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Fred Branfman Risked His Life for Ordinary People
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Fred was one of the bravest and most decent journalists I ever encountered.

He exposed the terrorism of the U.S. “carpet bombing” over Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia that was explicitly aimed at “drying up the sea” of millions of innocent village people that the U.S. government claimed were providing cover to the enemy during the Vietnam War. And when those people refused to accept our definition of their enemy, and return the love offered by our fragmentation bombs shredding their children’s bodies, we bombed them more still.

That immense tragedy was all the more poignant in Laos, one of the most underdeveloped and isolated nations in the world. It had nothing to provide but its bewildered population to serve as possible targets for Pentagon planners. I had been to Laos before Fred and after he did his brave, epic reporting on the devastation of that country by U.S. bombing of technologically primitive villagers, whom I had delighted with gifts of pencils. We shared many sorrowful discussions about the madness of U.S. policy and the immense suffering that our country had visited upon a people who were barely aware of what the bombers were up to.

Fred risked his life repeatedly for years gathering the stories of people in Laos, whom U.S. policymakers denied had stories worth listening to, and instead were treated simply as inevitable collateral damage of no moral importance.

Fred, who had spent years as an aid worker, knew better, respecting the humanity of people who had never flown in a jet plane but sensed far more about the value and meaning of life than the sophisticated killers who so casually destroyed them.

His great work, driven by an immense humanitarian concern, continued in his last years and provided Truthdig with the honor of being allowed to publish one of the world’s most sensitive journalists.

Robert Scheer is editor of, where this column originally appeared. Email him at [email protected]

• Category: History 
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  1. WhatEvvs [AKA "Bemused"] says:

    I had never heard of Fred Branfman.

    Thank you.

  2. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I do not know whether we bombed villages to “dry up the sea” or not. But I do know that the NVA would pull a 155mm howitzer out of a cave a couple of miles inside Laos to attempt to hit the Chinook I was crewing whenever we flew to a hill that was to easy to shell from Laos. This was Feb 1968 and at that time our artillery was not allowed to shell the NVA Howitzer as it was in Neutral Laos. What was most unfortunate was that FDR died before the end of WWII as he had no intention of allowing the French to have IndoChina back as a colony. And why should they? Ho’s forces got many downed American pilot to China to fly again. The Vichey French turned downed pilots over to the Japanese who executed them.

  3. seth says:

    When I was a teenager in the 1980s I interned with Fred at a couple of think tanks he ran in DC. He was a really thoughtful and nice guy who took an interest in me, and I wish I had been less callow at the time and took advantage of his mentorship.

    Fred brought Mark Lane to the office after work one day to give me and a couple of other interns his lowdown on American history from the other side of the looking glass. He brought me to his house, where he had a ping-pong table set up in the living room and a chalkboard to keep score, and treated me like a grown-up when I was an obnoxious kid.

    Fred would address everyone he met as “Friend,” which I picked up from him: it is a more civilized way to get people’s attention than yelling out “Hey!”

    It wasn’t until I was much older and reading about the history of the Vietnam War that I realized that Fred had done such important work. He was totally down-to-earth and humble.

    • Agree: pink_point
  4. Fred’s stomping ground as an ‘aid worker’ was opium central. It’d have been by far more impressive if he’d exposed the USA’s clandestine (military/CIA) considerable share/control of the opium traffickers and heroin processing labs in Laos.

    Instead he ultimately ran off to meditate with Ram Dass… and the American intelligence control of much of this world’s international narcotics trade goes unchallenged-unchecked with major players like Robert Gates wielding undue influence to this day, inclusive of rolling the the American heroin supply over from Laos to Afghanistan, meanwhile having facilitated the cocaine trade in Latin America (with ample MOSSAD help during the Iran-Contra period.)

    No, Robert Scheer, I’m most definitely NOT impressed.

    • Replies: @Hugo
  5. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    It’s always the right thing to do, upon an individual’s passing, to emphasize his/her positive achievements, rather than dwell on the more questionable acts of that life. But, I was a little surprised at the extent of the adulation directed towards Fred when, unfortunately, he died a bit before his time not long ago. I can’t claim a close association with him, and indeed saw him on only one occasion – in Vientiane, Laos in October or November of 1970 – not long after my own arrival in that country. It was at the Lao-style stilt house in Vientiane of a fellow member of IVS, the minimally-paid, Mennonite-founded voluntary organization I’d joined to teach History and Asian Civilization at the Lao National Teachers’ College at Dong Dok, a green, leafy area surrounded by rice fields on the very edge of the Government-controlled greater Vientiane zone. IVS was the same organization which Fred has indicated he had joined and served in some years previously in order to escape the US Draft. Our motivations were obviously different. My own reasons for volunteering for Laos had nothing to do with the Draft, as I’d already served a tour of duty in the US Army in Vietnam. Over that year, I’d fallen in love with Asia and had subsequently acquired a Master’s Degree in Oriental Studies, focused on East Asia. My purpose was to get back to a region I loved. We teachers at Dong Dok – specializing in Science, Mathematics, History, Geography, English Language & Literature, and Education – benefited from an unofficial agreement with the Communist Pathet Lao, whose armed forces dominated the countryside just beyond the boundaries of our campus. Recognizing the benefit of acquiring trained teachers once they’d eventually taken over the country, they said they wouldn’t kill or capture us if we stayed within the Government zone. IVS volunteers in other postings in Laos weren’t always so lucky. A handful of American IVS Community Development volunteers, along with their Lao assistants, had been deliberately targeted and murdered by the Pathet Lao in 1969, the year before I came, in a concerted campaign to eliminate Government influence from the areas where those volunteers were sacrificing their own energy and comfort to dig wells, introduce health education, and improve agricultural techniques. Those volunteers lived the same simple, Spartan life of the villagers they were helping. Much has been made, for example by Mr. Scheer, of the dangers to which Fred willingly subjected himself. But, I’ve seen nothing to indicate that was the case. Only a committed conspiracy theorist could believe he would ever have been in danger from US Government authorities, or from the Lao Government, during his time in Laos. That sort of thing just didn’t happen. I was there for 4 1/2 years, considerably longer than Fred, and I’ve never heard of any such thing. I’m sure I would have heard if it had. The murders came from the other side, from the Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese directors and supporters. The systematic murders of IVS volunteers in the Laos countryside mirrored exactly the techniques which had been in use for more than a decade in South Vietnam, where Government teachers, medical workers, administrators, and even such low-level functionaries as postmen were systematically murdered by Viet Cong assassins. Almost certainly, the Pathet Lao murder of IVS volunteers in Laos were enacted upon North Vietnamese advice, and likely at their explicit direction. The Pathet Lao were essentially pawns of the Communist Vietnamese, both during the war and for decades thereafter – some think even now. But, it appears virtually certain that these are the people with whom Fred, carrying on a comfortable – and indeed as he tells it indulgent – life within the Government-controlled safe-zone, was cooperating, at the very time when his fellow volunteers in IVS were being murdered in the distant provincial villages. He tells the story of collaborating during 1969 with an individual who – he eventually acknowledges – was a Pathet Lao or North Vietnamese agent. This was the individual who played the key role of editing – and I strongly suspect translating and actually undertaking – the ‘interviews’ with the refugees from the Plain of Jars, whom Fred alleged had been the deliberate civilian target of US bombing. I’m far from convinced it happened just the way these two conspired to claim. But, the book they jointly produced was a hit with the anti-war Left in the US, and Fred went on to a starring role in the company of Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, and other movement luminaries, with whom he became closely associated. My own indelible impression of Fred goes back to that day in the fall of 1970, when I saw him across the courtyard of my IVS host’s home on the Wattay Road. He stuck out like a sore thumb, because he was wearing the bizarre costume of black-silk peasant pajamas associated almost exclusively in those days with the Viet Cong. Nobody in Laos, not even Vietnamese, wore that costume. Most of the Vietnamese there had come as minor functionaries in the French colonial establishment and, as respectable urbanites, wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing peasant garb, either Lao or Vietnamese. Especially not Vietnamese. No, as Fred made clear in a backhanded acknowledgement, wearing that strange costume as he careened flamboyantly around Vientiane on his motorcycle, on his way to one of the girly bars, bordellos, or other “entertainment” venues he acknowledged patronizing, he was deliberately making a political statement. He was showing whose side he was on, and it wasn’t the side of the Lao Government or IVS, in whose service he was supposed to be acting – and who were providing him the alternative service he’d deliberately sought out to avoid the genuinely lethal dangers of American military service in Vietnam. Having actually served in Vietnam, where that costume was often worn by people who were our deadly enemies, I instantly recognized the image Fred was endeavoring to flaunt and kept my distance. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to meet him. Shortly thereafter, he returned to the US and began his star career as an anti-war protester. Upon returning to my faculty apartment at Dong Dok, however, I did question a veteran IVS teacher as to who the black-pajama wearing fellow might be. He sort of chuckled and said, “Oh, that’s Fred Branfman.The rumor in IVS is that he’s a courier working for the enemy.” That was enough for me. I never thought of him again until I saw notices of his recent death.

    • Agree: Lost american, anarchyst
    • Replies: @Craig Nelsen
    , @LSmith
    , @Anon
  6. @Anonymous

    Your account is believable. But paragraphs, man, paragraphs!

    • Agree: Irish Savant, AceDeuce
  7. Alden says:

    This is an old article so my comment probably won’t be posted but why is an article by pro communist, Marxist, Weather Underground terrorist, 1964 Cal Berkely rioter, friend of the terrorists who kidnapped and raped patty Hearst and murdered several people along the way doing on this site?

    Scheer wrote daily columns that appeared on the editorial pages. He defended Rodney King and sided with the blacks who committed the Rodney king riots. In fact his columns agitated for the riot from the day King was arrested. Scheer like many liberals wants all Whites dead and gone so he and his ilk can reign over a subservient permanent under class of blacks and browns.

    He participated in the Twana Brawley hoax. When it turned out every word of her rape accusation was a total lie he defended her and her sponsor Al Sharpton on the grounds that it symbolized all black women who had ever been raped by White men. He defended filthy rap music and every black muslim and race hustler in existence while preaching the destruction of Whites.

  8. He was no Bill Brasky!

  9. Hugo says:
    @Ronald Thomas West

    I’m trying to decipher what Scheer and Branfman have in common.. Can’t quite put my finger on it..

  10. J1234 says:

    Doesn’t phase out two and a half year old articles? Or archive them or something?

  11. LSmith says:

    I enjoyed reading this…I always like reading these personal ‘back stories’ one would never hear about otherwise, except when accidentally coming upon them on the internet…Thanks ‘anonymous’.

  12. anon111 says:

    I’m trying to decipher what Scheer and Branfman have in common.. Can’t quite put my finger on it..

    exactly, and 90% of Americans prob have no idea either that its one of the tribe patting another of the tribe on the back for – offering a one-sided criticism of U.S. war strategy? trying to make America look bad?

    generally it would be fine if similar didn’t happen over and over and over again

    let me know how many of the tribe served in the Vietnam War vs their percentage of the population and then criticize me. until then….

    • Replies: @FO337
  13. Elizabeth Warren is ostensibly 1/64 to 1/1024 “Native American”, with a “mean” of 1/256 or 0.39%, and perhaps as little as 0.10%. Correct?

    So how does she compare to the rest of “European Americans”?

    In recent years geneticists have been uncovering new evidence about our shared heritage, and last week a team of scientists published the biggest genetic profile of the United States to date [2014], based on a study of 160,000 people… The researchers found that European-Americans had genomes that were on average 98.6 percent European, .19 percent African, and .18 Native American.

  14. FO337 says:

    Not just patting one another on the back–against which I’d have little objection–but continually lauding one another in the media as though they’re some sort of privileged tribe. Having Scheer and Branfman counterpose themselves against so-called ‘ordinary people’ chafes just a bit.

  15. A chattering-class jew writing about a do-gooder, anti-American/West jew. Please stop giving aid and comfort to these jewish traitors. Pretty sure that after the author gave out his pencils and felt his smug self-satisfaction that he high-tailed it out of that Third-World shite-hole most rikky-tik.

  16. Gg Mo says:

    I had not heard of him either . Thank you. Memory eternal.

  17. rumiluv says:

    G-d it’s on the tip of my tongue!

  18. @Hugo

    Got me stumped as well…..

  19. Anon[112] • Disclaimer says:

    Thanks for that story.

    The adulation from this article was suspicious to me.

    It seems that such anti-war coverage is more detrimental to one’s country than supportive. Isn’t the better option to work within the establishment, and then to work for reparations after the war?

    Why try to stir up social crisis within your country? Why try to decrease patriotism and national confidence?

    Especially in wartime, when few citizens really know what the heck is going on in the war. Only military commanders really know the full situation, and media reporters are free to spin the crap out of every situation and get away with it.

    During war, it is best for the common people to press on. War crimes can and should be settled afterwards.

    This “American Guilt” is just as psychologically destructive to our people as “White Guilt.”

    Sounds like this guy had an antipathetic “revolutionary spirit” to me. Sounds like the actions of a bitter, hateful minority that wants to tear down the majority civilization that they are estranged from.

    • Agree: Lost american
  20. MrTea says:

    Branfman–and a Harvard post-doc who traveled a bit after the fall of South Vietnam–is the source of the “Laos is the most-bombed place in the world” story. You can hear it replicated on the “Democracy Now” site archives.
    It’s bunk. To get to the numbers they claim (4 million tons) it would require a nearly-continuous stream of B-52s, with air-refueling missions in support all while doing the REAL carpet-bombing that went on mostly in the V.Nam “DMZ” (calling that the “demilitarized zone” is up at the top of all-time “Orwellianisms”. The border of V. Nam and Laos was where they “moonscaped” it–while the multiple trails (there was no single Ho Chi Minh “trail”) through Laos and Cambodia were left untouched until Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia in 1970.

    I was the son of a Strategic Air Command officer who served in SE Asia during the war–a B-52 guy who came out of WW2 with LeMay. I got an earful from SAC officers before, during, and after my father’s deployment and I was close friends of the family of one of the commanders who engineered the end-of-war “Christmas Bombing” op called “Linebacker 2”. The military was never permitted to choose targets for bombing and people got court martialed over this.

    Space does not permit even a shallow dip in the crimes against history that surround these stories. Perhaps the most egregious ever was the recent PBS atrocity by Ken Burns which rushed through the whole story of LB 2 in about 30 seconds (it deserved an hour by itself but the “history” did not include a single B-52 guy or even any USAF evidence). There are several excellent histories of the matter probably the best is “The Eleven Days of Christmas” by F-111 pilot Marshal Michel.

    The “secret” bombing of Cambodia was well-aired in Congressional hearings with USAF brass and extensive documentation. The Laos ops could not have happened at all in 1967-68 because the USAF personnel there told me how they could not go across the border, they even had to fly around the Cambodian line (when flying out of Thailand) then. The details about the not-so-covert ops in Laos are best explained in “Tragic Mountains” focusing on the Hmong people and their relationship with US CIA and military (their homeland got invaded by the Viet Minh in 1954, I’ve seen their own historical materials in which they explain how glad they were to get armed by US ops as until then they were fighting with self-fashioned and scavenged weapons only. The book that tries to make Branfman’s case shows a few bomb craters, right in line with the notion that sometime F-100s and F-4s did in fact jettison unspent munitions rather than fly all the way back with them. Millions of tons of bombs alters the landscape in a far more dramatic fashion than what those pictures show.

    The poster above relating the monstrous conduct of the Pathet Lao is correct, they are still “disappearing” indigenous activists who are conspicuously absent from the annals of US leftists whiners. You can go on YouTube and see if “Hunted Like Animals” or “Bloody Wednesday” are still up. Our State Dept has been a “partner in crime” during the Obama admin at least their web page for Laos showed the US ambassadress posing with a couple nervous-looking Hmong in traditional garb in Vientiane (nowhere near where they actually live).

    The entirety of the Vietnam war is constructed on a ghastly lie about the nature of what the military was ordered to do by the likes of McNamara and Johnson (neither of whom ever saw combat though FDR’s crew in the Department of War arranged for LBJ to get a Silver Star for taking a plane ride). I’ll let John McCain (who got to say nothing in the Burns doc) state it as he did when Brian Lamb of C-Span gave him the chance in the last year of his life:

    “When I got shot down I was bombing a pile of rubble that had already been bombed 12 times. It was right next to a perfectly good bridge carrying heavy trucks with war materiel headed south, but the Powers that Be said we couldn’t touch it”.

    • Agree: Lost american
    • Replies: @Anonymous
  21. Anonymous[622] • Disclaimer says:

    I’ll let John McCain (who got to say nothing in the Burns doc) state it as he did when Brian Lamb of C-Span gave him the chance in the last year of his life:

    “When I got shot down I was bombing a pile of rubble that had already been bombed 12 times. It was right next to a perfectly good bridge carrying heavy trucks with war materiel headed south, but the Powers that Be said we couldn’t touch it”.

    That’s Lying John McCain-speak for “I was supposed to hit the bridge but I missed then crashed yet another plane.” Rot in hell, John McCain.

  22. loren says:

    Scheers parents went to stalinist russia? yes?

  23. @Hugo

    And today you can see a younger generation sharing the same background as Scheer and Branfman involved in ‘trade union organizing’ in Myanmar, Cambodia, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. They also belong to so-called ‘aid organizations’. One individual in particular was in Myanmar to lead the development of trade unions in Burmese garment factories and left just before the military retook control earlier this year. How odd he new the exact moment to exit.

  24. Sounds like a man who knew what his mission was in life. That’s rare and can be good or bad, depending on what they mission is.. There is reason to distrust all ” true believers”. The reason is, all human beings are imperfect and that imperfection is all the more magnified by a “true believer”.

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