Napalm Burned at City Hall

Steve Propes

The United States involvement in the Vietnam War during the 1960s produced a revolution, domestically and worldwide, ending the LBJ administration and bedeviling the Nixon administration from 1968 when he won the presidency.

This was a dogged and most unpopular war, probably the most opposed in the close to 200 years of the United States. And one of the most despised weapons of this war was napalm, which represented the literal slash and burn approach to war making.

Fifty years ago, in 1969, the manufacture of napalm was moved from Torrance to a factory in Long Beach. Though this ground zero aspect of our town attracted some opposition and picketing at the time, not much of a record remains in the documented history of the Viet Nam Era. Nor does the memory of the Long Beach City Hall almost burning down from an unexpected and unique napalm demonstration appear in any known history.

Napalm was nothing new in the military chemical armory. “A highly flammable sticky jelly used in incendiary bombs and flamethrowers, consisting of gasoline thickened with special soaps,” as described in Wikipedia, “Napalm developed in 1942 in a secret laboratory at Harvard University, by a team led by chemist Louis Fieser under the United States Chemical Warfare Service.

Intrinsic in its impact was to make fire stick to any affected surface, like the human body. Like all weapons of war, napalm did not distinguish between military and civilian victims. “Napalm had been used in the incendiary bombs that devastated large swaths of Japanese cities during World War II, including some 60 percent of Tokyo.”

In 1965, the Pentagon requested bids from the 17 U.S. companies that made polystyrene, a key ingredient in napalm. “One of the winning bids was from a small company based in Midland, Michigan, called Dow Chemical. Dow was only ranked 75th on a 1967 list of military contractors; before getting into the napalm business, it was best known as the maker of Saran Wrap.”

Soon, Dow became the military’s sole supplier of napalm, its use in the Vietnam War was most controversial and was the only corporate target on this issue. With its plant, located in Torrance, only a few miles from the Navy base in Long Beach, shipping it to the war zone was straight-forward.

Apparently, Dow’s senior management was unaware of the napalm contract at signing, it was considered such a minor matter. And even at the height of production, only a few Dow employees worked in the napalm division of a total workforce of 35,000.

The Students for a Democratic Society made plans to picket the Dow plant in Torrance on May 28, 1966. About 150 anti-picketers showed up, including members of pro-war groups such as the local branch of the Victory in Vietnam Association, headed by recently ousted Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.

Dow plants and college recruiters were besieged by anti-war demonstrators and were called “baby killers.” Dow’s board began discussing stopping the manufacture of napalm. On January 22, 1968, Torrance Mayor Albert Isen and other city officials paid tribute to the local Dow plant and its employees, no doubt to motivate them to stay the course and stay in town. He cited the company and its employees for their courage and patriotic stand during a time of crisis and for their example.

As the five million dollar napalm contract amounted to less than one half of one percent of Dow’s worldwide sales, based on negative publicity, the company gave it up in 1969. After Dow Chemical, the government contract was awarded to a local subsidiary of the American Electric Company.

On December 2, 1969, protesters planned to protest the contract at the Long Beach City Hall, then hold a candle light vigil at the Long Beach Naval station, hoping to be joined by anti-war military personnel, said CT Weber, head of the local Peace and Freedom Party. Picketing was also to occur at the manufacturing plant, the American Electric subsidiary, Diamond Plastics at 6373 Paramount Blvd. in Long Beach.

“We used to go down to the City Council a lot,” said perennial peace activist, 94-year-old John Donohue. “C.T. Weber went down to complain about the napalm factory. Here comes C.T. with a roasting pan. He put in some napalm and lit it at the lectern. He had a hell of a time getting it out, just about burned up city hall.”

There were no arrests, no FBI investigation. No mention of “homeland security” or “terrorism.” Apparently, everybody just went home, grateful city hall was still standing. “That was the end of napalm,” said Donohue. In 2003, Weber was the Peace and Freedom candidate for California governor against Arnold Schwarzenegger. He finished 50th, behind Larry Flynt and Gary Coleman, with 1,626 votes.

These days, the Paramount Boulevard site is used by an auto parts manufacturer.


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