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Napalm's Daddy 31 Years Later

By Nicholas Lemann

In early January of 1942, in the Gill Laboratory building at Harvard, Louis F. Fieser, Emery Professor of Organic Chemistry Emeritus, perfected a jelled incendiary for military use and gave it the name napalm.

Thirty years later, in June 1972, Fieser wrote a letter to President Nixon about the way the United States was using his invention in Indochina. "It seems to me desirable," he wrote, "to try to promote an international agreement to outlaw further use of naplam or naplam-type munitions."

Fieser received a reply the next month from Edward E. David Jr., Nixon's science advisor. David wrote that the uses of napalm by the U.S. army in Indochina were "difficult to predict or control," but assured Fieser that "your suggestion will be given very careful attention."

'I got the brush-off from Nixon," Fieser says. But he still doesn't regret having invented napalm; the United State's use of it to burn people, rather than buildings, is what bothers him. "When we were developing napalm," he says, "we never thought of any anti-personnel use. We were thinking in terms of wooden structures, factories."

Fieser first began working on developing new weapons for the U.S. military in late 1940, more than a year before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He was 40 at the time and one of a group of young professors--organized in part by President Emeritus James Bryant Conant '14, a chemist like Fieser--asked by the government to work in secret on weaponry. The government, Conant and all the professors involved took for granted that the United State's eventual entry into the war was inevitable.

Feiser's first assigned project was an experiment with new natural explosives. He hired three assistants and was ready to begin work when the whole project was reorganized and he was switched to poison gases.

"Now I didn't like the idea of poison gases," Fieser says, "but I swallowed my pride and took the assignment." However, during a delay in the work while new safety hoods were being installed in the Harvard labs to protect the scientists from the gases, Fieser got interested in incendiaries.

Incendiaries are solids, liquids or gels that burn well; they are designed to start fires that will destroy buildings. In the early 40s, the United States had only one incendiary, called thermite, and it was generally conceded to be ineffective.

Fieser talked to his superiors about incendiaries, and they agreed to take him off of poison gases. He immediately went to work, experimenting with various jelled fuels.

He would test his jelled compounds by burning them inside a wood frame, and then measuring the weight of the frame after the incendiary had burned out. The lighter the wood was, the more effective the jell.

After trying out many combinations of elements, Fieser hit on a combination of naphthanate and palmatate, which was seven times as effective as thermite. He shortened the name to napalm so that it could be easily pronounced.

The next few years were spent testing napalm and developing new uses for it. Fieser performed test burnings and explosions in the Harvard labs and occasionally outside of Soldier's Field, though the invention remained a closely guarded secret.

The U.S. military started using napalm during the middle of 1942, and by the end of the war was using 75 million pounds a year. Meanwhile, Fieser kept experimenting. Harvard was still paying his salary, although he was working exclusively for the government. His work was still top secret, and he was spending a lot of time traveling to army bases.

Fieser got quite proficient at making napalm. "It's quite simple," he said. "You just take gasoline, sprinkle in some powder, and stir. First it turns into a mixture the consistency of applesauce, and then you let it sit a while and it turns into a thick, tough gel." He pulled a vial of napalm from one of his office shelves; it looks like dried yellow glue. Fieser said that although it was made 30 years ago it would still burn now.

He also invented several kinds of napalm bombs, including a celluloid case filled with napalm and equipped with a time fuse, for use by espionage agents; a tiny, cylindrical napalm bomb with a time fuse, designed to be attached to bats who might nest in enemy installations; and the "Harvard candle", a napalm bomb which could be ignited by a match head attached to its top.

After the war ended, Fieser went back to teaching here. He never worked for the government again. And the army continued to use napalm.

Fieser was aware of the continuing use of his invention, but he didn't become really outraged about it until June 1972, when he read in the Boston Herald Traveler that a napalm accident in Vietnam had killed or maimed 20 civilians and soldiers. He realized that U.S. soldiers were using napalm as an antipersonnel weapon, not just to burn down buildings. He had never suspected that napalm could be useful to the United States because of the way it clung to people's skin while it burned. A week after he read the article, he wrote Nixon.

It is unlikely that any weapon development will go on at Harvard any time in the near future, since there is now a University-wide ban on classified government research. But Fieser is not, despite the abuses of his invention, opposed to professors working on weaponry during wartime.

"I discovered that a jelled fuel burns more efficiently than a free fuel," he says. "I don't think I have to be ashamed of having made that discovery. And I would be the first to suggest that antipersonnel use be outlawed. But how in the world do you make the distinction? Why should the investigator be called on to rule on the uses?"

A recipe for napalm? "You just take gasoline, sprinkle in some powder, and stir."

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