This is the inaugural entry in our Free Press blog, where I’ll be reaching back to points in history that shed light on current issues of press freedom and speech freedom. Here we look back to 1948, a year of particular import to the relationship between journalists and government secrecy. For any who aren’t familiar, the George Polk Awards are named for a journalist killed in Greece in 1948 — read on! – Wendy Swanberg

Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace.

George Kennan, 4 May 1948, Policy Planning Staff Memorandum

Nineteen forty-eight was a critical year for the Cold War, particularly for the newly-formed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In April 1948 the CIA had successfully manipulated parliamentary elections in Italy, using a combination of anonymous pamphlets, bribery, and smear campaigns to prevent Greek communists from knocking the pro-Western Christian Democrats out of a majority. (This effort would become a template for CIA election-tampering over the next twenty-five years.)[2] On April 30, a key State Department strategist named George Kennan — no doubt aware of the CIA’s success in thwarting Italian communists — wrote a Policy Planning Staff Memorandum inaugurating an “organized political warfare” which would employ both overt and covert tactics, including “’black’ psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.”[3] george_polk_stamp

For American journalism, the most critical event of 1948 was the murder of CBS radio correspondent George Polk, whose dead body was found on May 18, floating in Salonika Bay near Athens, Greece. Polk had been blindfolded, bound with twine by the hands and feet, and shot in the back of the head. His pockets were still full of money and personal effects.


Polk had been a well-regarded foreign correspondent, the CBS network’s chief reporter in Greece, covering the contentious civil war between the Greek royalist government and communist guerillas.

By most accounts Polk was a fearless journalist who went to great lengths to get stories, many of which were critical of both the Greek government and the communist movement[4] In 1948, he was one of the last remaining American correspondents in Greece after a number of reporters had left the country under pressure from government officials, both Greek and American. Polk managed to survive a “violent protest” of his reporting lodged by the Greek Ambassador to the U.S, but his critical dispatches for CBS had earned him plenty of enemies on both sides of the civil war.[5]

George Polk went missing around May 8, while preparing for a secret interview with a communist guerilla leader at his remote mountain headquarters. The interview would have been one of the reporter’s last assignments before returning to the U.S. to begin a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard University.[6] Polk undoubtedly was murdered, but in 1948 almost no one was certain who killed him or why.   The Greek government and the Greek communists blamed each other. Separate investigations were launched by two Greek police departments, four American agencies, two groups of journalists, and a few determined individuals who were instantly suspicious that any official investigation would be corrupt.[7]

The murder is still unsolved, and accusations have been flying from left to right for decades. Leftist journalist I.F. Stone was sure the murder was committed by our Greek royalist allies, and he called Polk the “first casualty of the Cold War.” Columnist Walter Lippmann, who spearheaded the official U.S. investigation in 1948, ultimately signed off on the conclusion that Polk had been murdered by Greek communists. (To have done otherwise would have been to throw a wrench in the newly-announced Marshall Plan to aid European nations under threat from communism.) Further, Truman had just secured congressional funding aid to Greece and Turkey, and any aspersions cast on the Greek government would hinder the Cold War strategy of containment.[8]

Yet years later Lippmann’s biographer noted that even the “insider” columnist had serious doubts about the case: “[Lippmann] privately recognized that discrepancies in the evidence pointed damningly toward the Greek government and the CIA.”[9]

It may be that both sides were drawing the target around the arrow, but what is important for this discussion is the decision by a group of esteemed American journalists to go against their instincts and blame the Polk murder on the Greek communists.

The Polk case generated a deep divide between two groups of journalists. On one side were Lippmann and others who either believed his committee’s report or elected to stay silent. On the other side was a skeptical group of reporters (including Polk’s brother William, journalist George Seldes, and Washington columnist Drew Pearson) who would not let the matter rest and pushed for an independent investigation. Among this group was Polk’s friend John Donovan, an NBC reporter who ultimately was fired by the network for his refusal to resign from an alternative committee investigating the Polk murder. And while I don’t have evidence that this journalistic “split” was reflected in the prior meetings of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) , the arguments are identical.

At the risk of oversimplifying: On one side of the debate about George Polk’s murder were establishment journalists who were almost a part of the “governing class” and who were evidently unwilling to jeopardize government policy for the sake of a news story. On the other side were some “outsider” journalists who had already begun to buck the Cold War consensus, and who did not hesitate to challenge the US government – particularly when one of their own had taken a fall.

– Wendy Swanberg


NOTES [1] George Kennan, 4 May 1948, Policy Planning Staff Memorandum. [2]Ganser, Daniele, NATO’s Secret Armies: Operation Gladio and terrorism in Western Europe (London: Frank Cass, 2005); also Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (New York: Anchor Books, 2008), 29-30 and 346-348. [3] Kennan memo 4 May 1948. [4] See Kati Marton, The Polk Conspiracy: Murder and Cover-up in the Case of CBS News Correspondent George Polk (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990), 1-9 and 193-199. [5] Syndicated columnist Marquis Childs wrote that Polk was one of only two American journalists left in Greece after complaints had been lodged against reporters by the Greek government or by U.S. officials, resulting in the ouster of reporters from the Washington Post and the New York Herald Tribune. Marquis Childs, “Shrouded Truth in Greece,” “Washington Calling” column, Washington Post (19 May 1948, p 13). [6] A.M. Sperber, Murrow: His Life and Times, New York: Bantam Books, 1987. [7] Edmund Keeley, The Salonika Bay Murder: Cold War Politics and the Polk Affair. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989,) 71 et seq; Elias Vlanton, Who Killed George Polk? The Press Covers Up a Death in the Family (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), Ch. 3 passim. Among those pushing for an independent investigation of the murder was Polk’s colleague, NBC reporter John Donovan, who remained on the case for decades after the matter had been closed officially. Donovan was later fired by NBC. See Vlanton, 264-265. [8] John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, 2005), 22-23. [9] Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1980) . 487; also Yiannis Roubatis and Elias Vlanton, “Who Killed George Polk?”, More Magazine, (May 1977), 12-32.