The First Casualty of the Cold War: Journalist Kati Marton on the Polk Conspiracy

The Polk Conspiracy(Image: Forbidden Bookshelf)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.

“George Polk’s coverage was so uncompromising that three capitals – Athens, London and Washington – all had him in their sights.”

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.

At this time, in addition to Greece’s corrupt government, there was also a rather robust and dangerous far-right parastate that was operating in Greece, which had close connections to the government and to various other forces, and it seems that these forces were able to approach Polk in the days before his murder.

Yes, of course the prime minister did not pull the trigger, but his allies in the Piraeus underground, a secret and very dangerous society, were responsible for the murder. I actually found who it was, the gunman as well as who the organizers were, and for the first time, I tell the story of how precisely this happened, how he was lured into a trap. George Polk was determined, before he left Greece, to interview the head of the communist guerrillas, General Markos, who was in hiding in the mountains, and went to Salonika hoping for such a meeting, which he had been promised. It was a trap, and he fell into it, and of course, the right-wing government cooked up a massive, fictional plot of how it was Markos and his guerrillas who assassinated Polk, which made absolutely no sense, because Markos had every interest in getting his version of the civil war broadcast to the world. He had no interest in assassinating George Polk. But the terrible thing about the Polk conspiracy is that it had not only George Polk as its victim, but a Greek reporter named Gregory Staktopoulos, who was arrested and tortured into a false confession, that he had participated in the death of his colleague George Polk. And so, there were two victims here: George Polk and Staktopoulos, whose life was ruined because he spent so much of it in terrible conditions in a Greek prison.

We’re talking here about an investigation, or rather a cover-up, and a false confession, in which American and British officials were also intimately involved as well.

Absolutely. The British, who had been the number one superpower, shall we say, before the United States assumed that role in Greece, were deeply involved in Greece affairs and with the Greek monarchy, and played a treacherous role in the Polk case. The British secret service, MI6, was deeply involved. I tell the story of a Greek woman, married to a British reporter, who was charged with keeping Polk’s widow occupied and smuggling from Polk’s apartment any compromising documents, including the letter that he got from the Chase bank about Tsaldaris’ bank account. When I wrote this book, most of the players were still alive, including this woman, who I interviewed for the book, as well as the British secret service agent who I also interviewed, Randoll Coate, who was always suspected of playing a role in the assassination. All of these people were still alive then, as well as the members of the Polk family, who all collaborated with me and for the first time, opened all their files and letters.

“Jim Kellis, found out the real plot, which led straight to the right wing and to the Piraeus underground.”

Really, my biggest piece of luck was that I found the files of the third victim of the Polk murder, Jim Kellis, who was brought in by the American journalists, who were of course outraged about what had happened to their colleague and formed a committee, and under General “Wild Bill” Donovan, who was the founder of our Central Intelligence Agency, was in charge of that investigation. His deputy, named Jim Kellis, found out the real plot, which we have just been speaking about, which led straight to the right wing and to the Piraeus underground. And he was also terribly treated by the Greek right wing and by Washington, because his story, the true story, was not the story that they wanted the world to know, which was that it was the communists and this innocent Greek guy, Staktopoulos, who was beaten into a confession. So Jim Kellis, who was no longer alive when I started examining the official story and basically the official story unraveled under my examination, Jim Kellis had a colleague who had saved a lot of Kellis’ documents, and I was the beneficiary of those, and they make up really the core of The Polk Conspiracy. So that was a piece of journalistic good luck that I benefited from.

Tragically though, I couldn’t publish the book in Greece, where it really should be published, because Mr. Tsaldaris’ son sued me for criminal libel. So I had to hire a very prominent Greek defense lawyer, because I didn’t want to spend a year in a Greek cell, and we ultimately settled out of court, but to this day, I haven’t been able to bring my book to the people who should really know what happened to George Polk. I think that George Polk’s story has cast a huge shadow on Washington-Athens relations, because Washington behaved so poorly in those early days, and the Greek people were so manipulated by their own government and with Washington’s collusion. So I think that it’s time that the true story be told to the Greek people. I was not only sued by the Greek right wing; I was also sued by the British, who were also very upset with my findings, and the lady who played this treacherous role – her name was Mary Barber, later she married a well-known British ambassador named Nico Henderson and became Lady Henderson – she also sued me and prevented publication of my book in Britain, and also blocked a story that Vanity Fair wanted to publish, because British libel laws are such that it’s almost impossible for the truth-teller to be heard. So it was probably the most dramatic episode in my life as a reporter and a historian. Now I’m very happy that the book has been reissued and that it finally has a chance of being heard in Greece, by Greeks!

You mentioned George Polk’s widow … one of the stories that you recount in your book has to do with the fact that there were even attempts made to implicate his widow in the murder. You wrote about an incident where the son of the Greek prime minister Tsaldaris traveled to New York, essentially to terrorize her.

Exactly. Polk’s young widow was a student at Columbia University, and young Mr. Tsaldaris, who subsequently became a leading figure in the Greek conservative party, really threatened her and told her that she, too, would become a victim like her husband if she maintained her version of the story, and that she should basically shut up or face something dire. It’s very interesting because years later my husband, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who was in charge of Greek and Cypriot matters for the [US] State Department, was seated next to Mr. Tsaldaris at a dinner, and Mr. Tsaldaris said, “Oh, I would love to entertain you and your wife.” Of course, he had no idea that Ambassador Holbrooke’s wife was Kati Marton, who he sued, and of course my husband didn’t tell him that I was, in those days, under a criminal libel suit from him and unable to accept his hospitality, but it was kind of amusing how the story just really, until now, hadn’t been resolved, and I think it’s time.

Looking at the innocent man who was framed for this murder, Grigoris Staktopoulos – from what I understand he was eventually able to be released – but was there ever any actual push to have this case reopened in Greece?

There have been, including very recently, several attempts, but none successful. I think it’s still a rather sensitive issue, because there was so much big power manipulation and so much corruption around this case that it’s taken on an enormous symbolic value and role, but I think he should be definitively pardoned. He’s gone now; he really paid a massive price; his life was ruined, and, you know, a shocking thing for me in all this was that at the same time that Moscow was holding show trials where innocents were convicted by Stalin, the West was also capable of such a terrible betrayal of justice and our fundamental values of fair trials and innocence until proven guilty. All of that was betrayed in the Polk conspiracy.

What was your inspiration in writing this book, in doing this investigation and in coming out with this story?

I was a huge admirer of George Polk the reporter. I’m a truth-teller; I like to investigate cases that seem to be solved, but somehow don’t really hold up under real scrutiny. I had no particular political bias one way or another; I’m a child of the Cold War: I grew up in communist Hungary; my parents were journalists who were jailed by the communists – I didn’t see them for a couple of years when I was a child. If anything, I was biased against the communists; I was a refugee myself from the communists, with my parents, so that was my personal bias. But this story just didn’t hold up; the official story just didn’t hold up, and I had some very lucky breaks that reporters sometimes get, and I have never worked so hard on investigating anything, and I tell you, when I was in Thessaloniki and already knew who the plotters were, who the organization that organized the murder, and in fact knew the name of the gunman, I was pretty scared, because if they were capable of killing one reporter, why not another one? But, I’m happy that I lived to tell this tale, and it feels pretty good that George Polk’s story is now getting another chance to be heard.

You wrote that by supporting this particular right-wing regime in Greece, the United States created a monster that would grow beyond their control, and we’re talking about a time that was right at the beginnings of the Cold War. How did US involvement in Greece set the tone for its foreign policy in the coming decades?

We compromised our fundamental values in Greece by being party to a cover-up. I’ve maintained that the road from Greece led to our involvement in Vietnam. It was the beginning of anything for what we call national security interests, and I think in the long run that it’s a Faustian bargain, and the United States had to, of course, have national security interests, but it also has to, above all, be true to its fundamental values.

“The road from Greece led to our involvement in Vietnam.”

I think that George Polk’s story is really a morality tale that should be read by Greeks today about what happens when you sell out your values for short-term political gain. I think it’s an important lesson in how we can’t make those bargains; neither Washington nor Athens should make those bargains for a quick fix, because ultimately we paid massively.

The Polk Conspiracy: Murder and Cover-Up in the Case of CBS News Correspondent George Polk has recently been re-released as an e-book as part of the Forbidden Bookshelf series. Tell us about this new edition.

I’m really thrilled that The Polk Conspiracy is getting a second life under the Forbidden Bookshelf. My book was not really forbidden: It was a bestseller actually in the United States, and Mel Gibson bought the rights for a film about it, and still owns the rights to it, so I hope that eventually we will see the movie. So I can’t say that my book was forbidden, except in Greece, and that, I think, is shameful, and it was forbidden only because of one man’s criminal libel suit against me, that of the Greek right wing in the ’90s. And so I’m grateful to the Forbidden Bookshelf that it’s now campaigning to bring my book to the one place where it is still forbidden, and that’s Greece, where the killing of this very brave American reporter occurred.