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Who Killed George Polk?

The Salonika Bay Murder: Cold War Politics and the Polk Affair

by Edmund Keeley
Princeton University Press, 395 pp., $24.95

One of the surprises of the last Communist uprising in Greece (1946–1949) was the absence of urban terrorism. In previous attempts to seize power, it had been a dogma of the KKE (the Communist party of Greece) that victory would be won in the cities, particularly the two largest, Athens and Salonika. Guerrilla warfare in the provinces and the mountains was secondary. The nearest the Communists ever came to success was in the revolt of December 1944 in Athens, soon after the end of the German occupation, when they were defeated only by a costly intervention of British forces. But when a new rebellion was launched in 1946, the priorities seemed to be reversed. Fighting was confined to the open countryside, where the KKE achieved considerable success under the leadership of Markos Vafiadis. The cities were threatened from a distance—sometimes a very short distance—but internally they were undisturbed by violence.

The citizens of Athens and Salonika had not expected to be left unmolested. They knew that the Democratic Army, as Markos’s force was called, held them in a state of virtual siege. They knew that there were Communist organizations in their midst, and that Communist agents came and went in and out of the surrounding hills. They remembered the frightening days of December 1944, when it was impossible to walk the streets freely by day or night. They lived in terror of what was to come; but until May 1948, it did not come. Then, on May 1, 1948, the minister of justice was shot dead in an Athens street. Little more than a week later an American journalist was murdered in Salonika. It looked as if the urban terrorists had arrived.

In fact these were the only two significant cases of the kind throughout the Greek civil war. But in the state of fear that gripped both cities, it was natural to expect the worst, and to assume that the American journalist was the victim of a political murder, as the Greek minister certainly was. Probably the minister’s assassin, although a Communist, was a maverick not acting under Party orders. But his action provoked the immediate execution of a number of captured rebels who had already been condemned to death. The murder of the American journalist might have been a counter-retaliation, which could lead to further bloodshed. In theory there were other possibilities, but with the Democratic Army only a few miles away the assumption of a Communist connection was readily made.

The circumstances of the murder were bizarre. George Polk, a CBS correspondent, had been based in Athens since the previous year. He flew to Salonika on Friday, May 7. What purposes he had in mind is obscure, but almost certainly among them was the hope of finding a way to visit the headquarters of the Democratic Army. Early in the morning of Sunday, May 16, his body was found floating in the harbor of Salonika, with hands and feet tied and a bullet hole in the back of the neck. The murder was evidently committed a week before, during the night of Saturday–Sunday, May 8–9.

Polk had no previous experience of Greece outside Athens, and did not speak the language; but he had recently married a young Greek woman from Alexandria. He was said, by her particularly, to have a formidable temper. He had written critically of the constantly changing Greek governments, but so had practically every other journalist. He had also expressed annoyance over the conditions in which he was held in quarantine on his arrival in Greece. None of this was exceptional or extreme. On the other hand, he expressly approved the US commitment to salvage Greece, which had been undertaken by the Truman Doctrine of March 1947. Several other American journalists had made themselves much more unpopular than Polk with the US authorities in Greece, who were engaged in taking over responsibility from the British. There was no reason to suppose that either American or British officials in Greece had any animosity toward Polk.

They might have felt differently toward him before long if he had succeeded in making arrangements to visit Markos’s headquarters. This was the ambition of most foreign journalists. It was not even insuperably difficult to achieve, for Markos welcomed publicity, which was almost invariably favorable. Apart from journalists, he received other visitors, such as a young British Labour member of Parliament who later became speaker of the House of Commons and two American engineers who were kidnapped in the friendliest possible spirit. All spoke warmly of their welcome by the Democratic Army.

After Polk’s disappearance, but before his body was found, officials who visited his hotel room in Salonika found a letter from him addressed to his senior colleague at CBS, Edward R. Murrow. The letter reported, without naming names, that he thought he had “a contact through a contact” which he hoped might eventually lead him to Markos’s headquarters. If he had lived to achieve his goal, other precedents suggest that he would have been regarded with severe disfavor in official circles. The very fact that he was trying to do so led them to assume a Communist connection with his murder.

The attorney general at Salonika, Panayotis Constantinidis, who supervised the investigation, told the US consul-general, Raleigh Gibson, that there were four possible hypotheses for the origin of the crime: first, right-wing extremists; secondly, Communists; thirdly, Zionists; fourth, a love affair. The last two hypotheses were quickly dismissed as absurd. The first two provide the starting point for Professor Keeley’s exhaustive and masterly reexamination of the affair.

He naturally gives closer attention to the right-wing hypothesis than the Greek authorities did, but he finds it difficult to identify names. Only one name was briefly considered at the time—Colonel George Grivas, who had founded the organization known as “X” (Chi) to fight the Communists in the closing stages of the German occupation. He continued to harass the Communists after the war, before returning to his native Cyprus to harass the British. But his main strength had been in the Peloponnese, far from northern Greece. Another militant anti-Communist called Sourlas was active in Macedonia. But he was little more than a brigand, and his name does not appear in Keeley’s story at all.

There were certainly other more sophisticated right-wing elements and former collaborators surviving from the enemy occupation, who could have been identified by a more determined investigation at the time. Forty years later, the task is beyond even Professor Keeley’s ingenuity.

But he adds two more hypotheses: a “British connection” and a Greek government agency at work. He is not greatly concerned, however, with the question: Who actually killed Polk? That question is by now almost certainly unanswerable. No one was ever brought to trial for firing the fatal bullet, though two Communists were eventually convicted in absentia on extremely unreliable grounds. The only case that was brought to trial concerned the identity of the person who brought Polk into contact with his killers, whether as an accomplice or by blind chance. It is this case that Professor Keeley reexamines, and it provides one setting for his discussion of a hypothetical “British factor,” to which he might even have added a hypothetical “American factor.” There is at least a possibility that whoever led Polk to his death did so in all innocence, though even that would still leave much to explain. For example, why would an innocent intermediary not have come forward as a witness?

A number of conjectural names can be attached to Professor Keeley’s hypotheses. Examples of the possible “British factor” were journalists who knew Polk and his wife; but the most significant was a British information officer in Salonika, Randall Coate, who may have been the last non-Greek to see Polk alive. Examples of the “American factor” would again have included a number of journalists, one of whom, Daniel Thrapp, was in contact with Coate and perhaps also with Polk’s Greek contact (whose name he said he could not remember). A noticeable fact about these members of the closely knit British and American communities was the number of them who left Greece very soon after the murder, and did not return to attend the eventual trial.

As for the hypothesis of a Greek government agency being involved in the murder, the range of possibilities is wide and for the most part anonymous. One name that does stand out is that of Major Nikolaos Mouskoundis, head of the Security Police at Salonika, who was in charge of the investigation under the attorney general. At an early stage of his own inquiry, Professor Keeley remarks that Mouskoundis could hardly have foreseen that

there would be those in Greece—Communist sources most vociferously but not exclusively—who would hold that the discovery of George Polk’s body in Salonika Bay could not have come as any surprise to [him], since it was either his own men or some other branch of the local forces of law and order that had put the correspondent’s body out to sea in the first place.

Professor Keeley makes no comment on this suspicion, or on the consequential question whether Mouskoundis was supposed to have committed murder on his own initiative or under orders.

The attorney general in Athens, however, had no qualms about Mouskoundis’s investigation. His real confidence was placed in only one of the four nominal hypotheses that he had outlined to the US counsel general. This was the one that he had tactfully put only second of the four: the so-called “Communist hypothesis.” To show that he didn’t have a closed mind, he added a few more hypotheses: professional jealousy on the part of Polk’s Greek assistant in Athens, Kosta Hadjiargyris; and a vague suspicion that Rea Polk, the victim’s widow, was concealing valuable information.

The case against Rea Polk never had any substance. She was soon allowed to emigrate to the US, and she too was among those who did not return for the trial. The case of Hadjiargyris fitted in with the “Communist hypothesis,” for he had once been a member of the KKE, and during the Second World War he had played a leading part in the naval mutiny of 1944 in Egypt. But less conveniently, he also happened to be a stepson of the incumbent prime minister. This made his arrest without a cast-iron case impossible.

All these hypotheses of Constantinidis, the attorney general, had one simple purpose: to convince the Americans that no stone was being left unturned. At all levels, the Greek authorities recognized that it was crucial to produce a convincing result, and to do so quickly, in order to avoid bad publicity and to ensure the continuation of American economic and military support; for the Truman Doctrine was barely a year old, and still had to be put to the test. At every stage they were concerned to detect how the Americans were judging their efforts. This is also the first question that Professor Keeley puts to critical examination.

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