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 lines of the Greek civil war, and many foreign journalists had gone there in hopes of getting to the other side to interview the Communist leader known as General Markos. On this trip Polk had asked a number of people, American, British, and Greek, whether they could help him arrange such an interview. They all later stated that they told him they could not. Such a trip would have been extremely dangerous. Many Greeks considered anyone who attempted it a Communist sympathizer, and Salonika was under tight military control. Other journalists had tried and failed, although Homer Bigart of The New York Herald-Tribune later got to Markos through Yugoslavia.
No one could give any information about how or why Polk had met his death, although hypothetical assassins and motives abounded in a country polarized between the political right and left. Many suspected that forces on the far right, linked to extremist politicians within the government itself, had committed the crime. They cited the fact that Polk had made enemies by reporting the regime’s corruption, and that his seeking to get behind Communist lines might be reason enough for his execution, as a means of dissuading other journalists from making the same attempt. However, supporters of the governing Populist party, a proroyalist group stretching from center to extreme right, claimed that the Communists had killed Polk to discredit the government among the American public. Although, or perhaps because, the case was so highly charged politically, Greek government investigators were unable to turn up any clear leads or suspects.
The case might have languished unsolved and forgotten had Polk not been a correspondent for an important American news organization and if he had not had two powerful patrons: Edward R. Murrow, his boss at CBS News, and Walter Lippmann, who had recommended him for a Nieman fellowship at Harvard. Concerned that the case would be bungled by Greek authorities suspected of corruption and mistreatment of American reporters, several of the most important people in American journalism organized a committee to monitor the official investigation then under way. This special committee of the Overseas Writers Association included James Reston of The New York Times, William Paley and Joseph C. Harsch of CBS, the columnist Marquis Childs, Ernest Lindley of Newsweek, and Eugene Meyer, owner of The Washington Post.
Lippmann, who agreed to serve as chairman, chose as committee counsel and chief investigator the New York lawyer and former head of the OSS, the wartime intelligence agency, General William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan. It seemed an inspired choice. Who better than this legendary operator could get his way with the US Embassy and the Greek ministries, prod Washington bureaucrats, and penetrate the shady world of intelligence in which the mystery of Polk’s death probably lay? The State Department offered to cooperate fully with him and make all information on the case available: a most unusual kind of cooperation between government and the press.
Donovan chose as his assistant a Greek American air force officer named James Kellis, who had served as OSS liaison behind the lines in Greece during the German occupation. He conducted the investigation on behalf of Donovan, who in this phase of the case made only four brief trips to Greece. However, for reasons we will presently discuss, Kellis was suddenly ordered to return to Washington after less than two months on the job.
Before leaving Greece Kellis gave Donovan a list of ten people who might be interrogated further. Donovan picked out one person for interrogation: a minor Salonika journalist with the reputation of being a political chameleon: Gregory Staktopoulos. The head of the Salonika branch of the national security police, Major Nicholas Mouscoundis, whom the Greek authorities had put in charge of the investigation, arrested Staktopoulos and held him incommunicado for six weeks. At the end of that time Staktopoulos confessed that he had brought Polk into contact with rebels who promised to lead him to Markos. They had come from behind the lines, he stated, and took Polk and him, as interpreter, into their boat. Partway across the bay the rebels told Polk that for security reasons they must bind his hands and feet and blindfold him. Staktopoulos said Polk agreed to this peculiar request. Then to his surprise, he said, they shot Polk in the head and dumped his body in the bay. The assassins fled into hiding and Staktopoulos returned home.
On the basis of his confession the government held a public trial attended by Donovan and Polk’s nineteen-year-old brother, William. The two presumed assassins, both well-known, high-level Communist officials, were sentenced to death in absentia, and Staktopoulos, convicted as an accomplice, received life imprisonment. Donovan declared himself satisfied that justice had been done, as did the journalists’ group known as the Lippmann committee.
At that point the case seemed closed. Some discontent was expressed by several members of the New York Newspaper Guild, who formed a group called the Newsman’s Commission to Investigate the Murder of George Polk. They unsuccessfully tried to conduct their own investigation, but were discouraged by Lippmann on the grounds that a second investigative group would complicate efforts to win the cooperation of Greek and US officials. The most vocal dissenter was I.F. Stone. Writing in the Daily Compass in 1952, on the belated publication of the Lippmann committee’s final report, he charged that the group had “weakly helped hush up facts which would have embarrassed the Greek and American governments and forced a fuller investigation.” He particularly cited as examples the recall of Kellis and the skeptical comments on the confession provided to the committee by the Harvard law professor E.M. Morgan. Although he had no new evidence or proof for his accusation of a cover-up, Stone accused Donovan of being “too easily reachable by government officials,…too susceptible to considerations of high policy.” The Lippmann committee, he charged, would “provide journalism schools with a model lesson in how to be a willing sucker instead of a real reporter.” His ardent reproach made little impact—this was the time of McCarthyism and the Korean War, and the Polk case disappeared again into the shadows.
Years later, Staktopoulos, who had been released from prison in 1960, publicly retracted his confession, claiming that he had been tortured by government officials seeking a scape-goat. In 1977 two journalists of Greek background conducted an extensive investigation for MORE magazine.2 That same year Colonel Kellis, Donovan’s former assistant, broke a long silence by recanting his earlier approval of the verdict. He charged that the entire inquiry and trial had been a cover-up, and that he had been removed from the case when he unearthed a trail leading to right-wing assassins. He did not, however, suggest who the assassins were, or provide any evidence of how Polk was killed. This revelation made but a small ripple, and the case languished for another dozen years. Now, in quick succession, we have had two books, very different from each other, but both reinforcing the argument that the crime was committed by the right, not the Communists, and the truth deliberately suppressed.
Whereas Keeley’s approach is analytical, Marton’s is theatrical. In her version of the case we encounter a handsome young journalist with a reputation for courage, a hot temper, and resistance to authority; a Greek government eager to please its American protector and ensure the flow of US aid dollars; an American embassy staff that considers its highest priority to preserve an Athens regime that would fight the Communists; an American spymaster more interested in finding a scapegoat than fingering the real killers; and the patricians of an American journalistic establishment wanting to do right by a colleague but sensitive to the administration’s foreign policy concerns.
One of the virtues of Marton’s book is her portrait of Polk, whom she presents as an interesting maverick journalist with an “innate rootlessness,” a loner, a “troublemaker,” a man congenitally resistant to authority, qualities she suggests derived from his rejection of his father, a well-to-do Fort Worth lawyer who was ruined by the Depression. Polk’s mother, to whom he was very close, supported the family by working as a librarian. After a brief try at college, he worked for an oil company in California and Alaska, and then at the low-level newspaper jobs available on the international wanderer’s circuit: Shanghai, Manila, Paris, and New York. Like many young men he greeted Pearl Harbor as an excitement and a release. Joining the Navy as a fighter pilot, he saw battle and emerged from the war with lasting physical and psychological scars. For a while he covered the Middle East as a stringer for Newsweek, based in Cairo, then landed a long-coveted job as a CBS correspondent, with a post in Athens.
There Polk found himself on the newly declared battle front of the cold war. In March 1947 President Truman had enunciated the Truman Doctrine, making Greece the test case for America’s global containment of communism. The Greek civil war, which had been mostly a local affair between Communists and rightists with little if any direct involvement by the Russians, took on symbolic significance. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in an early version of the domino theory, drew the “rotten apple in a barrel” analogy that portrayed the threat of a Communist Greece infecting the entire world. Congress was impressed and voted $400 million to strengthen the Greek government, along with that of Turkey, which offered the US alluring military bases on the Soviet frontier.
While Polk was critical of the brutal war tactics of the Greek Communists, he was deeply, and vocally, offended by the corruption of the Greek ruling class and its government. In his news broadcasts he characterized the Greek army as a “military monster” and called the US aid program a “poor investment.” To his CBS colleagues in New York he wrote that the ruling Populist party was preparing a “veiled Royalist dictatorship.” Since he was not only an impolitic but a hot-tempered man, it is not surprising that he made enemies on the political right. Greek authorities found him troublesome, as did some of the diplomatic and intelligence agents at the US embassy. “The Greek government went for me personally and the American press generally like a ton of bricks,” he wrote a fellow journalist. “We were described in the Royalist–right-wing newspapers as ‘all Communists.’ ”
Like many other intrusive journalists, Polk was an annoyance to the government he reported on and an embarrassment to his own. Then, as now, embassy officials were less sympathetic to critical reporting than to a more accommodating view of their problems. One can assume that he was particularly disliked by the extreme right, from which, according to his wife, he received menacing telephone calls. Marton goes so far as to claim that he had become a “threat to sustaining the new Greek-American alliance,” but this may be exaggerating the importance of a little-known radio correspondent. On the other hand, no pond is small to the frogs that live in it. Polk, however limited his reach, no doubt irritated those with the power to harm him.
Marton, like Keeley, makes a persuasive case that elements of the Greek government, or its paramilitary fringes on the extreme right, had a motive for silencing the troublesome journalist, and probably did so. Unlike Keeley, however, she claims to have proof that this was the case. She presents her findings in a series of dramatic reconstructions of events, culminating in the murder itself. She has discovered the resolution of this long-disputed case, she tells us, from a number of sources: private papers, documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, and interviews, including anonymous ones. Marton has been most enterprising in her research and some of the material she has turned up is highly important. The problem for the reader is what to make of it all. To concur in her solution of the case we must accept not only the reliability of the new material, but her interpretation of its meaning. This, as we shall see, poses problems.
The basic structure of her argument—though not its denouement—will be familiar to readers of Keeley’s book. (Curiously, even in her bibliography she makes no reference to this work, which was published more than a year before hers.) In line with other writers, she demonstrates the improbability of the official version. The confession of Staktopoulos, the convicted accomplice, was full of inconsistencies and improbabilities; alternative leads pointing to a possible right-wing conspiracy were not pursued; key witnesses were never summoned, evidence was suppressed, and the presumed assassins seemed chosen more for their prominence than the likelihood of their involvement in an assassination.
The trial itself violated what Americans would consider basic rules of procedure and evidence, particularly the right of cross-examination. The criminal law expert, Professor Morgan, whom Lippmann had asked to comment on the testimony of Staktopoulos, declared that it did “not contain a confession: but at most made him an accessory after the fact.” The “whole performance,” in his view, seemed devised to describe actions that could not be corroborated or denied by other available witnesses. Describing the story of the murder itself as “fantastic,” he noted the unlikelihood that any sane person would agree to be bound hand and foot.
He also emphasized the absurdity of Staktopoulos’s claim that he had “heard the whistling sound of a bullet near me,” since such a sound would not be audible at short range. While Staktopoulos’s various confessions (he made four, often conflicting and frequently revised) could be used to show that he was involved in Polk’s murder, they were “so inherently weak as to be practically worthless” insofar as they involved the two presumed Communist assassins. All of his testimony, he wrote, “cries aloud for cross-examination.” While Lippmann included Morgan’s commentary as one of the many appendices to the final report, it apparently had no effect on the committee’s endorsement of the official verdict.
As others have before her, but with new documentation at hand, Marton draws on the skepticism voiced by Donovan’s assistant, Colonel Kellis. From his work in wartime intelligence, his experience with the Greek resistance, and his knowledge of the language, he was able to conduct his own unofficial inquiry. He soon became persuaded that the Greeks were dragging their feet, and that US embassy officials discouraged the pursuit of clues leading to the political right. He urged Donovan to launch his own investigation independent of American and Greek authorities. Polk’s killers, he told his chief, enjoyed “power, the facility of mobility, protection, and expert direction”—none of which Communists could expect to have in a front-line city under martial law.
Kellis’s resistance to the official story, the mounting evidence he found that right-wing extremists had probably committed the murder, and his suspicions that the Greek investigators were ignoring the obvious clues leading to the right incurred the displeasure of US diplomatic officials. As he wrote Donovan on August 10, 1948, shortly after his return to the United States—a letter quoted by Marton that Donovan kept in his private papers and did not circulate to the Lippmann committee:
While the investigation was directed against the Left, most State Department officials were cooperative. When I received information that this is a “Rightist crime” and expressed my views, some State Department officials became concerned, to put it mildly.
By “some officials” he meant, in particular, the American chargé d’affaires in Athens, Karl Rankin, and the consul-general in Salonika, Raleigh Gibson. In fact it was Rankin who was directly responsible for his recall. Unknown to Kellis the chargé d’affaires had cabled the State Department that Kellis’s beliefs were based on “little more than personal prejudice” and advised that “the sooner Kellis is removed from the scene the better.” A few days later the Air Force ordered him back to Washington. Not until years later did he learn the full reason for his recall. While Lippmann protested his removal and the Air Force said he could return, Donovan decided against it, assuring Lippmann that the investigation would continue to pursue leads to the Greek political right.
Kellis did not have enough rank to protest his reassignment. Further, since he intended to pursue a government career and was soon to enter the CIA, he no doubt realized that the controversy was jeopardizing his professional prospects. He never questioned Donovan’s honesty or judgment, and endorsed the official verdict of Communist guilt following the trial. However, shortly after his return to the US he told Ernest Lindley, the Newsweek columnist who headed the Overseas Writers Association, that a number of Greeks and Britons had privately informed him that rightists had committed the crime, but were afraid to say so publicly. He believed that the British knew far more than they would reveal. Indeed, a British officer, his tongue loosened by drink, had told him that Polk was executed by rightists. Kellis complained that the US embassy seemed determined to shield the Greek government by blaming the Communists, and he urged that the newsmen’s committee be more than a rubber stamp for a pre-arranged verdict. “It is Col K’s belief,” Lindley reported to Lippmann, “that by pretending ignorance of the discrepancies of the investigation we are becoming silent partners of the crime.”
Still, during his years in the government Kellis maintained a discreet official silence. He noted in a letter to Donovan that disparaging comments about him from the US embassy “may reflect on my service record, and I believe that I should no longer associate myself with them and this investigation.” In 1952, Keeley reports, he gave a deposition to the CIA that he himself had asked to be “relieved from this investigation.” By 1956, however, when he apparently was no longer in the CIA, he wrote Lippmann and Lindley that he had been under “considerable pressure to get out of the investigation and shut up.” In 1977, after the MORE article drew new attention to the case and the military dictatorship in Greece had been overthrown, he wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times charging that he had been pulled off the investigation because he “would not be party to a cover-up.” Though he declared that “many US officials were willing to disregard principles for personal or national convenience,” he did not claim to know who had committed the crime. Later that year he signed an affidavit at the Greek consulate in New York stating that Polk had been murdered by rightists in cooperation with the British, although he offered no documentation for this accusation.
Kellis never wrote anything more on the case for publication. But he did keep a dossier, including reports from informants during the time he worked on the investigation. Marton has gained access to this file, as well as to a number of Donovan’s private papers which were not included in the material that Donovan’s estate contributed to the US Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. This material, most of which was not previously seen by other researchers, reinforces her argument that the real murderers of George Polk were to be found among rightwing forces, that American embassy officials determinedly blocked leads in that direction, that Staktopoulos was not guilty of what he confessed to and was coerced and even tortured, that US officials preferred a cover-up that would exonerate the Greek government to a fair inquiry that might incriminate it, that the Communists had no logical motive for murdering Polk, that figures within the Greek governing party were probably involved, that Donovan “perceived his task largely as a public relations job,” and that the eminent journalists on the Lippmann committee simply endorsed the conclusion they were handed.
If Kati Marton had merely implicated right-wing political forces and blamed US officials for a cover-up, she would not have advanced the story much beyond what Keeley and other researchers have told us. However, since she claims to have found both the murderers and a new motive, her account deserves close attention. Her dramatic reconstruction of the crime, which bristles with suspense and intrigue, presents George Polk as going to Salonika in order to make a last attempt to arrange an interview with General Markos. He asks various people, including US and British consular officials, to help him to get behind the lines. He then falls into the hands of right-wing thugs posing as Communists, who promise to lead him to the rebels, but are actually intent on murdering him. These killers, based in the Piraeus port authority, belong to a paramilitary group linked to politicians in the ruling rightist Populist party. They invite Polk to a lobster dinner on May 8, where they lace his drink with a sleeping potion before he returns to his hotel. They then sneak into his room, dump his drugged body into a laundry basket, take him down an elevator and into an alley behind the hotel. There they fire a bullet into his head, remove his pajamas and put on his clothes, bind him hand and foot, drag his body several blocks to the quay, and dump him into the bay, where he is not found until a week later.
This is Marton’s resolution of the mystery that has shrouded Polk’s death for more than four decades. She even names the chief conspirator: Michael Kourtessis, a “henchman” of the rightist faction among the Piraeus dockers. And she tells us how the murder was planned. A few days before Polk’s murder Kourtessis presumably flew to Salonika, where he “picked the men, the place, even the menu.” Having set the stage, he then went back to Athens, returning to Salonika only after Polk had been assassinated and his body dumped into the bay.
This is fascinating information. Where does it come from? Marton’s notes tell us it comes in part from speculation, in part from material in the previously unmined Donovan file, and particularly from a letter written to Kellis by a plant within the national gendarmerie. This plant, an old wartime OSS buddy of Kellis’s named Lambros Antoniou, reported that through an informant in the Piraeus underground he learned that Kourtessis went to Salonika before and after Polk’s death “without any apparent reason,” and that he traveled with the chief Greek police investigator, Major Mouscoundis. Kourtessis is described as being “capable of anything” and a “lieutenant” of a right-wing parliamentarian who led an extremist group in Piraeus. Another member of that group told Antoniou that “Polk deserved his fate and that the person who committed the murder is now at Piraeus under police protection.”
The letter is intriguing. Marton says that like a number of other documents central to her solution, it comes from a source to which she has promised anonymity. Assuming that the letter is authentic, what exactly does it tell us? That Kourtessis was a right-wing thug in an extremist group linked to rightist politicians in the governing party. That he was ruthless. That he went to Salonika with the police officer who later headed the Polk investigation. That he returned to Salonika a few days after the murder.
This is suggestive and probably important. But it is hardly proof of guilt, let alone the basis for a detailed plan for a murder. Such material comes under the category of raw data. It is the job of intelligence officers to interpret and weigh such information. Significantly Kellis, who received the letter from a man he knew, put less faith in its revelations than does Marton. To the day of his death in 1986 he said that although evidence pointed overwhelmingly to the right, he himself could not be sure who killed Polk.
Indeed, in an unpublished 1975 letter to the distinguished scholar of modern Greece, Professor John Iatrides of Southern Connecticut State University, Kellis cited the irregularities of the trial and the American mistake of “backing corrupt and incompetent governments,” and wrote:
My theory, based on the partial facts I was able to put together, is that some right-wing Greeks (some with British connections) killed Polk and tried to make a case of it by attributing this case to the communists. This event took place during the civil war, so it is easy to see the eagerness of everyone in the Greek and American governments to blame the commies. I don’t believe, and the evidence will substantiate my belief, that the higher levels of the Greek and American governments were involved in this crime. It was the job of a few fanatics, and conditions being what they were, both governments, after the fact, decided it best that this case be covered up.3
Marton does not refer to this significant letter, which undercuts the more dramatic aspects of her thesis, although she refers to Iatrides as her “patient tutor and guide.” Instead she quotes from a different, vague letter from Kellis to Iatrides written two months earlier, in which the colonel deplores the American obsession with communism that made us “willing to get in bed with anyone who claimed to be anti-Communist.”
Aside from the fact that Kellis, the hero of her story, does not support her resolution of the case, Marton’s reconstruction presents problems. She tells us that Kourtessis traveled to Salonika between May 4 and 6. However, Polk did not leave Athens until May 7, and his declared destination was not Salonika, but the more distant city of Kavalla. It was presumably only when he landed at Salonika and was told that Kavalla airport was closed that he decided to stay. Are we to surmise that Kourtessis arranged his plot on the assumption that Polk would eventually get to Salonika, and that he somehow made sure that Polk would not go to Kavalla? Here Marton writes of Salonika that Polk “was really there by chance, or so he thought” (my italics). What are we to make of this? Is Marton suggesting that Kavalla airport was not really closed—in which case a great many people would have had to be in on the plot, including the crew of the American military plane on which he flew.
Marton’s reconstruction of the murder scene itself seems equally open to question. According to several researchers who have been to the former Astoria hotel in Salonika, the elevator, unchanged since 1948, is far too small to accommodate two men and a laundry cart with a body inside, the hotel does not back onto an alley but is on the corner of a solid block of buildings, and the only exit is not onto “the quiet of a Salonika side street” but through the hotel lobby to one of the city’s busiest streets. It stretches the imagination to believe that a man could be shot, undressed, and dressed again on the street around midnight (it must have been near this time, for Polk’s water-logged watch stopped at 12:20 A.M., which Marton leaves out of her account), bound with ropes, and dragged several blocks and thrown into the bay without being noticed by anyone.
Aside from the logistical problems Marton’s account poses, it also seems unduly complicated. Since Staktopoulos had testified that Polk had brought his pajamas to the boat with him—thereby dealing with the fact that they were missing from his room—Marton also has to account for the absent pajamas. She does so by having the killers dispose of them. But her reconstruction, which requires an elaborate undressing scene, seems no less contrived than his. Further, why would the killers, once they had Polk at the dinner table, allow him to return to his hotel? How could they assume that once in his hotel he would stay there until they arrived? Or that he would be alone? Or that the drug would do its work just when they returned to kill him? On consulting Marton’s footnotes, which are often sketchy, one learns that her reconstruction of the deed appears to be based in significant part on the private diary of the wife of a US information officer in Salonika, whose husband “speculates on how the murder was likely to have been executed.”
Clearly the question of motive is central. In addition to the obvious suggestion that the far right might want to silence an unsympathetic reporter or dissuade other journalists from trying to gain access to the Communists, Marton presents another reason for killing him: corruption. Polk, she claims, received a letter from an employee of a New York bank stating that the Greek foreign minister, Constantine Tsaldaris, had recently deposited $25,000 (at the time a considerable amount of money) in a private account. Tsaldaris, a former prime minister, was leader of the governing Populist party and, in her words, the “most powerful politician in Athens” (although she later disparages him as “an inconsequential politician”). Marton learned this story from Polk’s widow, Rea, and also from a letter that Kellis sent to Donovan reporting the information. But neither Mrs. Polk nor Kellis was able to corroborate the accusation that Marton presents as a fact. The letter from the New York bank was missing from Polk’s files and has never been found, although two American friends in Athens said he told them such a story. Marton, relying on an account by Rea Polk and on US government cables, also reconstructs a dramatic encounter with the foreign minister in which Polk threatened to expose him for stealing US aid funds. Since, according to Marton, the “right-wing thugs and henchmen” of the Piraeus underground kept Tsaldaris in office, and since Polk was murdered only a few days after the encounter, this might suggest that Tsaldaris ordered Polk’s murder to avoid his exposure. In Marton’s account this suspicion is not presented as a possibility, but as a fact. While it is possible, it leaves much open to doubt. First, no proof is offered that Tsaldaris had such a bank account: there is only the accusation that he had. Second, even if the account existed, we do not know where the money came from. Third, assuming that the graft was real and the threat made, there is no evidence that Tsaldaris responded by having Polk executed. Motive alone is not enough.
As though to reinforce Tsaldaris’s guilt, Marton recounts an incident, told to her by Rea Polk, in which the foreign minister’s son, a student at Columbia University (and now president of the Greek parliament), tries to intimidate the young widow into signing a declaration that the Communists killed her husband. But this story shows that the younger Tsaldaris was defending his father against a damaging accusation; it does not confirm that the charge was true.
Finally, having raised the issue of the foreign minister’s possible guilt, Marton fails to connect it to the other motive she has presented. If Polk was murdered to hide Tsaldaris’s corruption, what does it matter that he was a persistent critic of the government or that he wanted to interview the Communists? And if he was killed as punishment for being a critical and enterprising reporter, or as a warning to other journalists, what are we to make of the claim that the discovery of Tsaldaris’s bank deposit accounts for his murder? Indeed, Marton herself seems uncertain about the linkage. “As for the killers, all they needed to know of Polk was that he was hell-bent on getting to the communists,” she writes. “There was no need for any of them to know the American reporter had information that would expose the leader of their party for what he was.” Perhaps, but it does not prove that they were acting on Tsaldaris’s orders.
The accusation against Tsaldaris rests on the assumption that revelation of the bank account would have been politically devastating. Would it? It was not uncommon for well-to-do Greeks to have foreign bank accounts, even if they were illegal. Nor would it be widely held against him, if this is what he was doing, that he was fleecing the Americans. Further, why should Marton assume that the Americans would want to shield a politician who, she tells us, was “too blatantly right-wing for their taste”? Presumably because the US Congress, shocked at this waste of taxpayers’ money, would have shut off aid to Greece. But is it really likely that the US government, only a few months after the Communist coup in Prague, which electrified public opinion, would have risked letting the Greek government fall to the Communists because the foreign minister was skimming some cream off the top? While the Tsaldaris issue Marton has unearthed seems an important aspect of the case, without further proof one cannot accept her belief that it provides the motive for the murder.
The role of the British in this drama, which is important to Marton’s case, also raises problems. The Greeks, like most peoples who have been manipulated by outside powers, see foreign conspiracy everywhere. Kellis suspected that British officials were involved, and Marton echoes his charge. He concentrated on a so-called “information officer” in Salonika named Randoll Coate, who had served in wartime intelligence in Greece and allegedly had contacts with the Communists. Coate was one of the people in Salonika whom Polk had asked for help in getting behind Communist lines. Coate claims, in a letter to his Foreign Office superior which is published in the paperback edition of Keeley’s book, that he turned down the reporter because he seemed immature. He added significantly, however, that if another American correspondent whom he admired had made a similar request, he would have been willing in that special case to “place my information at his disposal.” As it turned out, this was not necessary since the unnamed journalist changed his plans. This important letter, to which Marton does not refer, clearly indicates that Coate had ties to the rebels and could help journalists get behind Communist lines. It would suggest that the British “information officer” had a much bigger part in the story than Marton indicates.
Kellis was suspicious of Coate, as was Polk’s assistant, Constantine Hadjiargyris, who even accused him of murdering the journalist. Coate left Greece three days after Polk’s murder, ostensibly on a scheduled reassignment to Oslo, and was never questioned or called to testify in the trial. Marton, who interviewed Coate, found him to be an “idealist enamored of the classics” and absolved him of any blame, despite the fact that she deems the involvement of other British officials to be central. Whether in fact Coate did bring Polk into contact with his assassins, either Communists or those pretending to be Communists, remains one of the many mysteries of this case.
A less dramatic mystery concerns Polk’s files, which disappeared from his Athens apartment a few days after his death became known. These contained documents for the preceding three months, including, presumably, the letter from New York regarding the foreign minister’s bank account. While any number of people could have taken these papers, including the security police or Polk’s assistant, who was for a time accused of the theft, Marton implies that the culprit was a young Greek woman, Mary Barber, who was a stringer for Time magazine and married to a British journalist. According to Marton this “shrewd and enigmatic figure” insinuated herself into the good graces of Polk’s young widow, Rea, in order to monitor her movements. Marton cites Rea Polk as having noticed that the critical documents were missing shortly after Barber was given permission to look through the files, and she quotes Polk’s assistant as accusing Barber of theft (although Rea Polk herself made no such direct accusation). Why would Barber want to take Polk’s papers? Presumably to shield Tsaldaris, one of the politicians allegedly close to the British, or perhaps, as Keeley suggests, to conceal the fact that she and her husband may have put Polk into contact with Randoll Coate in Salonika. But there is no proof that Mary Barker actually took the papers in question or had any such motives. This woman, like Coate, also left Greece shortly after Polk’s murder and was never called to testify in the trial.
On the American side the crucial figure in the entire affair was Donovan. It was he who impressed upon the Greeks that they must find a culprit, picked out Staktopoulos from a list of suspects, worked closely with US embassy officials, allowed Kellis to be pulled off the case, and persuaded Lippmann and his committee that the trial and verdict were fair. Whatever Donovan’s feelings when he took on the case, Marton argues that he seemed increasingly sensitive to the political need to spare the Greek government embarrassment, and stood “like an impenetrable wall between the facts and the reporters.” In view of his reputation as a first-class lawyer, it is striking that he endorsed a confession that reeked of inconsistency and possibly of coercion. When young William Polk tried to follow clues leading to the Greek right, Donovan, he later said, warned him against “spoiling your chances for a good future.”
Though the trial ended in 1949, Donovan did not produce his report until 1952, and then only after persistent prodding by Lippmann and others. He seemed strangely loath to confront the material, and turned over preparation of the report to a young lawyer on his staff, who was not given access to his private papers. She produced an unedited draft of 140 pages which was not circulated to the Lipmann committee. Eventually the committee issued a final document with only eight pages of text, but with numerous appendices—and endorsed the verdict. If the report was a “whitewash,” the responsibility was largely Donovan’s. While he probably had an open mind going into the case, he seems by the time of Kellis’s recall from Greece to have been persuaded that a full-scale inquiry into a right-wing assassination group linked to members of the governing party would be most undesirable. In finding the private documents, particularly the letters from Kellis, that Donovan withheld from the committee, Marton makes a stronger case against Donovan’s handling of the enquiry than other journalists have done. It is perhaps not surprising that Anthony Cave Brown does not mention the Polk case in his authorized biography of Donovan, which is entitled The Last Hero.
Marton criticizes some American journalists in Athens for conniving with the US embassy in blaming the Communists, and others, like Polk’s boss Edward R. Murrow, for failing to realize that an “adversarial relationship between government and press already existed” in this early stage of the cold war. But her harshest words are reserved for Walter Lippmann. In discouraging the rival team of New York newsmen he pointedly remarked that “the presence of two American investigative parties in Greece at the same time would only serve those officials who may not wish to pursue this inquiry.” He was troubled by what he told Donovan was “ugly documentary evidence about Kellis and his recall.” And he had read Professor Morgan’s skeptical commentary on the Staktopoulos confession. For these reasons, Marton heatedly argues, he should have used his authority to “cry foul.” Instead, “Lippmann the establishment grandee seems to have won out over Lippmann the journalist.” He did not publicly denounce the official verdict, in her view, because “he seemed concerned less with the truth than with staying in the good graces of his establishment ‘friends,’ who found him a convenient conduit for spreading their views.”
This is an impassioned denunciation, but the picture it draws is rather “clearer than truth,” as Dean Acheson used to say. First, Marton misunderstands both Lippmann and the establishment. Whatever that group may be, Lippmann was surely a charter member. He was not concerned with staying in its “good graces,” and indeed had broken ranks on a much more important issue when he attacked the Truman Doctrine itself as being dangerously globalistic. If he had acquiesced in a cover-up, which is certainly not evident, it would have been not to please his dinner companions—who were usually more interested in pleasing him—but because he bowed to what he believed were compelling cold war raisons d’état.
But do we have evidence that he did this? Marton berates Lippmann for his failure to make a public issue of Kellis’s suspicions, or of the US embassy pressure to push Kellis out of the investigation, or of Professor Morgan’s critique of Staktopoulos’s confession. She writes that Lippmann was “more discomfited than outraged by Kellis’ forced departure,” and that he “stayed very much aloof” from the controversy. She neglects to mention, however, as Keeley notes in his book, that Lippmann wrote the State Department urging that Kellis be allowed to return to Greece. In his final public report, moreover, he explicitly noted that Kellis, who had been “exploring certain leads pointing to the Right,” had been recalled at the suggestion of a US embassy official in Athens, and he complained that Donovan’s investigation was “frustrated by Greek and American authorities.” When the Air Force agreed to let Kellis return to Greece, it was Donovan who told the committee that it was not necessary since the investigators were fully exploring leads pointing to right-wing political groups, and indeed that “certain key officials in the inquiry would not be displeased if the crime were found to have been committed by Rightists.” As for Professor Morgan’s skeptical analysis of the confession, Lippmann certainly could be criticized for not taking it as seriously as he should have. However, he did not suppress it. It is one of the appendices to the committee’s seventy-six-page final report, although it is not mentioned in the eight-page text.
Marton is particularly scornful of a speech given by Lippmann in September 1949, after the conclusion of the trial, when he presented Donovan (who had worked without pay) with an engraved bowl in recognition of his work “in defense of freedom of the press.” Although the case left many questions unanswered, Lippmann said, “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.” For her this is an example of Lippmann’s hypocrisy and subservience to the establishment. But a close reading of Lippmann’s statement reveals that he merely says that Staktopoulos was the finger man. As Keeley notes, Lippmann suspected him of being a double agent, since before his more recent connection with leftists, Staktopoulos also had right-wing affiliations. Constantine Poulos of the Overseas News Agency, who worked with William Polk developing clues leading to the right, also wrote of his suspicions of Staktopoulos. Neither he nor Lippmann addressed the possibility that the confession may have been coerced. But there is no proof that it was, other than Staktopoulos’s later claim.
At the least, Lippmann can be criticized for showing too much faith in Donovan and allowing himself to be led into a solution that suited everyone’s convenience. One can imagine that he and his colleagues, shielded by Donovan from the open collusion that took place between US and Greek officials, accepted a verdict that seemed feasible and had the inestimable virtue of not upsetting cold war politics. The members of the committee, and particularly Lippmann, should have been more skeptical. But since they had no grounds for repudiating Donovan, no access to his private files, and no separate sources of investigation that provided a different solution, they probably believed that they had little choice but to go along. They should not have been so credulous. They failed in their responsibility. But this is not the same thing as a cover-up. Here Donovan is the far more likely candidate.
Marton deserves credit for enterprising reporting—for digging into Polk’s life, for extensive interviews with people untapped by previous researchers, and for gaining access to the files of Kellis, Donovan, and William Polk. This additional material provides a deeper understanding of a complex and tangled case. Unfortunately she makes many conjectures that go far beyond the evidence. What she presents as “solutions” is mostly speculation. On finishing her book we still cannot be sure who actually killed Polk, although the trail clearly leads to the Greek political right.
George Polk was a contrary and combative reporter with little respect for authority and a fine disregard for his personal safety. He did his work bravely at a time and in a place where considerations of state and a too casual willingness to suspend disbelief clouded the vision of those entrusted with the responsibility to dig more deeply and to face the truth honestly. The questions surrounding his murder reached into places where they were reluctant to delve. Polk became expendable, and in compensation, he was turned into a symbol. Today one of investigative journalism’s highest awards is given in his name, though few know why he is so honored or the extent of the ironies that this prize entails. His murder was an outrage. A far-reaching investigation of it should have taken place but this would have been too great an inconvenience for those in positions of power.
September 26, 1991
The Salonika Bay Murder: Cold War Politics and the Polk Affair (Princeton University Press, 1989). Reviewed by C.M. Woodhouse in The New York Review, October 12, 1989. ↩
Elias Vlanton and Yiannis P. Roubatis, “Who Killed George Polk?” MORE: The Media Magazine (May 1977), pp. 12–23. ↩
Italics added. ↩