Casualty of the Cold War

George Polk
George Polk; drawing by David Levine

To some men it is given to have mythic lives; to others mythic deaths. George Polk is one of the latter. In life he was a little-known American journalist who reported from a remote outpost of the cold war empire. Since the discovery of his murder in Greece in 1948 he has become a symbol of courage in the face of intimidation, of truth subverted by power and justice by expediency. Although he died more than forty years ago, the manner of his death and the reasons for it, the identity of his killers, and the degree of complicity of those in high places—these are still unknown.

The official explanation has become increasingly suspect, as have the conditions under which it was reached. Although Polk is hardly the first journalist to have been killed under suspicious circumstances, the particular time and the place as well as the manner of his death give it broader significance. His is a story of the cold war.

George Polk’s death has been the subject of two recent books. The first, The Salonika Bay Murder, a conscientiously researched and judicious inquiry by Edmund Keeley, a novelist and director of the Hellenic Studies program at Princeton University, was published in 1989.1 Now Kati Marton, a former correspondent for ABC News and the author of a biography of Raoul Wallenberg, has reworked the case as a cold war thriller. The Polk Conspiracy is a highly readable drama bristling with plots, villains, and conspiracies. Making use of hitherto untapped records she has unearthed some important leads. The story she tells is absorbing, although at times not fully credible, and in the end raises almost as many questions as it resolves.

The problem Marton faces, as have others who have dealt with this case, is the gap between what is known, what can be reasonably surmised, and what can be persuasively demonstrated. This is not easy to bridge, particularly in a case abounding in contradictions and inconsistencies, and where the temptations for conjecture are great. Assassination theories often rest on speculations made about curious coincidences. One needs to move beyond possibility to probability and then to proof. Marton takes us on an intriguing journey, but on arrival we don’t know exactly where we are.

George Polk, a thirty-four-year-old CBS News correspondent in Greece, was found floating in Salonika harbor on May 16, 1948, his hands and feet bound, and a bullet through his skull. The autopsy report stated that his body had been in the water for a week, ever since his mysterious disappearance from his hotel. He had come to Salonika from his base in Athens for a few days before returning for reassignment to the US with his young Greek bride.

No motive or clues for the murder were immediately evident, although there was little doubt that the crime was political. Salonika was virtually on the front…

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