Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tommy the Traveler

In the annals of bizarre homefront stories from the Vietnam War, the tale of Tommy the Traveler stands out. I came across him purely by serendipity. From the FBI down to the local cops, the authorities – trying to keep track of young New Left antiwar activists – most likely experienced no shortage of willing undercover informants, paid or otherwise. Tommy, however, was in a class by himself; beginning in 1967 on his own initiative, he undertook surveillance on a number of college campuses.*

A little background. Tommy, born in 1944, was half American and half Thai with an unusual family history. Through his father he was related to the royal house of Thailand, while his paternal grandmother was a Russian from the tsarist period. Apparently Tommy’s father had worked with the CIA and Army intelligence in Thailand, presumably during early Cold War days. As a boy, he had a typical American childhood, although his fascination with guns and playing cowboys and Indians was somewhat extreme. After high school, he went out west and for a time rode rodeo. Tommy had a very patriotic upbringing.

I was talking with one of my former students from Union College about Indiana University (IU) in the Vietnam War era. I was telling him about the undercover informant in IU’s Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter (see Blog post for 3/30/11), and he in turn said that a similar character passed through Union College while he was an undergrad there. News to me. It was a guy nicknamed Tommy the Traveler.

Tommy had been a traveling salesman, and his beat was upstate New York which took him through a number of college towns where he styled himself a free-lance agent provocateur. He reportedly visited State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, University of Rochester, Hobart, Cornell, Union, and SUNY-Albany, among other schools. He’d appear on campus and connect with the activists. SDS’s lack of national hierarchy, or often even local structure, made it easy for Tommy to get close to them.

A handsome young man with neat, close cropped hair, three-piece tweed suits, and a snazzy new Ford Mustang, SDS activists on several campuses suspected him as an undercover cop. However, Tommy skillfully dropped names from one relatively isolated campus to another and managed to ‘pass’ undetected. His modus operandi was to persuade activists to carry out violent actions on their campuses. Though he had little success, turmoil followed in his wake. By early ’69, Tommy had parlayed his networking into a major speaking role at a regional SDS meeting held at SUNY-Albany.

'Tommy the Traveler'
After he’d developed an extensive network of contacts, Tommy apparently sold his services to the Buffalo FBI field office, a hundred-strong outfit, because of long-time concern over Old Left activity in the industrial heartland. But because he was extreme in his proposed provocations and considered a little nutty (he had a lot of military gear including an M-1 rifle, grenades, and a pistol), the FBI cut him loose, recommending him to the Ontario County Sheriff for undercover drug work on the campuses. When later interviewed by CBS’s Walter Cronkite, the sheriff defended Tommy showing students how to build bombs as “perfectly proper behavior for a police agent attempting to infiltrate student radicals.”

In his narc role, Tommy finally succeeded in realizing his violent anti-antiwar agenda. At Hobart College in Geneva NY, he persuaded a couple of impressionable freshmen to toss a Molotov cocktail into the campus offices of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in the basement of a dorm with students sleeping above. The culprits received short jail sentences, while in the end Tommy the instigator got off nearly scot free. During that campus visit he’d also set up and fingered several other students for a NY State Police drug bust which had turned into a riot. The bust briefly brought Tommy local celebrity, and he even considered running for the office of county sheriff. He went on to study criminology, worked as a police officer in Pennsylvania, and later in life became a horse and cattle breeder. More recently, he was spotted as a Civil War re-enactor in Oklahoma. Tommy still gets around.

*Esquire, July 1971


  1. Several of my friends went to Hobart in the late sixties and early 70's and were young hippies and involved in numerous activities including various protests against the Vietnam war. I was in Chapel Hill at the time doing my own thing but I remember hearing from them about Tommy the Traveler and how he instigated students to do things they probably never would have done and was actually working undercover for the government.
    A friend of my just left and her best friend Susan at one time was involved with one of the SLA leaders who kidnapped Patti Hurst. Well Susan has just recently come across some archives in Washington re: the SLA and is coming to realize that there may have been a CIA connection with the SLA. She has found paper trails of CIA operatives helping to instigate the SLA into doing things that perhaps they never would have considered. That's when I mentioned to her Tommy the Traveler and we found this information on him. Good report. All very interesting, no?

  2. The true story of Tommy the Traveler is not known since his investigations those years working for the FBI are sealed. He has never given an interview and almost all of the information available is totally inaccurate from sensationalizing news media sources.
    He never put a crime in motion. When a conspiracy was in motion, his job was to infiltrate and prevent the act from taking place. He was able to prevent seven bombings from taking place from within the conspiracies while still maintaining his cover as an SDS member/later Regional Traveler and veterinarian pharmaceutical representative, during the performance of his duties with the FBI. The Hobart bombing occurred because the determined perpetrators reacted to Nixon going into Cambodia as did campuses all over the US and jumped a day ahead of schedule before the stakeout was in place.
    They were represented by one of the very best criminal attorney in NY and he plead them guilty. If entrapment had ever taken place it would have been an easy affirmative defense for that attorney to get them exonerated.
    Walter Cronkite, being uninformed coined the term "Agent Provocateur", which has stuck and repeated in articals ever since. This type of agent is non-existent in the FBI. Who would jeopardize an investigation with such behavior.
    The attorney Generals Office commended Thomas Tongyai for doing a good service to the United States and the State of NY at the close of their year long investigation by a Blue Ribbon Grand Jury.
    His Royal Birth Title was used as bait, enabled him to infiltrate within a short time period, deep into the Niagara Regional SDS Council.
    Much of the conversations with Tommy about those days are interesting and eyeopening with regards to what is happening today.
    At 67 he still rides bucking horses and works cattle on his ranches
    I know him personally and I hope he does not become upset with me for taking the liberty speaking out to you, should he find out.

    1. Sorry Anonymous, but your story is just that - a story. I was a student at Hobart and William Smith at the time and your description is entirely false, as anyone who was actually there can tell you. That may be what Tommy claims to his friends at this point, but it's not true. He was a liar then and probably remains one today. He probably belongs to some militia, tea party or other hate group as that would fit his personality. The good news is that what goes around will eventually come around and Tommy will get his just reward for what he did.

    2. Of course. And you don't identify yourself because? And of course you know so much info about the legal proceedings. Dude you are the piece of scum that caused a few impressionable kids to toss that firebomb at your coaxing. In my mind you are a manipulative piece of [bleep] who ruined the lives of some young kids! You are a despicable piece of [bleep]!

  3. if he's still alive and hasn't repudiated his time as an agent provocateur, then he is as morally repugnant as those who hired him and those who kept us in that stinking illegal genocide in Viet Nam.

  4. I was a student at Geneseo State ion upstate NY in 1970, when our campus was visited by a described "radical" with close-cropped hair and a belligerent attitude.
    He met with anti-war students in a conference room, sitting at a long table. Such filth came out of the mputh of this person,I was taken aback, along with my friends (we were all against the war & were very pro-student-movement, but we were decidedly non-violent types.

    This man openly advocated violent acts and spoke in aggravating tones,
    CHALLENGING US to act out our protests in violent ways. He spoke in words as incendiary as he could muster.

    I left after 20 minutes or so, thinking this man was a super-jerk, and
    also suspecting him to be truly EVIL at heart (and I don't think that of many people).
    Unable to move people at Geneseo, he apparently went to other colleges, including Hobart (where he was able to get his desired violent results).

    6-8 months later, I got a phone call from one of my college friends telling me to read a story in Time (or possibly Newsweek?) about the guy we met and heard in that conference room. It even had his picture!

    And so it was confirmed to me that he was indeed, EVIL.

    Now, when I see the Occupy Wall St Movement andI hear about a few violent"members", I think of Slimy Tommy, trying so hard to spread violence and discord. Methinks most of the still minor "violence" that has been reported around the OWS Movement is surely coming from modern day Tommy The Travelers.

    Tommy, wherever you are, please know that you are an evil piece of satanic crap, and if there is a hell, you are going there.

    My only wish was that me and several of my friends didn't make an appointment to meet with you secretly in a remote place back in 1970, and beat you, bloody, to within an inch of our worthless, rotten life.


  5. The guy who posted in defense of Tommy LIES.

    I saw the REAL Tommy, and his corruption and evil intent was obvious, even after a few minutes.I have never forgotten that meeting.

    The poster above is apparently Just another Satan-worshipping "friend"
    who would surely defend child-molestation, probably
    because he DOES IT.

    Typical rightwing extremist. Ho hum.

    No credibility there, regardless.


  6. I was a student at Geneseo State in upstate NY in 1970 when our campus was visited by a described "radical" with close-cropped hair and a belligerent attitude.
    He met with anti-war students in a conference room, sitting at a long table. Such filth came out of the mouth of this person, I was taken aback, along with my friends (we were all against the war & were very pro-student-movement, but we were decidedly non-violent types).

    This man openly advocated violent acts and spoke in aggravating tones
    to act out our protests in violent ways. He spoke in words as incendiary as he could muster. …Unable to move people at Geneseo, he apparently went to other colleges, including Hobart (where he was able to get his desired violent results.

  7. My first introduction to Thomas Tongyai was at a University of Rochester Regional Meeting for the SDS in 1968 I think. People were registering for the conference and their information went on to index cards and the cards placed in a small room like a cloak room. I caught Tommy photographing those cards. I had other encounters with him in Penn Yan, NY which was the home to the campus of Keuka College. At one point, he asked me if I knew where he could buy arms. On another occasion he approached me regarding an idea to attack the Seneca Army Depot. On every occasion, I refused to interact with him and on more than one occasion I was down right rude to him. I and others suspected all along that he was an informant.

  8. I was a student at Hobart College 68-72 and Tommy was really an agent working for the government provoking trouble!! He took advantage of strong emotions at the time and encouraged students to do illegal things ie. bombing the rotc building that was full of sleeping students above. Lucky there was no real injuries that night. Tommy was always fanning the flames of normal anti-war feelings. It is too convenient for the FBI to say he wasn't one of theirs. The real story has yet to emerge....

  9. I knew him as a teen. He was the opposite of his father, who was a really good man. Tommy was an unstable, narcissistic, egocentric person, who could never be trusted. He literally gave his mother a ticket when he was a cop in PA. I was sorry to read about his activities with anti-war protesters, but not surprised. He was/is a disgrace to humanity.

  10. Cronkite hardly invented Agent Provocateur lol...Tommy had very long hair when he got the frosh at Hobart, very short hair and a suit when came back 3 months later to bust a soph who put him up and had a 1/4 oz. 500 students wouldn't let him leave. Hardly a riot. After 5 hours they released the students and arrested him!

  11. Information on Thomas Tongyai can be found in The COINTELPRO Papers by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall (South End Press, 1990/2002). Never convicted, he wound up a policeman in Pennsylvania. I was in the college Young Americans for Freedom (!) while he was active, but even I was aware of him as "Tommy the Traveler."

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