Notes for GEORGE WASHINGTON POLK, JR.:
Son of George Washington and Unknown Wife Polk, Sr.
Born: November 18, 1888 in Fort Worth, Tarrant County, Texas.
Died: 1942 in Greece.
Census: 1920 - Fort Worth, Tarrant County, Texas.
Married: Adelaide Elizabeth Roe December 28, 1912 in Fort Worth, Tarrant County, Texas.
An Early Victim of the Cold War
By Michael Janeway; Michael Janeway is dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
Published: October 28, 1990
THE POLK CONSPIRACY Murder and Cover-Up in the Case of CBS News Correspondent George Polk. By Kati Marton. Illustrated. 369 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $22.95.
A MARK of a fine news organization is its ability to shelter and deploy a particular breed of reporter, the serious troublemaker. Abroad, such a journalist is a loner at odds with the local regime and his (sometimes her) country's embassy. The targets of his reporting are out to shut off his leads, blacken his name, get him transferred or get him canned. Such efforts only sharpen his instinct for the stories that matter and his skill at getting them first. For making such trouble in Greece in 1948, George Washington Polk Jr., 34 at the time, was murdered.
Were his killers Communists, as charged by Greece's corrupt royalist Government? Was that charge itself the cover-up for an officially sanctioned right-wing execution? Was Polk trapped in something more sinister still -- a prototype of a John le Carre conspiracy involving elements of the British Government? From the start, cold war politics drove the theories about the case. Walter Lippmann headed a prestigious committee that dispatched Wild Bill Donovan of O.S.S. fame to probe it; they botched the job. For more than 40 years there has been no end to the trail from those cold war theories to any conclusive truth about who killed George Polk.
In "The Polk Conspiracy," her dramatic study of the case, Kati Marton, a former Bonn bureau chief for ABC News and the author of a biography of Raoul Wallenberg, sets the scene well. Greece had long been Britain's ward. The part of the wartime deal with Moscow that London cared about most kept Greece this side of what, in Winston Churchill's words, was now an Iron Curtain. In the fall of 1946, Greece's King George II returned from his London exile, but Communist insurgents controlled much of his domain. In the brutal winter of 1946-47, a weakened Britain handed off its role as the world's policeman to the United States, with Greece one of the most dangerous blocks on the beat. The Truman Doctrine, carrying a payload of $400 million for Greece and Turkey and ushered in with ringing rhetoric and brilliant orchestration, marked formal American assumption of superpower status and cold war posture.
A handful of American correspondents feared that the rhetoric would blind Washington to reality. "The path to greatness should not start in the mire of Greek politics," said CBS's Joseph Harsch. Writing in Harper's magazine, his CBS colleague George Polk attacked Greece's "ruling clique" and their "system designed to squeeze from the country every penny possible." Believing that the Athens regime was "stimulating instead of curing Greece's civil strife," Polk resolved to become the first American journalist to get behind the lines of the Communist guerrilla movements springing up on Western turf.
Like the United States, Polk, a lateral descendant of an American President, had a reputation for toughness on the outside, naivete within. Kati Marton's idea is to weave into one gripping, angry, energetically researched narrative the parallel and prophetic tales of American involvement in Greece and Polk's fatal coverage of it. Her reporting throws a powerful light on Polk's murder and honors his martyrdom, but her presentation of it is in some respects troubling.
The prophecy implicit in "The Polk Conspiracy," of course, is Vietnam, and we know the truth about what happened there, as distinct from the official story, in large part because of courageous reporters like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. (Winners of the coveted award given in memory of Polk since 1949 to journalists who "valued an important story more highly than personal safety" include, among the ranks of those who reported from Vietnam and Cambodia, Mr. Halberstam, Malcolm Browne, Morley Safer, Frances FitzGerald, Harrison Salisbury, R. W. Apple, Gloria Emerson and Sydney Schanberg.)
George Polk of CBS, one of Edward R. Murrow's crack team, but far more ornery and antiestablishmentarian than his mentor, helped found the modern school of reportage that, in the field, has discerned stupidity and corruption behind high-toned foreign policy and grand American interventions, and has said so. In Greece as in Vietnam, the official response was to question such reporters' loyalty. Polk had problems, but fellow-traveling wasn't one of them.