Chemical manufacturer Dow Corning has been getting an unexpected bit of PR in recent seasons of “Mad Men,” but Dow said the AMC drama is playing a bit loose with company history.
In the most recent episode of "Mad Men," character Ken Cosgrove says of his father-in-law, a Dow Corning executive: "If he wants people to stop hating him, he should stop dropping napalm on children."
And in an episode first aired in 2012, John Slattery’s character, Roger Sterling, tells Don Draper’s daughter of a certain (fictional) company executive: “He’s at Dow Corning. They make beautiful dishes, glassware ... napalm.”
Company spokesman Jarrod Erpelding said at the time that the reference was inaccurate.
“We don’t have much to say about a quote in ‘Mad Men’ last night, other than the fact that we do not/never did make glassware, dishes or napalm,” Erpelding told the website MLive in April 2012. “So, while we’re flattered to be a part of the fictional ‘Mad Men,’ it was an inaccurate reference.”
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That’s technically correct, but Dow Corning, which currently specializes in silicon-based products, does have close corporate ties to the company that became synonymous with napalm. Dow Corning is a joint venture of glassmaker Corning Inc. (previously known as Corning Glass Works), and Dow Chemical, which in the 1960s became best known as the U.S. military’s main source for the stuff used to burn down North Vietnamese jungles and villages.
Military-grade napalm was invented in 1943, by a Harvard chemist named Louis Fieser, who was also the first scientist to synthesize vitamin K. Fieser was also involved a less-successful wartime project called Project X-Ray, which involved strapping tiny bombs to bats and setting them loose on Japanese cities.
The first version of napalm was employed by the U.S. in attacks on Tokyo and other Japanese cities in World War II. Another variant called napalm B was used in the Vietnam War and was much easier to make: a relatively simple mixture of benzene, polystyrene and gasoline. Before Dow Chemical won a Pentagon contract to make napalm for the military in 1965, it had previously been most well-known for producing Saran Wrap.
There were originally other chemical manufacturers producing napalm for the government, but they began dropping out, and, by the time the anti-war movement had reached its zenith, Dow Chemical was the only company still making the stuff.
Vietnam was the first televised war, so the horrifying effects of napalm were quickly broadcast. The compound is like a thickly jellied gasoline and, once it sticks to flesh, is hard to remove. One of the more iconic images of the Vietnam War -- an Associated Press photograph of a nine-year-old girl running down a road naked, screaming -- was snapped after the South Vietnamese Air Force dropped a napalm bomb on the village of Trang Bang. The girl in the photo, Kim Phuc, had torn off her burning clothes as she fled.
Only a small percent of Dow Chemical’s business came from the production of napalm. But in the late 1960s, college students across the country began protesting at the company’s campus recruitment events, and the name Dow Chemical quickly became synonymous with “napalm.”
“In 1967, the Dow board discussed whether to stop producing napalm; although there were dissenters, the board voted to stay the course,” the PBS program American Experience reported. “Meanwhile, Dow recruiters found themselves trapped in interview rooms, spat on, forced to hustle out of back exits and called ‘baby killers.’”
Dow Chemical also got into the war business with the manufacture of another chemical weapon: Agent Orange, a potent herbicide that is blamed for hundreds of thousands of birth defects in Vietnam, lingering health effects in U.S. veterans and persistent environmental damage. With Agent Orange, though, Dow didn’t stand alone: Chemical company Monsanto, now known more for its genetically modified crops, was another manufacturer.
Dow Corning hasn’t exactly escaped controversy either. As of this past February, the company has paid out nearly $1.3 billion to more than 120,000 women taking part in a class-action lawsuit over the company’s silicone breast implants.