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…

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