely stable. It could be chilled to very cold temperatures as in a bomb bay or heated to a hot temperature as in a tropical storage facility. It could be stored for a very long time. It was relatively inexpensive and easy to make because it could be reduced to a powder that could be mixed in the field with gasoline to produce incendiary gel.
Robin Lindley: Professor Fieser had a successful test of napalm at Harvard in 1942 and he later said he didn’t contemplate the use of napalm on humans.
Dr. Robert Neer: Fieser told the government about the improved formula that they had developed on Valentine’s Day, 1942. The War Department then supplied the Harvard scientists with a lot of bombshells—the same bombshells the U.S. used for its poison gas arsenal because those types of bombs were made with a thin steel skin that would burst easily and scatter whatever was inside over a large area. It’s striking because, after World War I, people were very worried that poison gas would be dropped on cities and create devastation. In fact, that was done, but it was done with fire, and not with poison gas, and the tests were done with the same type of bombshells.
They did the first test of napalm bombs on Independence Day, 1942. To your point, Fieser, in his reminiscences of that time, wrote that they were focused on solving a technical problem and they always anticipated that the weapon would be used against things. It’s at variance though from the tests the War Department conducted.
The Harvard scientists tested the bomb in a pool of water that had been dug into the Harvard College soccer field behind the Harvard Business School in Boston, across the river from Cambridge. Then they participated in field trials because there were competing gel incendiary weapons produced by DuPont and other companies and the Army was doing comparative tests. The first tests were in some villages in Indiana that the government condemned and moved everybody out so they could practice burning down the houses and the stores.
Later on, because the British in particular thought those test weren’t rigorous enough, they built model Japanese and German villages at a new test facility that the government created in Utah and practiced burning them down in various ways. Those were residential buildings complete down to the furniture and even the clothes in the closets to model the potential targets.
It would seem that it wouldn’t take a tremendous leap of imagination to suppose that these munitions might affect people: they modeled bedrooms in particular. Still, it’s possible to credit the idea that they would be burning down houses as opposed to actually dropping napalm directly on human beings.
Robin Lindley: The experiment using bats as kamikaze deliverers of napalm was fascinating.
Dr. Robert Neer: Many things are interesting about that story. One of them is that the government at the time spent almost five times as much money on the bat testing program, Project X-Ray, as they did in actually developing napalm. The napalm budget for research and development was about five million dollars in current dollars, and compare that with the $27 billion dollars that was spent on the Manhattan Project, even though napalm wound up incinerating many more Japanese cities than the atomic bombs did.
Fieser collaborated with the bat program extensively after his work of actual development of napalm was complete. For the rest of the war, the Harvard scientists created a James-Bond type, special napalm weapons research laboratory and production center at Harvard where they designed and made all kinds of special weapons using napalm, from a napalm pill that could be popped into a gas tank where it would swell up and sabotage tanks, to a special glass incendiary grenade to throw on the battlefield, to a special device called “The Paul Revere,” which could be used to start fires on land or on water. Another one called “The Harvard Candle” was a special fire-starting device that could be used to destroy buildings.
Among those projects was a plan to arm millions of kamikaze American bats; I call them “suicide bomber bats” in the book, with tiny napalm bombs using a chemical fuse that Harvard scientists built. They’d be dropped out of airplanes in special bat bombs that would be kept at cool temperatures to keep the bats quiet until release, and then when they floated down, [the bombs] would open like accordions with a parachutes and the bats would gently fall down onto small platforms and revivify under the salubrious effect of warmer air as they descended and then flutter off into whatever building or house they were near. About 20 minutes after being released from the bomb, these chemical fuses would burn down and trigger the napalm time bomb that would burn down the house or whatever they dropped their way into.
In the end, the only buildings the bats actually incinerated was a brand-new Army airfield in Carlsbad, New Mexico, next to the famous caverns that had a large supply of bats. Fieser armed several chilled animals to show off the system to an Army film crew. In an instant, the heat revived them and they flew away. A desperate hunt followed, but right on schedule they detonated, and burned the entire facility to the ground, tower and all. The base commander raced up with fire trucks but had to watch, distraught, from behind a fence; researchers refused to let him approach the top secret technology testing area.
In early 1944, after spending about $24 million in today’s dollars, Marine Corps officials canceled the program without explanation: a historical mystery that remains to be resolved.
Robin Lindley: As you’ve alluded to, the cost of napalm was far less than the atomic bombs produced by the Manhattan project when considering the damage done by these weapons. Those statistics are stunning.
Dr. Robert Neer: Yes. Napalm was used as widely and as quickly as possible by the United States in World War II. They sent it to Europe where it played a role in the Normandy landings and in the battle in the Ardennes and the battle of the Bulge and elsewhere.
But it was mostly in the Pacific where it was deployed to the greatest extent. In the case of Japan, the United States eventually incinerated 66 of Japan’s largest cities, 64 of them with explosive weapons and napalm, and two of them with atomic weapons. Considering that the atomic weapons cost about $27 billion in today’s currency just for their development and destroyed two cities, that would be about $13 billion per city incinerated, whereas napalm cost about five million dollars, and that weapon burned to the ground 64 cities, about $83 thousand dollars in development costs per city destroyed.
That’s an indication of the power of chemistry. I wrote that “the bomb got the press, but napalm did the work.” It also speaks to the difference between the physicists who were some of the most prominent scientists in the United States and in the world, and subsequently had reams of books written about them, compared to the chemists who arguably produced a more cost effective weapon, but weren’t particularly famous. Fieser was a well-known chemist, but not famous on the level of Robert Oppenheimer or Albert Einstein, and yet produced a very effective weapon.
Robin Lindley: And the comparative casualties in the bombing of Japan produced by napalm versus the atom bombs is stunning.
Dr. Robert Neer: The greatest human-created cataclysm in the history of the world remains the United States attack on Tokyo on March 9, 1945, because over 87,000 people died on that night as a direct result of the bombardment, which is more than died in either of the explosions at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Of course, many people died of follow-on effects. Radiation poisoning killed many people after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki events, but that also happened in Tokyo because people who were burned out of their houses became sick or from smoke inhalation developed pneumonia and many illnesses and problems that were follow-on effects of the burnt down city around them. That underlines the incredible destructive power of fire.
Robin Lindley: It seems that even air force general Curtis LeMay was stunned by the aftermath of the Tokyo bombing.
Dr. Robert Neer: He said we, “scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.”
Robin Lindley: This is a morbid question, but can you explain what happens when a human being is struck by napalm?
Dr. Robert Neer: It’s a very effective because it’s sticky and burns at a very high temperature.
Fire works by emitting radiation, and it emits radiation most strongly to whatever it is touching. If you think of a burning match, the hottest part of the match is the stick of the match that directly touches the fire, and the next hottest parts are above, then to the sides, then below. So, if you want to make an effective incendiary, the closer you get it to what you want to burn and the longer it can be kept there, the more radiation energy you’ll be able to transfer to whatever the target is, and therefore the more effective it will be at starting and maintaining a fire.
In the case of a human being, this means that if you get hit by napalm or get napalm on you, this sticky substance that burns at an extremely high temperature will stay there and continue burning all the way down to the bone, unless it is put out.
It is worth noting that napalm itself is not extremely flammable. You need a relatively high temperature to get it to burn, so the other great scientific achievement of the Harvard scientists was figuring out a way to ignite this sticky, tough gel that they invented. Their solution was to use white phosphorus, a chemical that burns at a very high temperature when it comes into contact with air. The system they developed was a thin column of high explosive, TNT, inside a thicker cylinder of white phosphorus, and those two cylinders were inserted into the middle of a napalm bomb. When the bomb detonates, the high explosives blast the white phosphorus into the napalm and scatters it over a wide area, and that produces a fire cloud.
For a person who is unfortunate enough to come into contact with this invention, not only can the napalm burn them, but little bits of white phosphorus that are mixed into it can also burn them. If you put it out by putting mud over it or putting the [affected] part of the body under water, if there’s enough white phosphorus mixed in, when it comes back into contact with the air, it starts burning again. That’s an awful wound that can take a long time to treat and heal. This has devastating effects for people.
Robin Lindley How is the fire from this material extinguished when initially treating napalm wounds?
Dr. Robert Neer: In the case of Kim Phuc, the little girl captured in the famous 1972 photo “The Terror of War,” the napalm that hit her eventually burned itself out after peeling off several layers of her skin. When that picture was taken, her skin was still burning. She wasn’t a human torch, but there was still combustion in the skin, and usually it will burn itself out or the person will die.
Robin Lindley: You frame the book with the very moving story of Kim Phuc who was just nine in 1972 when she was injured by napalm—and, as she ran from the blast, became the subject of Nick Ut’s photo, one of the iconic photos of the twentieth century.
Dr. Robert Neer: I was very moved by talking with her and, given her experiences and the power of what she had to say about them, it was very appropriate way to begin and end the book, especially since it’s a “An American Biography.” I see it as a story of the United States in the world, not just a story about napalm.
Also, I would say it’s a hopeful story or even uplifting because the larger subject of the book is why we don’t use napalm as much any more, and how it could be that burning a city in 1945 with napalm was considered a heroic act and celebrated by Americans, but subsequent uses of napalm, especially after Vietnam are condemned worldwide and faced with such disapproval that I would say that military powers are restrained from using it, even though it’s legal to use it under international law on the battlefield against combatants.
Robin Lindley: You also detail the uses of napalm between World War II and the war in Vietnam, particularly by the U.S. in Korea and by our allies, often against anti-colonial forces or other insurrections.
Dr. Robert Neer: After the effectiveness of this inexpensive, very stable weapon was demonstrated by the United States in World War II, commanders all around the world wanted to use it for their own purposes. It wasn’t a difficult chemical problem to solve once it had been demonstrated, and the United States didn’t bother to keep it secret.
Indeed, at the same time that the Rosenbergs were being electrocuted for espionage relating to the atomic bomb, the United States published the chemical formulas for napalm in a patent for the whole world. That probably didn’t make much difference because it was a weapon that was easily observed and it was adopted widely regardless of the patent, but it’s an interesting parallel.
Subsequent to World War II, napalm was used in most major conflicts around the world. It was used by many U.S. allies and it was also used by other countries that were not so friendly to the U.S. But a broader paradigm is that it was used in general by the rich and the powerful against the poor and the dispossessed.
As I mentioned, it’s a weapon that is most effectively delivered by airplanes, so people with airplanes used napalm against people without airplanes all around the world, from parts of disintegrating colonial empires like Vietnam and Kenya to civil war like in Nigeria and in Brazil to conflicts between parties of all different descriptions as in India and extensively in the Middle East.
I think that speaks to the military effectiveness of this weapon and a lack of any real criticism of it. It was just another way of waging war until Vietnam.
In the Korean War, the United States adopted a similar military strategy to that which had been so effective in Japan, and used napalm to incinerate Pyongyang and many other cities to the point where Douglas MacArthur came back and told Congress that the level of destruction in Korea made him want to vomit. More napalm was used in Korea that in World War II, and then again more napalm was used in Vietnam than in Korea.
Robin Lindley: You write that napalm was a hero that came a pariah, and it seems the shift of opinion was the result of its use in Vietnam with images like those of Kim Phuc running from a napalm blast and others that came out of the war.
Dr. Robert Neer: I don’t think it was the use in Vietnam that turned napalm into a pariah so much as the fact that the United States lost the war.
When napalm was winning in World War II and Korea, there was very little criticism of it at all. It should be said that many images of napalm in Korea were censored, but there were descriptions of its use, and it was no secret by any means. And, as I said, it was also used enthusiastically around the world by military commanders in a variety of other countries.
During the Vietnam War, for the first time, a nationwide protest movement developed that saw in napalm a symbol or metaphor for their complaint about U.S. involvement in the war over all. The record, as I saw it, suggested that the starting point was criticism of the war, and the vehicle that the criticism was manifested through was napalm. Of course, these are complex phenomena, and many people objected to use of the weapon itself. They were empowered to do that by a far greater amount of coverage and description of the effect of the weapon than had ever before been seen.
While it certainly wasn’t a secret that napalm was being used by Americans in the Second World War and the Korea War, it’s also true that it was much more widely covered during the Vietnam War than ever before. For example, Ramparts magazine published the first photographs of children and other civilians affected by napalm. And Ladies Home Journal and Redbook [ran] very vivid descriptions of the impact of this weapon on civilians. That triggered a nationwide protest movement by the youth of America on college campuses across the country against Dow Chemical Corporation, which manufactured napalm, [and that] continues to scar Dow’s reputation to this day.
In a fairly short period, but in tandem with the nationwide movement of protest against the Vietnam War, this highly focused objection to napalm became a national movement.
Those protest movements occurred in the late 1960s. The iconic photograph of Kim Phuc was in 1972, after it seems that the U.S. defeat in Vietnam was clear to many people that were familiar with the story there. It was only after the war had been fought that napalm turned into the global pariah that it is today. It’s depiction after the war in movies, books and poems and all kinds of different media took the message of those protestors and mobilized it, distributed it, and cemented it. I’d say that didn’t happen during the war itself, but only after the conclusion of the war was clear.
Robin Lindley: After Vietnam, it would seem that the United States would be reluctant to again use napalm, but you describe subsequent military uses.
Dr. Robert Neer: The United States since Vietnam has been reluctant to use napalm, but the solution that the Defense Department adopted to that problem was to continue the use of incendiary weapons but just not call them napalm, which is evidence of the social opprobrium that napalm assumed following the Vietnam War.
During the first Gulf War, the United States used napalm to ignite oil in trenches that the Iraqis had built as a defensive mechanism.
During the  invasion of Iraq, the United States used napalm to capture various Iraqi positions that were resisting our troops.
In response to media reports in 1993 on the use of napalm, the response was that the United States had destroyed its last stocks of napalm. That response was based on the argument that the word “napalm” means the specific chemical formulation of weapon that was used from 1945 to 1975, and now our incendiary weapons are gelled weapons with a different chemical formulation and therefore they are no longer napalm. The problem with that argument is that the term [napalm] itself has no chemical meaning. It means only any gelled form of petroleum, and the current incendiary weapons that the U.S. has its in arsenal use gelled petroleum based weapons so they are napalm, just as the weapons that were dropped in 1945.
But taking the military spokespeople at their word, it’s entirely possible to understand how they would be unclear about that because there wasn’t any history to tell them how the word was created or developed. That’s an example of what happens when a country loses its history and that’s a testimony to the work that historians do.
Robin Lindley: You call napalm “a war criminal on probation.” What is the legal status of napalm?
Dr. Robert Neer: International law had no real criticism of napalm when it was winning, during World War II, during the Korean War, and as other nations used it.
The legal regulations of incendiary weapons under international law only came after the U.S. defeat in Vietnam became clear. It was only in 1980 that the United Nations General Assembly adopted Protocol III of the wonderfully named Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. This is a treaty that regulates a rogue’s gallery of horrible weapons that people have invented for war. Protocol III covers incendiary weapons and stipulates that these devices are under no circumstances to be used against concentrations of civilians, even if military facilities are mixed in with those concentrations. That’s a war crime under provision of international law.
A threshold point to observe is that napalm and other incendiary devices are completely legal to use on the battlefield against combatants. For example, the use of napalm by the United States during the invasion of Iraq was perfectly legal under international law.
The response of the United States to the international control regime was to reject it. Ronald Reagan and the first president Bush both refused to submit that treaty to the Senate for ratification. President Clinton decided to submit it but only with a caveat or “reservation” as it’s called, which said that the U.S. would recommend ratification of the treaty but only with the proviso that the United States would disregard the treaty if, in its sole judgment, using incendiary weapons against concentrations of civilians would save more civilian lives than not doing so. To my ears, that sounds similar to General LeMay’s justification for incinerating the cities of Japan. He said that people who objected to that kind of warfare reminded him of the foolish man who cut off the dog’s tail an inch at a time because he said it hurt less that way.
That was the position under President Clinton, but the Senate, for its part, was not interested in even discussing that treaty under President Clinton. The second President Bush followed the policy of his predecessor and urged ratification on the same basis with the same proviso, but the Senate was unwilling to discuss the issue until the very end of his term, at which point, along with a rush of other treaty legislation, they ratified the treaty subject to the proviso that I described. And President Obama signed that treaty on his very first day in office. That’s the current law that the United States follows, and also most of the world’s other countries, although not all.
Robin Lindley: You have a fascinating background with a law degree and a variety of jobs before you earned your doctorate in history and now you’re teaching history at Columbia University. How did you come to the profession of history?
Dr. Robert Neer: I went to law school at Columbia, but missed the undergraduate experience from my college days as a history major. After my second year of law school, I applied to a joint JD-PhD program at Columbia and was accepted. In my third year of law school, I had the experience of getting my Masters degree in history at the same time I completed my JD requirements.
After that, I had a lot of debt and I had been in school for a long time. I took a leave of absence and wound up spending 14 years working in the media and entertainment and also in politics in London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Los Angeles and Boston.
But I maintained my love for history throughout that time and, when I came to a stopping point in my business career, I went back and talked to my professors at Columbia and told them I’d like to come back and finish my doctorate. They were encouraging and said, “Once admitted, always admitted. Come on back.”
In 2005, I returned to the program. I went through a year of required course work to get my mind back in the world of academia. Then I took my general exams and then wrote my dissertation. Along the way, I had experience teaching in the history department at Columbia and, when I graduated and there was a job opportunity that they offered me, I took it, and I’ve been very happy ever since.
Robin Lindley: Do you have any final thoughts on what you hope people take from your book or on the continuing resonance of this story?
Dr. Robert Neer: My main hope is that other people would be interested in writing other books or articles on different aspects of the story of napalm. There are plenty of interesting ones. I made a website, napalmbiography.com, where I’ve presented ideas for other studies about napalm.
The remarkable thing to me about this story is what I would call “the silence.” This weapon that has affected millions of people around the world, and was invented in the United States, which has one of the largest professional groups of historians in the world, wasn’t written about at all by anybody for 71 years. That’s my greatest ambition for this project.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney. He is the features editor for the History News Network and his writing has appeared in HNN, Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Real Change, Re-Markings, NW Lawyer, and more. He is the former chair of the World Peace through Law section of the Washington State Bar Association. He has a special interest in human rights, health and the history of medicine. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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- Annette Gordon-Reed writes about why Jefferson matters more than ever after Charlottesville
- Harvard’s Maya Jasanoff vists the Congo and discovers people there probably live harder lives than they did 100 years ago when Joseph Conrad was there
- Eric Foner says in an interview that it’s not necessary to remove Confederate statues
- Philip Zelikow says the government should crack down on armed groups of militants