In 1969, Fred Branfman, a young American aid worker, wandered into an ancient pagoda in the Laotian capital of Vientiane. Instead of a tranquil sacred site, however, he found it packed with refugees whose stories horrified him.
They told Branfman that they had fled the country's northern plains because American bombs were turning whole villages to ash, killing thousands of Laotian civilians.
Branfman had been in Laos for more than two years. How, he wondered, had he not known about this?
As he soon discovered, the war in Laos had been an exceedingly well-kept secret. In the United States, no one outside the highest levels of President Lyndon Johnson's administration knew that the Vietnam War had expanded into this small landlocked nation in Southeast Asia.
When he left the temple, Branfman later said, he was no longer the "careless adventurer" ambling through life in a foreign land but was driven by a cause: drawing public attention to the Laotians' suffering and the U.S. officials responsible for it.
Branfman, a journalist and activist who was one of the first people to expose the devastating air war inside Laos, died Sept. 24 in Budapest, where he had been living for several years. He was 72.
The cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, said his wife, Zsuzsanna Berkovits Branfman.
After the initial encounters at the temple, Branfman interviewed more than 1,000 people in refugee camps, "and every single one told the same story" about homes destroyed and loved ones killed by American munitions, he recalled in the 2008 documentary "The Most Secret Place on Earth."
Subsequent investigations by Branfman and others showed that 2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos from 1965 to 1973 — about one ton for every Laotian man, woman and child — in a relentless campaign to blunt the operations of the North Vietnamese and the allied Pathet Lao.
"The planes came like the birds, and bombs fell like the rain," Branfman, quoting one of the refugees, wrote in the New York Times in early 1971 after leaving Laos and joining the antiwar movement at home.
"He was a resource ... invaluable when you're trying to figure out something in a strange and foreign land," said Tom Hayden, the antiwar activist who worked with Branfman during and after the Vietnam War. "He interviewed those peasants, he had their narrative. He was important in putting a human face on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. He was also very effective in providing information to members of Congress."
In April 1971, Rep. Paul N. McCloskey, a Republican congressman from California, charged that the U.S. had bombed thousands of villages in northern Laos and deliberately concealed the extent of the air war and its effect on civilians. At a subsequent hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Refugees, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who chaired the meeting, contended that the bombing was responsible for "at least 75% of the refugees" in Laos.
The Johnson administration initially denied that Laos was being bombed. By the time of the Senate hearing, however, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William H. Sullivan, a former ambassador to Laos, acknowledged U.S. activity in the country. But he denied that American bombers were targeting populated areas.
Over the next months, mainstream media began reporting on the war in Laos. The Washington Post, citing American officials close to the war, concluded that "Laos has been the most heavily bombed country in the history of aerial warfare."
In 1972, the New York Times ran a long interview with an Air Force captain who had helped run the secret bombing missions. The officer, Jerome J. Brown, told the paper that Branfman's allegations of massive civilian casualties were the reason he was talking openly for the first time about his assignment in Laos
Branfman collected first-person accounts from survivors of the Laos bombing raids, most of whom were peasants from the Plain of Jars in northern Laos. He compiled the material in a book, "Voices From the Plain of Jars," published in 1972 and reissued last year.
"This is an epitaph for a small people," Jonathan Mirsky wrote in a 1973 New York Times review.
Branfman's book made him "the first to document the sheer scale of the massive air war over Laos," historian and journalist Alfred W. McCoy, who had covered the Vietnam War for Harper's, wrote in a foreword to the new edition.
Born in New York City on March 18,1942, Branfman received a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Chicago in 1964 and a master's in education from Harvard in 1965. He wanted to work in the inner city teaching elementary school. Instead, he wound up applying for a draft deferment and teaching in Tanzania. He was in Laos from 1967 to 1971, when he returned to the U.S. and joined the antiwar movement as head of Project Air War and the Indochina Resource Center.
He later was co-director of the California Public Policy Center, an arm of Hayden's Campaign for Economic Democracy, championed solar energy and headed the office of research in the first administration of California Gov. Jerry Brown.
His first marriage, to Nguyen Thoa, ended in divorce. He is survived by three brothers and his second wife.
In recent years, he freelanced for a number of publications, including Salon.com and the Huffington Post. He also focused increasingly on death, working with terminal patients and creating Trulyalive.org, a website to promote a therapeutic awareness of mortality. He also returned to Laos to visit the Plain of Jars and reconnect with survivors of the long-ago war.
"He was personally very affectionate and tied to the villagers he met," Hayden recalled this week. "He always mourned their suffering."