It is more than 40 years since CBS radio correspondent George Polk was murdered in Salonika, Greece. But as Kati Marton shows in her compelling new account of the Polk case, the life and death of this young reporter still epitomize the struggle between journalists committed to discovering the truth and governments determined to manipulate it.
Polk died in May 1948, apparently the victim of a civil war between an unusually harsh right-wing oligarchy and battle-hardened left-wing guerillas led by the Greek Communist party. His murder posed a potential diplomatic problem. In its effort to contain communism, the United States under the Truman Doctrine had thrown it support to the Greek rightists. In his coverage Polk had fearlessly documented the brutality and corruption of the Greek elite, despite a stream on anonymous death threats and expressions of unhappiness from American officials. It it had come out that the reporter had been murdered on the orders of the Greek regime, it might well have weakened domestic support for U.S. policy.
Polk’s death led to several investigations, one headed by the columnist Walter Lippmann and directed by General William (”Wild Bill”) Donovan, former head of the OSS. The FBI and CIA were drawn in as well. A suspect was finally produced by the Greek police, and a ”confession” extracted (through the use of torture, it later turned out). In a show trial, this suspect testified (falsely, as Morton confirms) that he had helped local Communist guerillas murder Polk.
Lippmann and Donovan — who were both in position to know better — were pleased with this politically expedient outcome. But doubts about the Polk case lingered. In 1977, Col. James Kellis, a U.S. investigator who had been abruptly removed from the case in 1948 at he behest of diplomats in Athens and Washington, swore in an affidavit that Polk’s death had been arranged by ”a handful of right-wing fanatics and their British allies,” and that American officials had colluded in a cover-up.
This is a conclusion that Marton upholds in her absorbing chronicle. Drawing upon letters, journals, interviews, and previously classified government documents, she also penetrates the Byzantine workings of the ”legal, paralegal, and illegal security services,” both Greek and American, involved in the case. Her chapters on the mysterious theft of Polk’s files after his death give her narrative the pace and texture of an espionage thriller.
The Polk Conspiracy is also surprisingly timely. Once again the United States is embroiled in a foreign conflict; once again the State Department and the military are making an effort, in the name of national security, to control the flow of news. Though George Polk belongs to a more innocent era of American journalism, he remains a model of courage, idealism, and blunt honesty. A-