Article: The Man Who Invented Napalm

The Man Who Invented Napalm

 Time January 5, 1968 
  Business Week February 10, 1969

Dr. Louis Fieser, 68, is one of the nation's most distinguished chemists. A professor emeritus at Harvard, he has won a number of national awards for his research into the chemical causes of cancer, and was a member of the U.S. Surgeon General's committee that issued the 1964 report linking cigarette smoke with the disease. Fieser was also a pioneer in developing laboratory production of vitamin K, the body's blood-clotting agent, and antimalarial drugs. Despite these impressive credentials of service to mankind, he has lately received a number of angry letters. Reason: back in 1943, Fieser invented napalm.

The discovery was something of a coup for Fieser. His research team at Harvard beat chemists from Du Pont and Standard Oil in a Government competition to develop napalm. In the course of his research, Fieser found a perfectly good civilian use for the product: it made a fine crab-grass killer, burning away its seeds while leaving good grass roots untouched. During and after World War II, he received several letters of thanks for his invention, which soldiers claimed saved saves thousands of American lives in battle. No one ever complained to him about the use of napalm until Vietnam.

Unlike some of the physicists who helped produce the atomic bomb, Fieser has no moral qualms about his role in producing one of modern warfare's most fearful weapons: "I have no right to judge the morality of napalm just because I invented it." Nor does he blame the Dow Chemical Co. for manufacturing napalm: "If the Government asked them to take a contract, and they're the best ones in a position to do so, then they're obliged to do it."

As a scientist, Fieser refuses to engage in debate on the Vietnam war, on the ground that "I don't know enough about the situation." A researcher, he insists, cannot be responsible for how other people use his inventions. "You don't know what's coming," he says. "I was working on a technical problem that was considered pressing. I'd do it again, if called upon, in defense of the country."

Why Dow continues
to make napalm


The demonstrations stirred a lot of soul searching. But after weighing the moral and practical aspects, Dow decided that its first obligation was to the government

Demonstrations against Dow continue without letup.
This week, Rutgers students staged a sit-in at Newark campus.

Not long ago, Jack Jones, Jr., a reformed newspaperman (Daily Oklahoman, Toledo Blade) bailed out of a back window on a California campus to escape a howling mob of students battering down the door. With him were three frightened IBM recruiters and Hans Beetz, a Dow Chemical Co. lab administrator. Jones, the West Coast public relations representative for Dow, made tracks with Beetz for their car, where the students caught up with them and rocked the locked car until the beleaguered Dow representatives' teeth rattled.

Heroic act. Most corporate PR men caught in such undignified circumstances would sooner renounce martinis than do what Jones did once the two men had managed to drive to safety: He called a press conference. His blow-by-blow account of the incident even achieved the ultimate in negative PR by being picked up by Pravda, which headlined the story, "Out the Back Window, Mr. Jones."

To a top management that believed that the best course of action under similar circumstances would be to attain maximum invisibility and wait for the dust to clear, Jones action would be grounds for immediate dismissal. But at Dow Chemical, now midway through its second year of campus protests, the matter is seen differently. For the company has taken the view that it is better to confront the issue directly. Dow is the target of campus protests because it makes napalm, a liquid incendiary fired from flame throwers or dropped in fire bomb canisters. More precisely, Dow mixes the napalm, which is composed of 46% polystyrene, which it makes, 33% gasoline, and 21% benzene.

Emotional issue. To its critics, napalm represents the fiery essence of all that is horrible about the war in Vietnam. For Dow, this has meant 55 separate campus demonstrations against company recruiters during the 1966-67 school year, beginning with the first one at Berkeley on Oct. 10 1966, and 64 demonstrations - 46 on the West Coast - during the first semester of this year.

Target. The Demonstrations are probably directed more at the Vietnam war itself than at napalm and its manufacturer. E.N. Brandt, the Dow public relations director, believes they are caused by "a very small group of activist students and a core of faculty people." He adds: "They collect quite a fringe because they are against the war and you can get almost anybody against the war."

Some of its competitors in the chemical industry think Dow made a mistake when it decided to continue recruiting on campus in the face of so much harassment. One industry public relations man, who believes Dow could avoid the whole brouhaha by shifting its recruiting away from the campus and transferring the napalm operation to government property, terms the decision "an incredible botch." In his view, Dow's subsequent decision to debate the issue whenever it feels there is at least some chance for a dialogue merely compounds the error.

Chairman Gerstacker says,
"I am proud of doing my duty."
But for Dow Chairman Carl A. Gerstacker and President Herbert D. Doan, as well as for Brandt, such criticism is invalid because it is based on the assumption that the best way to solve the problem is to back away from it. That is definitely not the assumption in Dow's headquarters on the banks of the Tittabawassee River in Midland, Mich. (pop. 35,000, no movie theater). There the motives for not backing down run as deep the brine that underlies the town.

"We deliberately confront the issue in our recruiting," says Doan. "It is necessary, as a matter of principle. One never knows how far he will go in standing on principle until confronted with a specific issue, but we feel we should be able to talk to these kids." It is the continuation of on-campus recruiting, particularly through college placement offices, that continues to embroil Dow in what amounts essentially to avoidable confrontations with overwrought students. Doan's decision was based on recommendations by Brandt after consultation with Ramon F. Rolf, Dow's recruiting chief. Pressures. Brandt's and Rolf's advice, in turn, was based on a mixture of practical and theoretical considerations. As Rolf puts it, the most important factor is that "to procure the best manpower we can get for Dow Chemical, it's the desirable thing to work through the placement offices. Competition among chemical companies for the 4,200 chemical engineers who graduate each year is "incredible," he says, and Dow must compete to get our share." So far, it has. "Recruiting is up quantitatively," says Doan, "Mostly in Ph.Ds, though. Qualitatively, the results aren't in yet."

The placement office, Rolf points out, is treated as neutral ground by all recruiting companies, and for Dow to use "subterfuge" would be to undermine its effectiveness. Other companies would feel compelled to do the same thing in order to compete with Dow, be says. According to another Dow official, the College Placement Council has "practically begged" the company to continue on-campus recruiting through placement offices. . . . Overriding these issues in Brandt's view was the importance of setting an example for the students as "a company which stands firmly for what it believes in."

Taking a stand.This argument appeals to Doan, who says: "This way you're not a hypocrite. One of the student complaints about business now is that it doesn't stand for much except profits. Maybe we ought to take a stand or two for the benefit of the kids." Dow could also extricate itself from the dispute simply by not making napalm. Its decision to continue, as reflected in the renewal last month of the original 1965 contract with the government, was not arrived at lightly. "The whole business came down to a judgment of whether our government has at least a reasonable argument," Doan says. The original bid to make napalm, Doan recalls, was made by Dow's Government Affairs Dept. "as a routine matter of business." And, he adds, "Like so many things in business, it did not start with a decision but required one later." The bid was brought to the attention of the board of directors and executive committee by government affairs chief A. P. Beutel.

'Routine' decision. Beutel also described the decision as a routine one. As be recalls it: "We were involved in styron as a prime manufacturer, so we bid on it [napalm] competitively with four other authentic bidders in July, 1965. We got part of it, and part went to United Technology Center."

President Doan feels napalm
is a weapon "for saving lives."
UTC, a division of United Aircraft Corp., was later made the target of napalm demonstrations at its rented plant in Redwood City, Calif. It did not bid again when it fulfilled the contract. Doan remembers that the first time Dow officials discussed the possibility that the contract might create problems was in the spring of 1966, when demonstrators picketed the annual meeting of Witco Chemical Co. The company was then making napalm but has since ceased. Then, on May 29, pickets appeared at Dow's Torrance (Calif.) plant, where the napalm is mixed, as well as in front of its Rockefeller Center sales office in New York.

Thus although most people associate anti-Dow demonstrations with the campus, they did not begin there (the first one at Berkeley came four months later). And demonstrations at Dow installations and sales offices have been going on ever since the Torrance incident. Pickets march occasionally in front of the company ‘s San Francisco sales office. . . .There has also been a demonstration in Midland by University of Michigan, students.

Broader view. To the extent that Dow's refusal to back down in the face of pressure is a matter of principle, as both Gerstacker and Doan assert, a good measure of the reason may lie in some ironies that Dow's management believes exist:
  • That top management of a company that sold an estimated $1.4 billion worth of goods in 1967 and has some 35,000 employees should ,devote half of its time to a product which Brandt says “we fell into quite innocently and involves 20 people on the payroll," and accounts for less than 0.5% of sales.
  • That a company with a sense of social mission should be accused of murder and genocide. Company officials recall wryly that in 1967 some 8 million children were inoculated with a one-shot measles vaccine developed by a Dow subsidiary. "Give them a few years," says one official, "and they could be carrying a sign reading 'Dow Shall Not Kill.'"

The issues in which Dow finds itself entangled raise important questions that will not be readily answered, either by Dow or anyone else: . . . .

  • Given the government's competence, what judgments are businessmen capable of making regarding the use of weapons? "I hold no brief for the war," says Doan, "but I have convinced myself it was a good thing we were there in the first place. By now I am convinced this [napalm] is a good weapon for saving lives. It is a strategic weapon essential to the pursuit of the tactic we are engaged in without exorbitant loss of American lives."

On this final point, best-selling novelist Robert Crichton, writing in the New York Review of Books, says that “the justification for this behavior . . .lies in the words 'saving American lives.' Any action can be condoned, any excess tolerated, any injustice justified, if it can be made to fit this formula. The excessive valuation on American life, over any other life, accounts for the weapons and tactics we feel entitled to use. . . ."

As far as the immediate future is concerned, Dow expects to persevere in its course - and it expects the demonstrations to continue. It knows of eight trouble spots where Dow recruiters can expect protest demonstrations next week alone.

The situation is such that Dow recruiters are at least mentally prepared for trouble. In fact, one of' them, W. L. Hendershot, was once locked in a room so long by University of Wisconsin students that he now packs a sandwich for emergency rations in his briefcase. The current imprisonment record is held by Dr. Frederick C. Leavitt, a Dow researcher who like many of his colleagues makes several recruiting trips a year. He was once cornered in a conference room for seven hours by 200 Harvard students.

The demonstrators, for their part, will doubtless persevere, too. Timothy McCarthy, assistant national secretary of the Students for a Democratic Society ("7,000 paid members, 20,000 non-paid"), says that 11 the demonstrations against Dow will go on. “They're still making napalm, aren’t they?" McCarthy adds that "while Dow says that we have caused them no real problem, I think can be said that today Dow has come to mean something dirty in the minds of many people."

Continuing clash. C. B. Cowan of Oakland, Calif., is chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee of All People Against War, a new offshoot of a group known as the Western Mobilization Against War, a general anti-war protest committee. Cowan's, committee is charged with conducting non-disruptive protests against Dow plants and offices on the West Coast. He says:

"The U.S. is using napalm as a tactical weapon against personnel including non-participants in the war such as Vietnamese women and children, and Dow is the basic manufacturer of napalm. Dow is no more guilty than other manufacturers of goods, but napalm is the best weapon that exemplifies the U.S.'s immoral actions, and napalm is the best subject that lends itself to controversy about the war."

Brandt counters by saying that any sign of vacillating or changing our mind "will be very damaging to us. We would like to have them think of Dow Chemical as being a defender of their right of dissent by standing up for what it believes in. They will have some respect Dow Chemical, and this may be as much as we can hope for."