Apart from the death of a journalist, no more poignant event is ever recorded in the media than the demise of a onetime “antiwar activist.” This was confirmed in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post last week, where the passing in Budapest of Fred Branfman, 72, was duly noted.
Who was Fred Branfman, you ask? He was (according to the extended Post obituary) “the first person to draw public attention to a previously unknown U.S. bombing campaign inside Laos during the Vietnam War,” a former aid worker, teacher in Africa, and civilian “education adviser” in Laos and South Vietnam who, after 1969, became a full-time opponent of the war. In 1972, in the Post’s words,
He organized a star-studded antiwar demonstration at the U.S. Capitol. Those arrested included singer Judy Collins, Dr. Benjamin Spock, leftist scholar Noam Chomsky, painter Larry Rivers, theatrical producer Joseph Papp and writer Garry Wills.
Heady times for Fred Branfman! A few months later, however, the last American combat troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, and in March 1973, Richard Nixon ended the draft. Practically overnight, the antiwar movement—which had flourished for nearly a decade and made the careers of more than a few members—was defunct, and Fred Branfman was cast suddenly adrift. He moved to California, “where he became active in the solar energy movement,” but returned to Washington in the mid-1980s to work on the presidential campaign of Sen. Gary Hart.
Then, in 1990, after the death of his father, “Mr. Branfman abruptly changed the direction of his life. He embarked on a prolonged spiritual exploration that led him to study various religious traditions around the world and to become an advocate for ‘death with dignity.’ ”
The Scrapbook records these details not to make light of the late Fred Branfman’s anticlimactic existence after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords but to remind readers of the comically worshipful tone employed in the press when eulogizing old radicals. We also noticed one minor assertion in Branfman’s biography that tells us something about the way history is treated, and sometimes mistreated, in the mainstream media. According to the Times and Post, Branfman was also cofounder of an organization in Washington called the Indochina Resource Center, described in the Post as “an information service that was allied with the antiwar movement” and in the Times obituary as “an influential antiwar group . . . which lobbied Congress to stop financing the war.”
Both of these descriptions are true, strictly speaking; but neither remotely resembles the whole truth. In fact, the Indochina Resource Center was nothing less than the Washington lobby for the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia; during the genocide in that country (1975-79), Branfman and his cofounder Gareth Porter were not only reliable advocates and apologists for the Khmer Rouge but (so far as The Scrapbook is aware) never apologized for their views on the subject. Branfman, of course, exited the stage some decades ago to study “various religious traditions around the world,” but Gareth Porter is still very much with us, teaching and writing for Foreign Policy and the Huffington Post and appearing on RT and Al-Jazeera English; the title of his latest book—Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (2013)—gives some flavor of his current thinking. Indeed, two years ago, Porter was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism.
Fred Branfman is dead, but the Indochina Resource Center lives on.