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‘Infernal Jelly’ Turned Koreans Into Potato Chips: Lewis Lapham

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Lewis Lapham
Lewis Lapham of Lapham's Quarterly in New York. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Sept. 25 (Bloomberg) -- During the Korean War, Pfc. James Ransome’s unit was accidentally hit by American napalm. Burned skin rolled off the men like “fried potato chips,” and in unbearable agony, the soldiers begged to be shot.

The use of napalm during the Vietnam War became the target of protests in the U.S., but the American military loved the “infernal jelly.” Oceans of it were dropped on North Korean civilians, whose bodies became “covered with a hard, black crust sprinkled with yellow pus.”

According to Bruce Cumings, Gen. Matthew Ridgway wanted bigger napalm bombs to “wipe out all life in tactical locality,” and by the end of American involvement, the U.S. had dropped nearly 33,000 tons of napalm and 635,000 tons of bombs on North Korea, more than in the entire Pacific Theater during World War II.

Before the armistice in 1953, an estimated two million people died in North Korea, with the majority of their towns and cities destroyed.

I spoke with Cumings, author of “The Korean War,” on the following topics:

1. Japanese Colonialism

2. U.S. Phase 1: War for South

3. Phase 2: Rollback

4. Phase 3: Trench Warfare

5. Napalm Incendiary Bombing

To listen to the podcast, click here. To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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