The Legacy of George Polk

In May 1948, the body of CBS correspondent George Polk was found floating in Salonika Bay, Greece. His hands and feet were bound and he had been shot in the back of the head. It is widely accepted that he was assassinated, but the mystery of who did it remains unsolved.

Polk, 34 years old, was a rising star at the network and was preparing to return to the United States to take up a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. Seven months before his death he had married Rea Coconis, a Greek national.

He was widely known for his work in the Middle East and most especially for his dispatches from Greece, then in the throes of a civil war. His coverage had revealed the corrupt and authoritarian nature of the Greek regime, which was supported by London and Washington in its struggle against communist insurgents including partisans who fought against the fascist occupiers in World War II.

His death raised a troubling question in the larger geopolitical context: if the Athens regime was implicated in the murder, how could the Truman Administration possibly support it? I.F. Stone, the independent investigative journalist, called Polk’s death “the first casualty of the Cold War.”

The Greek regime sought to blame the communists. Word mysteriously leaked out that Polk had been on his way to interview Markos Vafiadis, the communist resistance leader. A Greek journalist, Gregorious Staktopoulos, was tried for the murder and convicted, but in 1968 he recanted his confession, saying it was extracted under torture. He was later exonerated by the Greek Supreme Court. If the trial was bogus, then so, too, in all likelihood was the story that Polk had been en route to a meeting with the communist guerrillas.

Others theorized that it was more likely that Polk was murdered by right-wing groups within the Greek government or close to it. Investigations to get at the truth invariably ran into stonewalls.

One was undertaken by a “Newsmen’s Commission,” representing a collection of news organizations and various journalists including Ernest Hemingway, William Polk (George’s brother), Homer Bigart of The New York Herald Tribune, and William Price of The New York Daily News. Another involved a band of influential American publishers and journalists headed by Walter Lippman that also included James Reston of The New York Times.  They got nowhere.

No attempt was made to investigate a prime suspect, the Greek monarcho-fascist organization called “X,” which had a record of assassination and terrorism. From time to time new theories arise but so far nothing conclusive has been established.

Polk was a protégée of legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow, who eulogized him as follows: “George Polk was a reporter who had worked in half a dozen capitals and flown both fighters and bombers for the Navy during the war, was wounded in the Solomon (Islands) and decorated for bravery. George Polk had that honesty and integrity, the reverence for fact, and indifference to criticism which gave him the respect of the men of his trade…

“Those who knew George Polk think first of his heart and courage. He was intrepid in his pursuit of a story. He was uncompromising in his determination to tell it. He reported the truth as he saw it. He was a bold and open and unhesitating nature. His reports invariably were clean, hard copy, well documented. His stories stood up, every last one of them.”

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