The First Casualty of the Cold War: Journalist Kati Marton on the Polk Conspiracy
By Michael Nevradakis,
Longtime ABC News and NPR correspondent Kati Marton talks about her best-selling book, The Polk Conspiracy: Murder and Cover-Up in the Case of CBS News Correspondent George Polk, its recent re-release as part of the Forbidden Bookshelf series of e-books, and about the murder of US journalist George Polk in Greece during the country’s civil war in 1948 and the alleged conspiracy behind his killing.
Michael Nevradakis: Let’s set the stage: George Polk was related to two former US presidents, he had a pretty illustrious stint in the US military, and he had a sort of wanderlust which took him across the globe. How did he end up in journalism as a profession?
Kati Marton: George Polk’s family lost everything, lost their fortune, their livelihood, their beautiful home in Texas as a result of the Depression. They were a very prominent Fort Worth, Texas family with presidential roots, and like so many products of the Depression, he took off in search of his future because there was no future in Texas. He ultimately became a war hero, fought in the Pacific as a pilot and then was recruited by CBS News, the most prestigious news organization of his day, by the legendary Ed Murrow. He became one of Murrow’s boys, a team of really extraordinary, talented and brave reporters who covered the Second World War and its aftermath. George was a rising star in that constellation.
Greece, of course, was one of the most important stories of the late ’40s, because Greece was where the United States decided to draw a red line against Soviet expansion. The famous Truman Doctrine was crafted to pour millions of dollars into propping up, shoring up the Greek government, which in those days was a right-wing government: There was a still a monarch, and the road from Athens led directly to Saigon, in my view, and the Vietnam War, where again, we got involved with a government that did not have the support of its own people. It was a Faustian bargain, and The Polk Conspiracy really illustrates the high price of what happens when the United States government puts so-called national security interests ahead of its fundamental values. George Polk was really the first casualty of the Cold War.
What was the nature of George Polk’s journalism, his reporting from Greece, and how did authorities both in Greece and back home react at the time? It seems like it didn’t take him very long to make his presence felt in Greece.
George Polk is considered one of the great American journalists. A very prestigious journalism prize, the George Polk Award, is named after him. I might add that both my mother and father are winners of that prize for their reporting. But at any rate, Polk was a fearless reporter who didn’t let anything get in his way. That is why he ultimately paid with his life. But he believed that it was in the good of all to know the truth, whether that truth made our own government, the United States government, look bad or not. Indeed, George Polk’s coverage was so uncompromising that three capitals – Athens, London and Washington – all had him in their sights, because he was an unstoppable truth-teller. You know, the world owes people like that a huge debt, because he, insofar as there was truthful reporting about what was happening in Athens in 1948, where you had this corrupt government, it came from George Polk. So, he had to be silenced.
From what you mentioned in the book, it didn’t take long, in fact, for George Polk to even be accused by the Greek press at the time of being a communist.
That’s right; that was always the quick way to ruin somebody’s reputation, to smear him with the label “communist.” George Polk was no more a communist than he was an astronaut. He was just an objective reporter who saw, very clearly, that there were good guys and bad guys on both sides, but that the bad guys were in power and that the United States was pouring millions of dollars into propping up this corrupt government. Polk was on the scene there and saw that the government was basically keeping itself in power and not doing right by its own people, and that the United States shouldn’t be supporting such a government. In fact, as I tell in The Polk Conspiracy, it wasn’t only the Greeks who were responsible for George Polk’s death, but my own country, the United States, also played a shameful role, not in his death, but in the cover-up that followed, and our staunchest ally, Great Britain, actually played a role in his murder.
What seems to have been the last straw, as far as George Polk’s presence in Greece is concerned, is a meeting he had with the prime minister of Greece at the time, Constantine Tsaldaris, just a few days before he was murdered. What was the nature of this meeting?
George Polk got a tip-off, one of those that good reporters get from anonymous sources. This source was from the Chase Manhattan Bank, saying that the Greek prime minister, Mr. Tsaldaris, had just deposited a very large sum of money in a personal account in the Chase bank in New York, and because Polk was such a scrupulous, fair-minded reporter, he went to the prime minister to get his reaction to that before he broadcast it, and thereby signed his own death warrant. He lived only for a few days after that. When I was researching the Polk conspiracy, I had the opportunity to interview President Truman’s closest adviser, Clark Clifford, and I asked him “what would have happened, had George Polk lived to broadcast this story of a prime minister who was being propped up by United States aid dollars, having such a huge bank account?” Clifford said it would have been impossible for Truman to go back to Congress to get any more funding for Greece. So in a way, Tsaldaris and the people who organized this assassination, they were right to do so, as awful as that sounds, to save themselves. I’m in no way condoning the murder, but in practicing the highest standards of his profession, George Polk sealed his death warrant. He should have left Greece once he was armed with that information and broadcast it from a safe place, but he was a very scrupulous reporter and a very brave one, and he paid with his life.