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They Got Away With It for Over Forty Years

The Polk Conspiracy - Kati Marton

The book is superficially about how and why an American journalist in Greece was murdered at the behest of then Greek Foreign Minister Tsalderis with absolute knowledge and complicity by the American CIA and State Department.  On a deeper level, I guess it is about how the entangling foreign intrigues that George Washington warned against in his farewell address always seems to force nations into Faustian bargains which inevitably end in embarrassment, injustice, and outrage.


In 1944, George Polk was a decorated World War II veteran retired back to civilian life after combat injuries. He was a bit directionless, but haphazardly ended up as a war correspondent for CBS news. His mentors were the legendary Edward R. Murrow and William Shirer. Some good leads and hard work landed him in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, where he covered the demise of the British Empire in Egypt and Trans-Jordan, as well as the early stirrings of Zionist nationalism in Palestine.  The big news story he pursued in 1947 was the Greek civil war (between the Communists- who had enjoyed American support throughout World War II because of their effective opposition to German occupation forces;  and Ultra-Right Monachists- whom America supported after World War II because of their staunch opposition to Joseph Stalin's influences in bordering Bulgaria, Albania, and Yugoslavia.)  


So from the get-go, America's position in this region is a bit messy. The "Red Scare" back home had not yet blown up into full 'witch hunt' mode, but such was already the atmosphere in Greece. 


A little background here now:  Greece had long been part of the British empire, valued as a way-station and military outpost safeguarding the vital shipping link between England and India, by way of the Suez Canal.  Winston Churchill so valued Greece that he essentially bargained away any claim on the rest of Eastern Europe, so long as Stalin assured him (for what that's worth) that the Soviets would make no aggressive moves to incorporate Greece into their sphere.  As British power "downsized" after World War II, Churchill and his successors relinquished control over such widespread and distant assets as Iran, Egypt, even India, but stood fast on maintaining Greece within their sphere (partially to support Malta and Gibraltar in maintaining British primacy in the Mediterranean, in the face of a growing Soviet Black Sea fleet.)  The British so impressed President Harry Truman with reverence for Greece's strategic value, that he supported the Marshall Plan-  an investment of several billion dollars (in the 1940's!) of foreign aid, to bolster the Greek economy and aid in fighting Communists forces in their civil war.


George Polk comes in as a naiive reporter covering the civil war, and -for shame! - instead of supplying America and the Greek Monarchists with a steady supply of anti-Red propaganda, he reports evenhandedly... to include reports of Monarchist atrocities against rural villages suspected of aiding Communists, torture and other abuses by the police, etc. Incidentally, Polk also falls in love with and marries a Greek woman, whose personal experiences during the war reveal further falsehoods in the prevailing narration about the upright, just, and honorable nature of the Greek monarchy.


Gradually, Polk's reporting turns a more cynical eye to the Greek regime- now firmly allied to American through the Truman Doctrine of foreign policy, and a steady supply of Marshall Plan money.  Eventually, through persistence and daring, Polk hits journalistic paydirt:  bank statements proving that Foreign Minister Tsalderis is skimming hundreds of thousands of Marshall Plan money into a secret offshore bank account.  Days after this discovery, Polk is murdered by agents of the monarchist intelligence agency.


Through careful reconstruction of records finally released forty years after the events, author Kati Marton (wife of the news anchor Peter Jennings) is able to reconstruct not only the circumstances of Polk's murder (drugged at dinner, shot in the head behind his hotel, and then dumped at sea from a small boat), but the coverup. His body washed ashore about a week later- interpreted in retrospect as less likely a failure to conceal his murder, than an intentional message sent to any other meddling journalists.


At first, the American and Greek public are both satisfied with a cursory investigation by Greek police, which essentially concludes "It was probably Communists, but we'll never know for sure."


Pressure from Polk's family (descendants of the American President James Polk) as well as journalistic luminaries at CBS and the New York Times eventually results in an American investigation led by none other than the original head of the CIA, James Donovan.


Donovan's investigation from A to Z was a whitewash of events, meant to confound and misdirect the public, to protect the "good" name of Tsaldaris, and ultimately to identify a "fall guy" to take the blame.  This ends up being a minor Greek journalist who can credibly be called a Communist- although it looks like he was essentially an apolitical opportunist.


The blatant lies in the pursuant court drama are sickening to read, and culminate in the life imprisonment of a completely innocent man, so that a completely corrupt strongman/murderer can go free, because he happens to be a useful minor piece on America's grand foreign policy Cold War chessboard against the Soviets.


As it is, Tsaldaris only survived in office a few years, before a similar scandal caught up with him and knocked him out of office. Naturally nobody came forward to exonerate the fall guy for Polk's murder (Gregory Staktopoulous) when that happened.


For those of you out there loth to believe in conspiracies because "Surely somebody would come forward, and the secret would get out", here's something to think about: there were about fifteen people in on this murder and coverup, and none of them talked. The truth came out more than forty years after the fact, when most of the major players had already died, and even then it wasn't due to somebody coming forward, but rather a lot of hard work digging through declassified American documents, and the aid of a new Greek government whose shifting circumstances made them now happy to discredit Tsaldaris. 


Don't believe the propaganda: some conspiracies are successful in their aims, and are able to conceal their secrets long into the period where their crimes are not discussed as current events but rather curiosities of History.