Fred Branfman, the first person to draw public attention to a previously unknown U.S. bombing campaign inside Laos during the Vietnam War and who later became a leading antiwar activist in Washington, died Sept. 24, 2014 at a medical facility in Budapest, where he had lived for several years. He was 72.
The cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, said his wife, Zsuzsanna Berkovits Branfman.
Mr. Branfman, who was born in New York, moved to Laos, a landlocked nation bordering Vietnam, as an education adviser in 1967. He was fluent in the Laotian language and began to hear reports from refugees who had been driven from their villages by relentless bombing attacks.
He visited the refugee camps himself and learned that thousands of Laotians had been killed. The picturesque Plain of Jars, a region dotted with giant, hollowed-out stone receptacles, had been reduced to ruins.
“I interviewed over 2,000 people,” Mr. Branfman said in “The Most Secret Place on Earth,” a 2008 documentary, “and every single one told the same story.”
Refugees made drawings of the destruction, which depicted U.S. warplanes flying overhead and dropping munitions from the sky. The toll on local residents, animals and vegetation was immense.
Investigations by Mr. Branfman and others revealed that a secret CIA-built air base in Laos was, in effect, the busiest airport in the world. Bombing missions were carried out over Vietnam, but much of the ordnance was dropped on Laos in an effort to disrupt Viet Cong supply routes.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail, used by North Vietnam to supply Viet Cong fighters in South Vietnam, ran through the area, which was also roamed by communist guerrillas known as the Pathet Lao.
To Mr. Branfman, however, nothing could justify the human cost. He first made his discoveries in 1969 and was deported from Laos in 1971 “under pressure from the United States Embassy,” according to a Harper’s magazine article by journalist Christopher Hitchens.
Writing in the New York Times in 1971, after his return to the United States, Mr. Branfman described what Laotian refugees had told him:
“Each, without exception, said that his village had been totally leveled by bombing. Each, without exception, said that he had spent months or even years on end hiding in holes or trenches dug into foothills.
“The refugees say that the bombing began in 1964.”
At a Senate hearing in April 1971, Mr. Branfman said, “There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the United States has been carrying out the most protracted bombing of civilian targets in history.”
A subsequent Washington Post investigation concluded: “By the admission of American officials closely associated with the war there, Laos has been the most heavily bombed country in the history of aerial warfare.”
It was later determined that the United States dropped more bombs on Laos in the 1960s and 1970s than on Germany and Japan combined during World War II. Mr. Branfman edited a collection of writings and artworks by Laotian refugees, “Voices from the Plain of Jars” (1972), which highlighted the devastation of the air war in Laos.
Fredrick Robert Branfman was born March 18, 1942, in New York City. His father was a textile executive.
Mr. Branfman received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago in 1964 and a master’s degree in education from Harvard University in 1965.
In recent years, Mr. Branfman was a frequent contributor to Salon.com, Huffington Post and other publications. He returned several times to Laos, where he spoke with survivors of the bombings and walked among the craters that now mark the Plain of Jars.