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.
The Greeks must have felt confused and unnerved at first by the galaxy of American monitors scrutinizing their performance. At the top level stood Karl Rankin, the chargé d’affaires in Athens; Dwight Griswold, the head of the American Mission for Aid to Greece (AMAG); and Raleigh Gibson, the consul general in Salonika. All of them were as firmly committed as the Greeks to a quick and successful outcome. There was still a lingering tendency among them to defer to the experienced judgment of British colleagues whom they were replacing as Greece’s guardian angels. For example, the British Police Mission was still in operation under Sir Charles Wickham, who was particularly respected for his experience in dealing with political crime in Northern Ireland. At an early stage, Gibson supported his own judgment that the Greek police were handling the investigation efficiently by adding that Wickham fully agreed with him.
These senior US officials naturally did not have day-to-day contact with the Greek investigators themselves. The legwork was carried out by more junior officials, whose judgment would also have been influential. Rankin appointed two members of his staff to follow the case in detail and to establish a liaison with the State Department. Professor Keeley found little about their activities in the State Department files; and a few references to the CIA were not illuminating. A more significant role seems to have been played in the early stages by Frederick Ayer, formerly an FBI agent and more recently a security officer in AMAG. His own account of his achievements does not impress Professor Keeley, and some of his colleagues and rivals rated them as “nil.” But it seems to be a fact that it was he who persuaded the ministers of justice and of public order to sign jointly a document appointing Mouskoundis to “sole and exclusive charge of the investigation,” and ordering all other agencies to put their resources at his disposal. This was a considerable achievement, since the two ministers had previously been at loggerheads and the minister of justice was entirely new to his job.
What Ayer and Mouskoundis had in common was a relentless hostility to communism. Their cooperation sealed the conviction that the murder was perpetrated by the Communists, allegedly acting under instructions from the Cominform. Ayer also shared Mouskoundis’s conviction that Kosta Hadjiargyris and Rea Polk were somehow involved in the plot, perhaps by directing Polk toward Communist contacts in Salonika. Both would have liked to have the two arrested, if only for questioning, but the attorney general would not allow it.
After this setback to their hopes, Mouskoundis turned his attention to a journalist at Salonika who had, according to several sources, at least shaken hands with Polk during his two days there. This was the Reuters stringer, Gregory Staktopoulos. Ayer was not slow to claim his share of the credit for identifying him as a suspect. On July 7 Gibson informed the State Department that Staktopoulos was going to be arrested, and on the following day Ayer repeated the information with the addition of the word “soon” (though this proved inaccurate). Ayer further added that Staktopoulos was “always under suspicion,” and in brackets: “see early Ayer reports.” It seems that Professor Keeley has not found these “early reports,” if they existed. But the only grounds for suspicion at that date was a report, not from Ayer, that Polk had had a casual meeting with Staktopoulos over a drink, and had asked him if he could establish a contact with the Democratic Army.
Ayer’s memory, to judge from an autobiographical work published in 1957, was far from reliable. He claimed, for example, that after Staktopoulos’s arrest he and three others celebrated the event in “my rather seedy flat in Athens” with a very peculiar cocktail. He named both his companions and the ingredients of the cocktail. But Professor Keeley establishes in his book that none of the three could actually have been present, and that Ayer himself had left Greece for good more than two weeks before Staktopoulos was arrested. The reasons for his departure are unexplained, but that is not unusual in the strange progress of the Polk affair.
Meanwhile other American observers were already on the scene. Mostly they represented journalistic interests, but they had not come simply to seek stories for immediate publication. The first to arrive were two of Polk’s colleagues at CBS, Winston Burdett and John Secondari, who flew in to Salonika only two days after his body was found. They wrote a report of their investigations for the State Department which has been of some value to Professor Keeley, at least in helping to reconstruct the last two days of Polk’s life. To judge from the surviving documents, it was they rather than Ayer who first reported Polk’s one brief public encounter with Staktopoulos, from a witness who was present.
To begin with, they adopted an objective position, insisting that the murder might have had either a right-wing or a left-wing connection. But eventually they allowed themselves to be swayed by Ayer, who even included them in his imaginary party to celebrate the arrest of Staktopoulos. They were perhaps not an ideal pair to represent the interests of CBS. Winston Burdett was a former Communist who, Keeley writes, had even been a Soviet agent, so that he seemed almost bound to take an exaggeratedly anti-Communist line; Secondari was an unassertive personality whose departure was hardly noticed, and cannot be dated.
Much more serious judgment was to be expected from another team representing the American journalistic profession, which arrived in Greece a month after the murder. They were not themselves professional journalists, but they represented a committee appointed by the Overseas Writers Association, under the chairmanship of Walter Lippmann. The counsel appointed by the Lippmann Committee to advise them was General (“Wild Bill”) Donovan, once the head of the Office of Strategic Services and recently the founding father of the Central Intelligence Agency. He was accompanied to Greece by an Air Force colonel of Greek descent, James Kellis, who had served under Donovan in the OSS. They were met on arrival by Ayer, who was genuinely helpful to the general during his first visit.
Donovan made three visits to Greece in 1948, none of them for more than a few days, and a longer visit in 1949 to attend Staktopoulos’s trial. His early visits could not contribute much more than dynamism to the investigation, but his dynamism was an important factor. The Greeks found him blunt, aggressive, and even rude. When the attorney general explained to him the intricacies of Greek law, he impatiently insisted that he was interested in action, not principles. He soon understood in which direction action could be most quickly achieved, and in which it could not. At their very first meeting in Salonika, the attorney general told him that the solution to the case was to be found “in the mountains.”
But Donovan said he wanted an unquestionably honest investigation. He excluded neither a right-wing nor a left-wing connection, nor even a connection with the agencies of the government, which was an unstable coalition of the extreme right and the moderate center. At one point he suspected that Polk might have been the victim of a British plot—a theory which was later energetically supported by Hadjiargyris. Donovan’s suspicion was not based on any specific reasoning about the purposes that might be served by such a British plot, which are difficult to divine, but he evidently thought that the activities of Randall Coate and of certain officers of the British police mission were not being sufficiently investigated. The Greeks were startled by this suggestion, and US officials were aghast at it. But it served to show that Donovan would not close his mind against any possibility.
His assistant, Colonel Kellis, was naturally overawed by his master, but he proved to have a mind of his own. He spent several weeks at a stretch on his investigations. His Greek ancestry and fluency in the language gave him a more sophisticated view of the problems than Donovan’s. Moreover, he had served in Greece during the enemy occupation as a liaison officer with ELAS, the Communist-controlled National Popular Liberation Army, which was the predecessor of Markos’s Democratic Army. He might have known of Markos then, at least by repute. If so, he would have found it hard to regard Markos as a plotter of murder. During Donovan’s second visit to Greece, Kellis took the opportunity to present to Mouskoundis, in the general’s presence, a summary of his own researches which pointed to the conclusion that the murder could not have been carried out by the Communists.
Kellis believed that it was this unorthodox opinion that led to his removal from the investigation while the general was absent from Greece. Unfortunately his version was marred by his own later inconsistencies. For in 1952 he claimed to have been the first American to point a finger at Staktopoulos as a suspect. According to this account, he submitted to the general a list of ten suspects, including Staktopoulos; and after studying the list Donovan asked the Greek police to concentrate their inquiries on that particular name. This could hardly have happened during Donovan’s first brief visit. His second visit, in the latter part of July, was the last time Donovan and Kellis were in Greece together; but by then the arrest of Staktopoulos had already become a probability, which was known to Gibson and Ayer among others.
What Kellis’s account does not reveal is whether his list of suspects included any right-wing names. Nor have Professor Keeley’s researches revealed the name of a single right-wing suspect who was ever investigated at all. There is a certain irony about the eagerness of many observers to “remember” their contributions to what Professor Keeley calls the “official solution” in the aftermath of Staktopoulos’s trial, since if they could read his book today they would probably be equally eager to “remember” the opposite.
The truth is probably that most of the Americans involved were still preserving an open mind. Donovan’s interim report to the Lippmann Committee after his second visit (which apparently is not extant) is said to have suggested that the Greek authorities “had not pressed the investigation sufficiently in the direction of the Right.” Ernest Lindley of Newsweek, the president of the Overseas Writers Association and a member ex officio of the Lippmann Committee, visited Athens in the second half of August, and told Karl Rankin, the chargé d’affaires, that this was a most serious omission. Rankin’s response, according to Professor Keeley, was “a barely restrained diatribe.” But it contained two striking comments: first, that the case might never be solved; and secondly, that the murder might possibly not have had a political motive at all. These views do not betray a closed mind, especially when it is remembered that by that date. Staktopoulos was already under arrest.
There is no compelling reason for supposing that any American was the first to nominate Staktopoulos as a prime suspect. Major Mouskoundis, who was no fool, was perfectly capable of constructing, from his conversations with Gibson, Donovan, Ayer, and others, an identikit model of the potential culprit who would provide an “official solution” acceptable to the Americans. They had all suggested that there was something suspicious about Polk’s assistant in Athens, Kosta Hadjiargyris. But Hadjiargyris, apart from being the prime minister’s stepson, had not been in Salonika during Polk’s last days. The one comparable figure, who had been in Salonika and had certainly met Polk at least once, was Staktopoulos: an English-speaking journalist with a left-wing background.
Staktopoulos had been educated at Anatolia College, the American school near Salonika. He had worked for a newspaper that was taken over by the Germans during the war, and had later joined the Communist party in order to work for its newspaper. After the war he had had some connection with the British Information Service. Clearly he was not a man of unbending ideological conviction. The impression given of him by colleagues was of an ineffectual weakling. Only his former headmaster at Anatolia College spoke favorably of his character.
Once Staktopoulos is arrested on August 14, he becomes not only the center of Professor Keeley’s investigation but also its major source. His is the only detailed account of his interrogation, and his confessions provide the only substantial evidence on which he was convicted. Unfortunately he is not a dependable witness, either for or against himself. In 1984, nearly a quarter of a century after his release from prison, he published a book describing his experiences. Professor Keeley does not say how credible he finds Staktopoulos’s account of being induced to confess to having been the man who introduced Polk to his murderers. He said that his interrogators had used both drugs and torture and had alternated between smooth talk and the third degree. Keeley does not comment even on Staktopoulos’s claim that the minister of public order, Constantine Rendis, was himself present at one of the sessions of physical maltreatment (which seems to me inherently improbable, from personal knowledge of Rendis). On the other hand, Keeley exposes with devastating clarity the process by which Staktopoulos’s successive confessions were edited for him and he himself was coached in their presentation. There were no fewer than four confessions, full of additions, subtractions, and mutual contradictions.
Out of innumerable instances of skillful falsification, one will suffice. The police knew from the autopsy on Polk that his last meal had included lobster and peas. Staktopoulos therefore included this dish in his account of the final meal that he and Polk supposedly ate at an open-air restaurant, the Luxembourg. But according to Staktopoulos’s later book, Kellis made a sworn statement before the Greek consul general at New York in 1978 to the effect that he had found nobody at the Luxembourg restaurant who recalled Polk or Staktopoulos, and furthermore that the police had found lobster shells in the apartment of Randall Coate, the British information officer. It also turned out that there had been heavy rain on the night of the murder, which made a dinner at an open-air restaurant unlikely. So a revised confession transferred the meal indoors—not, of course, to Coate’s apartment but to Staktopoulos’s own, where he lived with his mother, being unmarried. The change of scene incidentally incriminated his mother, who supposedly served the meal. She too was arrested, and other incriminating details were devised against her, with her son’s connivance, which she was too loyal or simple to denounce.
The salient point about these details is that they were never tested in court. The entire case rested on the confessions, which no one could corroborate or refute. The few witnesses who were called did nothing to help Staktopoulos’s defense. One was Hadjiargyris, who was naturally a hostile witness since he knew that he was an alternative scapegoat. Another was the witness who had heard Polk ask Staktopoulos if he could help him to meet Markos. This was Helen Mamas, an American journalist of Greek extraction, who was herself suspected of knowing more than she had revealed. The account of the trial that Professor Keeley has extracted from newspaper reports and notes by officials of the US Consulate General gives an impression of much chaotic irrelevance. But the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
Staktopoulos was convicted of complicity in the murder because he admitted to introducing Polk to his killers and even witnessing the murder. His mother was acquitted, which suggests that the jury disbelieved at least part of the confession. Two known Communists in the Democratic Army were convicted in absentia of the actual murder. Neither of them was ever caught; one of them was even said, by the Communist radio, to have been already dead before Polk was killed.
The sentence against Staktopoulos was not death but life imprisonment, as recommended by the merciful and seemingly skeptical jury. But he was not treated as an ordinary criminal. Instead of being sent to Salonika jail, he was held incommunicado for four years at the Security Police headquarters. When his mother died, he was not allowed to attend her funeral. After protests by his sisters and his lawyer, he was transferred to Salonika jail, and later to the island of Aigina. In 1960, thanks again to his lawyer, his sentence was commuted and he was released. By then he had denounced all his confessions as fabrications. In 1979, on the basis of new evidence, he was allowed to appeal, but his appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court in Athens. Professor Keeley has no doubt about his innocence. He goes much further in criticizing not only the Greek authorities for systematic fraud but also the US authorities and the committee of US journalists investigating the case for connivance in what he calls “the whitewash.”
The “whitewash” also contains a nasty smell of British collusion. Professor Keeley seems to believe in the theory that it was in Randall Coate’s apartment that Polk ate his last meal of lobster and peas, but he does not imply that there was anything criminal in this connection. Much more serious allegations against Coate were later made by Hadjiargyris, who suggested that he may actually have “pulled the trigger.” Professor Keeley comments a little impatiently that the British response to all this was “typical: total silence.” But the absence of Coate from the trail as a witness facilitated the “whitewash” in Professor Keeley’s view, valid though the reasons for it may have been.
His severest criticisms of the “whitewash,” however, are directed at the Lippmann Committee, and especially at General Donovan. At a dinner in Donovan’s honor, Walter Lippmann himself claimed that although the actual killers were not caught, “we can at least say that one of the guilty men has been caught and that no innocent man has been made the scapegoat for a crime of which he is innocent.” Both statements, in the light of Professor Keeley’s researches, were untrue. His own view is that Donovan’s most significant contribution “appears to have been the authority he provided for the whitewash that the Lippmann Committee ended up giving the case.”
It is possible to find some excuses for the committee. They were far away from the courtroom, whereas Donovan was present throughout the trial. Only one of them, Ernest Lindley, actually visited Greece during the investigation, and he had insisted that it must be honestly and thoroughly conducted. The committee evidently felt some disquiet, for their report only came out three years after the trail, and it was very brief and perfunctory. Professor Keeley has found among Donovan’s own papers a much longer draft prepared by a junior member of his law firm, Mary Jones, which contains a good deal of material critical of the Greek and US authorities, but nevertheless accepts the “official solution.” Donovan did not present all this material to the committee, but he must have felt that it reinforced his belief that Staktopoulos was properly convicted.
A much more important contribution to Professor Keeley’s criticism of the committee is to be found in its own published report. Among the annexes to the report, included without comment, is the text of a legal opinion on Staktopoulos’s “so-called confession,” which Lippmann himself had solicited from Professor E.M. Morgan of the Harvard Law School. Morgan’s comment was limited to the first three “confessions,” which it treated with ridicule. They had evidently been concocted in such a way as to make either corroboration or refutation by available witnesses impossible. According to Professor Morgan, “the whole performance cried aloud for cross-examination.” He added further contemptuous comments, which might have been expected to lead an experienced lawyer or a sophisticated journalist to suspect collusion between the police, the prosecution, and the defendant. For example:
The whole performance [in the confessions] impresses me as devised to describe actions prior to and at the event which are not subject to corroboration or denial by other available witnesses. The conspirators are described either so as to be impossible of identification, or, if identified, to be beyond probability of apprehension or possibly of prosecution. The earlier statement as to the conduct of Mamas, which was subject to check-up, is conceded to be false….
The story of the murder itself is fantastic. Polk might well have consented to be blindfolded by people whom he believed friendly. But no sane person would have consented to be bound hand and foot. There was no explanation for such a precaution given or asked. How any man of common sense could have submitted without requiring at least a plausible excuse is beyond comprehension. The witness takes good care to put himself where he could not see the shooter. He says, “I heard the whistling sound of a bullet near me.” The shot must have been fired from a gun within a foot or two back of him, and unless I am badly misinformed, there could not possibly be a whistling sound of a bullet at such exceedingly short range.
Professor Morgan’s commentary was dated March 17, 1948 (an obvious mistake for 1949). The trial did not open until April 12. Lippmann therefore had ample time to react to it, but his initial reaction is not clear. He apparently circulated the commentary to the rest of the committee, presumably including Donovan, who was to attend the trial; but no response is known from any of them. There was also time to send copies to the Embassy in Athens and the Consulate General in Salonika, but there is no evidence that this was done. If the contents of Professor Morgan’s commentary had been properly used, they would surely have altered the course of the trial, and perhaps led to the dismissal of the case against Staktopoulos.
Professor Keeley assumes that Morgan’s commentary was kept quiet for reasons of expediency. The reasoning would have resembled the memorable phrase of Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary, on another occasion: “If you open that Pandora’s box, you never know what Trojan ‘orses may jump out.” But opening Pandora’s box is precisely Professor Keeley’s intention; and he cannot explain why, if expediency was the motive for disregarding Professor Morgan’s commentary, it was ever published at all.
There were other ingredients in the whitewash, however. One was the bland satisfaction of the American officials concerned, especially Raleigh Gibson. A more surprising example was the verdict on the trial of two newcomers who represented another group of journalists, the Newsmen’s Commission. These were George Polk’s younger brother, William, and an American journalist of Greek extraction, Constantine Poulos. Both arrived for the trial with misgivings about the validity of the case against Staktopoulos; neither could be expected to acquiesce in a frame-up. The younger Polk took a strong dislike to Donovan, but admitted in retrospect that he was “way over [his] head in the macabre politics of 1949 Greece.” Poulos, however, was an experienced reporter with a left-wing reputation, and fluent in Greek.
It is not hard to see how William Polk’s doubts were overborne by Donovan’s determination to bury the whole issue. “You are a smart young man from a good family,” Donovan told him. “If you keep on, you will ruin your career.” His pressure was reinforced by the Greek minister of justice, who told William Polk that twenty or thirty years would have to pass before he would understand the “necessity” of what had taken place. In fact forty years have passed, and what William Polk has understood, Keeley reports, is that both Donovan and the minister were admitting by implication that truth had not prevailed.
A more justifiable influence on the young Polk was an unexpected change of heart by Poulos. After arriving in a mood of skepticism, Poulos made a number of inquiries on his own which led him to accept that the confessions by Staktopoulos, though not completely truthful, did establish his complicity in the murder. It evidently did not occur to him that the confessions might have been the product of coercion from beginning to end. At any rate, he joined Polk in signing a statement immediately after the trial, endorsing the verdict while also agreeing with the attorney general that the case could not be considered finally closed.
This was obviously true. William Polk acted on the hint, by staying on in Greece to explore aspects of the case that still disquieted him. He was allowed to interview Staktopoulos, though not unaccompanied. Staktopoulos did not take this opportunity to assert his innocence, as he did in a letter to Polk in 1956. It is perhaps unlikely that he would have done so in 1949 even if Polk had not been accompanied at their interview. Another reason why Polk learned little from the interview was propounded by Hadjiargyris, who felt that he himself was still under suspicion. He alleged that a colonel of the British Police Mission had “supervised the whole questioning of Staktopoulos,” and that one of his police officers was present at the interview with Polk. In a series of oral statements to officials of the US Embassy, and a long letter to Attorney General Constantinidis, Hadjiargyris revived the theory that the whole Polk affair had been the product of a British plot.
Conspiracy theories abounded in later years, some of them taking advantage of the emergence of new villains who were scarcely open to suspicion in 1949. For the sake of completeness, Professor Keeley submits them to more conscientious examination than most of them deserve. Professor Stephen Xydis, for example, introduced the notorious figure of Kim Philby, who was serving in Istanbul at the time and might therefore be presumed to have been Coate’s controller. Ronald Steel, Lippmann’s biographer, wrote that Lippmann “did not seriously question the State Department’s contention that Communist guerillas were responsible—even though he privately recognized that discrepancies in the evidence pointed damagingly toward the Greek government and the CIA.” However, Steel says nothing further to support this reference to the CIA, which anyone who knew the organization in its early days would find very hard to believe.
All these theorists have at least two decisive defects. They did not have access to all the available documentation, as Professor Keeley has had under the Freedom of Information Act; and they have no answer to the question: Cui bono? Professor Keeley fully recognizes the importance of this question, which could serve either or both of two purposes. The answer could help to point the investigation in the right direction, or it could substantiate a suspicion against a particular person. By this criterion, it was hard to conceive of any motive for either American or British or Greek government agencies to murder an American journalist. Of the other possibilities, a Greek right-wing motive for the murder was easier to conceive than a Greek left-wing motive, because suspicion would fall on the Communists in either case.
The Lippmann Committee rejected this approach, on the ground that “the mystery could not be solved deductively—that is to say, by attempting to decide who had the most to gain by the murder of Polk.” So they insisted that every theory must be tested, and “they were resolved not to tie themselves to any of them.” But although both Donovan and Lindley emphasized, during their visits to Greece, that the right-wing hypothesis must be investigated, it never was; and although both Winston Burdett and William Polk drew attention to the existence of the right-wing organization “X” (Chi), led by Colonel Grivas, Donovan himself ridiculed the suggestion. Presumably the US officials in Athens and Salonika were taking the same attitude toward the question: Cui bono?
Professor Keeley criticizes Lippmann’s attitude, but accounts for it by a quotation from his biographer: “Lippmann participated in the world as an ‘insider.”‘ Keeley goes on to say that
Lippmann’s proclivity for operating “entirely within the system,” whatever his private recognition of the truth, goes a long way toward explaining the way his committee was allowed to function and the conclusions it was allowed to promulgate in its Report.
Lippmann did not question the judgment of the State Department, because it was the State Department. If it is asked what, then, was the point of sending a high-powered independent observer to Greece, the answer must be that a professional association of journalists could not let itself appear to be indifferent to the murder of an American journalist overseas. Since Donovan’s final view coincided with that of the State Department, there was no cause for Lippmann to have any qualms.
It is not easy for a foreigner to comment on this argument. But it is worth adding that a similar line of argument would explain the attitude of the Greek judges in the case, which otherwise might seem unperceptive. They too could not believe that they were being led astray by fellow professionals. Apart from a few corrupt police officers and lawyers, the courts in Salonika and Athens (and especially the Salonika jury) come out of the case without dishonor. They were not conscious parties to the whitewash. There is a temptation to speculate on the outcome of a retrial today, in calmer circumstances and with the benefit of the evidence unearthed by Professor Keeley. No doubt Staktopoulos would be acquitted; but, on the basis of Keeley’s reconstruction of the case, no one else could be convicted in his place. So Professor Keeley’s scholarly detective story would still end in a tantalizing anticlimax, even though he has done remarkable work in bringing to light a great deal that was not previously known.
October 12, 1989