It was the most brilliant political theater ever staged in Cincinnati. It was also the stupidest. On November 8, 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, Joseph Schneider and Hester Butterfield announced that, on the upcoming Veterans Day, they would napalm a puppy at the University of Cincinnati.
America went berserk.
At the time, the United States dropped napalm—jellied gasoline—on targets in Vietnam, both military and civilian. American citizens were just beginning to realize how many civilian casualties and, in some cases, massacres, were occurring daily in that faraway land. It was four years before the famous photograph of a naked child, later identified as Phan Thi Kim Phuc, appeared in American newspapers, illustrating the effects of a napalm attack.
The Cincinnati Draft Project’s Ad Hoc Committee to Bring War Atrocities Home aimed to raise awareness by distributing a provocative flyer that read:
You are invited to attend a ritual dog-napalming. Bring family and friends to watch the sacrificial burning of a three-month-old puppy with new, improved, sticky napalm. Veterans Day, 12:30—University of Cincinnati Bridge. Sponsored by the Ad Hoc Committee To Bring War Atrocities Home.
From the outset, to anyone not driven to frothing indignation and, in some cases, violent opposition, by this announcement, it should have been obvious that neither Butterfield nor Schneider had any intention of harming the puppy, who happened to be named Steppenwolf, in any way, shape, or form.
Ms. Butterfield was the granddaughter of Cleveland financier and industrialist Cyrus Eaton. Her whole life—before and after the napalm puppy affair—was devoted to the cause of peace and social justice. Her husband had just begun a four-year prison sentence for draft evasion and she assisted draft resistors finding jobs after prison. Schneider, a 19-year-old student and contributor to the radical Independent Eye newspaper in Cincinnati, hinted in the interviews he gave to the mainstream news media that no puppies would be harmed. His quotes in the Dayton Daily News [November 8, 1968] are typical:
We’ll try our damnedest to make the connection between getting stirred up over the death of a dog, yet . . . going along with the maiming and murder of the Vietnamese. We want to get people really mad and stop us from killing the dog.
Well, he got his wish.
A Cincinnati disk jockey challenged him to a fist fight. The local SPCA and Animal Welfare League threatened legal action. The Cincinnati Enquirer columnist, Frank Weikel, who showed a gullible ability to believe those filthy hippies were capable of anything (Did he really believe Cincinnati’s youth were shooting up with peanut butter?) alerted the cops. Hate mail poured in from all over the country as the stunt made headlines from Mississippi to Maine.
Had anyone paid attention—and it appears that only Dayton Daily News reporter Dan Geringer did—they might have noticed that the Cincinnati Draft Project had previously engaged in at least two prior protests involving guerrilla theater. Dressed in the “black pajama” uniforms of the Viet Cong, they had stormed the stage at an Eden Park “love-in” and dressed two members as “General Cretin Abrams” and “General Lewis B. Hersheybar,” accosting draft-age men in Cincinnati and offering to exchange candy bars for their draft cards.
When Veterans Day arrived, somewhere between 300 and 400 mostly angry people assembled in the Great Hall of UC’s Tangeman University Center to be either relieved or outraged to learn that no puppies were going to be harmed that day. Organizer Schneider announced:
I could no more burn that puppy with napalm than I could burn a Vietnamese kid or a member of this audience.
After realizing that no flaming napalm was going to be poured on an innocent puppy, almost all the audience dispersed. Around 80 stuck around for a discussion, highlighted by one spectator howling:
You say we can’t trust the Pentagon because it’s a big lie and we can’t trust the President because he’s a big lie. Well, I say we can’t trust you because you’re a big lie.
It is unclear whether he was upset because a dog was not burned or not.
For his part, Schneider realized he had failed to get his point across. In a column, printed in the Independent Eye on December 2,1968:
Judging from the volume and contents of the hate mail flooding the Cincinnati Draft Project office, the infamous Veteran’s Day puppy napalming, intended as a guerrilla theatre stunt, proved more educational to its perpetrators than its intended audience. What came as a shock was the gullibility which Cincinnati displayed in believing that a group of pacifists was going to burn a live animal, especially since similar stunts had been done elsewhere and were covered by the national press. And although we already had enough reason to believe in the American genius for violence, we were surprised at the ‘animal lovers’ who threatened to ‘burn the creeps’ in order to save the dog.
Columnist Weikel, Schneider noted, “was one of the few who seemed genuinely disappointed that we didn’t burn the dog.”
While the humans debated, Steppenwolf, the “fire-proof puppy” played unharmed outside in the leaves.