A newsman who knew too much

April 06, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

Thursday in New York City a hundred or so journalists, academics, family and friends will gather at an awards luncheon to honor George Polk, a newsman who was murdered 55 years ago by people who did not want him to tell what he knew.

The awards are presented by Long Island University and next to the Pulitzer Prize, a Polk Award is valued by many as the most prestigious in American journalism.

What happened to Polk and the subsequent investigation of his murder offers an illustration worth revisiting as America fights a war in which the government is accused of manipulating the truth and contemplates the occupation of a strange land where manipulation of the truth is endemic. The Polk story also reveals the capacity of the government and the press to acquiesce, collaborate and even conspire to hide the truth if it damages U.S. policy.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that Polk was my cousin.

Polk, who was 34, was covering the Greek civil war in 1948. It was the Cold War's first armed conflict between a government supported by hundreds of millions of dollars from the United States and an armed communist guerrilla insurgency supportive of the Soviet Union.

It was an ugly war and many innocent people were being killed.

Polk, who attended Virginia Military Institute and was a decorated World War II Navy pilot, was skeptical, even disdainful of the reporting from Greece describing magnificent battles in which the Greek Royalist forces were beating back the Communists. He also was critical of the the Greek government's brutality and corruption.

His reports infuriated the Greek government and the Truman administration, which was investing a fortune in Greece.

The tall, blond-haired scion of a prominent family from Fort Worth, Texas, Polk was a star in the CBS reporting crew directed by the legendary Edward R. Murrow. His tour of duty was nearing an end. He and his new, young Greek wife were preparing to return to the United States, where he planned to spend a year at Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship.

On May 7, 1948, Polk traveled to northern Greece for a last visit. Some believe he wanted an interview with Gen. Markos Vafiades, the commander of the Greek insurgents. Some believe he wanted to look into the smuggling trade that was enriching prominent Greeks.

But before leaving Athens, he had confronted Constantine Tsaldaris, the Greek foreign minister, with devastating evidence that Tsaldaris had deposited $23,000 into a bank account in New York -- the equivalent of more than $300,000 today. It was illegal for Greeks to transfer money out of the country, and the suspicion was that these funds might have been embezzled from U.S. aid to Greece. Polk threatened to expose Tsaldaris when he returned to the United States. As the Truman administration was asking Congress to renew aid to Greece, that prospect was devastating.

Clark Clifford, who had been special counsel to President Truman, acknowledged as much 40 years later in an interview with Kati Marton, the author of a book, The Polk Conspiracy.

"It would have been extremely difficult for us to go back to Congress and ask for more money for Greece had this information come to light," he said.

Polk saw a lot of people in Salonika on May 7 and 8. But after that, he disappeared. On May 16, 1948, his bloated body turned up in Salonika Bay. His hands were bound in front. He had been shot twice in the back of the head.

In Athens and in New York and Washington, there was an uproar.

The Greek government moved quickly to accuse the Communists. In Washington, the State Department and the CIA feverishly looked into the case. Walter Lippman, possibly the most influential journalist in Washington at the time, headed up a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the murder -- the Overseas Writers Committee to Inquire into the Murder of George Polk. Lippmann brought in as its top investigator Gen. William "Wild Bill" Donovan, organizer of the Office of Strategic Services, World War II predecessor of the CIA. In New York, Polk's friends in the Newspaper Guild formed the Newsmen's Commission to investigate the murder, but Lippmann resisted their attempts to get involved. And he and Donovan relied heavily on the Greek government's investigation, with Donovan pressing the Greeks to come up with a culprit.

Soon there was an arrest. Gregory Staktopoulos, a minor media figure in Salonika who had worked for the Communists, was accused of taking Polk to a fateful meeting with two other Communists, Evangelos Vasvanas and Adam Mouzenides. Staktopoulos, who had been tortured and blackmailed by the Greek authorities, was convicted. Vasvanis and Mouzinedis, who, as it turned out, were so far away from Salonika at the time that they could not have murdered Polk, were convicted in absentia.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.