The CIA spy who reinvented the travel guide

The year 1936 was a momentous year for world travel. The RMS Queen Mary made her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York. Aer Lingus made its first flight (from Dublin to Bristol). HR Ekins, reporter for the New York World-Telegram, won a race around the world using only commercial airlines (it took him 18 days, 11 hours, 14 minutes and 55 seconds). And Eugene Fodor published his first guidebook, 1936 … on the continent, a 1,200-page guide to Europe, the world’s first travel guide updated every year.

The guide, which for the first time was aimed at middle-class travelers and not necessarily upper-class “big tourists”, included all the typical sites, but also for the first time encouraged interaction with locals whose the view of the world might be different from that of readers. “Rome contains not only magnificent monuments and priceless art treasures,” Fodor wrote in the preface to the 1936 guidebook, “but also Italians”.

Eugene Fodor, who died at age 85 in 1991, profoundly influenced the way Americans traveled in the 20th and 21st centuries; the company he founded, now called Fodor’s Travel, currently publishes 150 titles per year and his website receives 2.75 million visitors per month. (Full disclosure: Over the past decade, I’ve occasionally updated and written the restaurant section of Fodor’s New York City Guide.)

What most people don’t know is that Fodor was a CIA spy, on their payroll for years. After this secret became public in 1974, Fodor downplayed it and downright shut down questions about it in interviews, moaning, for example, when a reporter from Condé Nast Traveler told him about it in the late ’80s and said, “Everyone seems to have forgotten what the Cold War was like. The Soviets were a real threat. As an American you did what you could.

Fodor was born in 1905 in the small town of Losonc, then in the Kingdom of Hungary (now Slovakia). He eventually became a naturalized American and was in the United States when the Munich Pact was signed (ceding the Sudetenland, the western parts of Czechoslovakia, to Hitler). He insisted that he would only return to Europe in a military uniform.

Thanks to his language skills (he was fluent in five languages), he found himself in the Research and Analysis branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of World War II to the CIA led by the legendary General William “Wild Bill”. Donovan. The unit, harmlessly named the First Mobile Radio Broadcasting Company, was designed in a spirit of psychological warfare to spread disinformation and undermine enemy morale.

Fodor interviewed prisoners of war and wrote propaganda leaflets which were dropped in enemy territory. The unit was also responsible for working with resistance groups to carry out acts of sabotage in enemy territory. In the spring of 1945 he was part of an OSS operation that smuggled him into Prague to help lead a Czech Resistance uprising against the German occupier. During this time, he also traveled to Plzen, a town in western Czechoslovakia, helping to liberate the region from the Nazis, as Russian troops advanced from the east, doing the same as they moved forward. towards Prague and, finally, Berlin.

After the war, Fodor’s involvement with the CIA continued. Beginning in the 1950s, the CIA began exploiting artists, musicians, writers, and journalists abroad for propaganda or information gathering purposes. “Travel Writer” seemed like a good cover for an agent undercover in enemy territory. And a travel writer who previously worked for OSS was ideal. A declassified internal OSS mission from 1946 indicated that Eugene Fodor would henceforth have the title of “intelligence officer”. Its location: Prague. His job: “to bring together[ing] intelligence by overt and secret means as it has done in the past. He will not be expected to develop large chains of agents, but he will be called upon to deal with local nationals on a secure basis. “

One of Fodor’s later missions was to help foment an uprising in Hungary in 1956. The uprising did take place, but the revolution that the CIA hoped to overthrow the Communist government did not take place. Fodor claimed that after 1956 he abandoned the spy business.

According to the documents I obtained in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, this is not true. It depends how much you want to believe the source – E. Howard Hunt, a veteran CIA agent and infamous Watergate convicted burglar.

December 31, 1974, The New York Times published a briefing by Seymour Hersh who obtained classified transcripts from a Senate investigative hearing in December 1973. The article publicly disclosed Fodor’s involvement with the agency for the first time.

“My team ran a media operation known as the Continental Press from the National Press Building in Washington,” Hunt said during his testimony in 1973. “We funded a lot of the activities of the Frederick D. Praeger Publishing Corporation in New York. We have largely funded the activities of Fodor’s Travel Guides, distributed by the David McKay Corporation.

In his memoirs of 2007 American Espionage: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond, Hunt claimed that the CIA, from the late 1950s or early 1960s, had funded Fodor’s tour guide company: “We … even published a popular series of travel books – the guides of Fodor trip. Our reasoning behind the guides was that, generally, most foreigners only knew Americans through “Ugly American” tourist stereotypes. So we hoped to change that impression of people from other countries to come and visit ours, enjoy life in the United States and get to know America better.

“We would take his losses,” Hunt said of Fodor at the 1973 Senate hearing, “and he was on the CIA payroll and possibly still as far as I know.”

But that wasn’t the only reason the CIA wanted to use Fodor and his company as a secret weapon during the Cold War. It was not unusual for the CIA to use artists, writers, journalists, musicians, and others for their own benefit during the Cold War, both covertly and openly. Three years after the death of George Orwell, a film version of Farm animal came out in 1954. It was a pretty faithful interpretation of the book, but instead of Orwell’s finale, in which humans and pigs are left in glaring light, the film removed the humans, leaving only the dirty pigs, that is to say the fascists. The silent producer of the film was, in fact, the CIA, and it was none other than E. Howard Hunt who visited Orwell’s widow to successfully wrest the rights away from him so they could do the older version. openly anti-Soviet.

The agency saw in the abstract art of modern artists like Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko a very American kind of assertive individualism and thus promoted their work abroad, often funding exhibitions. The CIA first funded the Paris review, and one of its founding publishers, novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen, was a spy. Jazz greats Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong, among others, have been sent to various parts of the planet on CIA-funded tours. Sometimes artists knew the US government was paying for it. Other times, as in the case of Nina Simone, who was sent in 1961 on an agency-sponsored Nigeria tour, the performer had no idea.

“I said [the CIA] to make sure I send me real writers, not civil engineers. I wanted to make writings out of it, and I did that too.“

– Eugene Fodor

So it was not surprising to learn from Seymour Hersh New York Times exposed that the CIA’s involvement with Fodor ran even deeper. When Hersh interviewed Hunt for his Time In history, the former agent revealed that the travel diaries provided “cover” for CIA agents eager to travel to foreign countries disguised as travel editors. Fodor would later admit that was true, saying, “I told them to make sure they send me real writers, not civil engineers.” I wanted to make writings out of it, and I did that too. In fact, in 1956 Fodor sent traveling writers / CIA agents to Hungary to help spark a potential revolution against the ruling Communist government.

In a declassified letter Hunt sent to Fodor on January 13, 1975, two weeks after the Time article appeared, Hunt tried to make amends. “I want you to know that I very much regret the embarrassment caused to you by the revelation by The New York Times of my executive session testimony given in confidence to the Ervin Committee over a year ago … and I am. did so assuming it wouldn’t. publicly revealed.

And then he added, “The UPI story of today’s date quotes you as stating that you and I have never met, or had no relationship, and of course it is. not exact…. There should be a recording of at least one meeting between you and me in a CIA office in Washington.

In an internal CIA Memo dated January 24, 1975 which I obtained through a request from the FOIA, about four weeks after the disclosures became public, Fodor called one of his contacts at the agency to express a worst-case scenario. case that could come from being exposed as an agent. Fodor was originally from a Hungarian town now in Slovakia, and his wife of Czech origin, Vlasta, still had family in the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc. “I feel like I should leave [Hunt] know how he endangered the safety of my family with his revelations, if only to prevent further disclosure and public controversy, ”Fodor is quoted in the memo, implying that there may have been more information on his involvement that may come out.

In the memo, it is stated that the agency recommended that Fodor simply “give simple and fruitless acknowledgment” of his past activities with the agency and leave it at that.

After that, Fodor downplayed his involvement with the CIA, attributing it to a patriotic duty, even going so far as to say that at the start of the Cold War almost all Americans in Europe had been approached by the agency.