Theses Doctoral

Napalm, An American Biography

Neer, Robert Marshall

This dissertation offers a history of napalm from its invention in 1942 at Harvard University to President Barack Obama's signature on 21 January 2008 of the first U.S. treaty to limit its use. It describes the incendiary weapon's creation through a partnership between government and academia; deployment in both Europe and the Pacific, culminating with the firebombing of Japan's major cities in 1945; extensive use during the Korean War, and many other conflicts; and transformation in public opinion from a marvel to a monster so horrible Pentagon commanders won't mention it, and commentators routinely cite it as an icon of savage cruelty.

The history traces this change in public opinion to media coverage during the Vietnam War that raised awareness of the weapon's effects on civilians; protests against the war and the Dow Chemical Corporation that started in 1965 and defined the gel as barbaric; U.S. defeat in Vietnam; commentary by opinion makers after the war, especially Hollywood film-makers; the rise of a global popular culture linked by electronic media; changes in international law; and development of alternative weapons. The study concludes that napalm's story highlights the significance of worldwide communications and popular culture, the increased importance of civilian casualties in war, the important role social movements and international law play in the formulation of social norms, and the increasing power of global opinion to constrain national authorities.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Jackson, Kenneth T.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 28, 2013