A look back at journalist George Polk, 1948

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: a look back to 1948, a year of particular import to the relationship between journalists and government secrecy.                                                            

– Wendy Swanberg

read this post with footnotes 

“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, especially for the newly-formed Central Intelligence Agency. In April 1948 the CIA had successfully manipulated parliamentary elections in Italy, using a combination of anonymous pamphlets, bribery, and smear campaigns to keep 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.)

On April 30, 1948, 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.”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. He was 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.

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.

George Polk went missing around May 8, 1948, while he was preparing for a secret interview with a communist guerilla leader at a 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.

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.

The murder is still unsolved, and accusations have been flying from left to right for decades. Leftist journalist I.F. Stone was sure the Polk 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 might have hindered the Cold War strategy of containment.

Yet years later Lippmann’s biographer noted that even this 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.”

It may be that both sides were drawing the target around the arrow, but what is important for this discussion is the evident decision by at least one influential  American journalist to go against his instincts and blame the Polk murder on the 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, 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 murder.

At the risk of oversimplifying: On one side were establishment journalists who can be viewed, functionally, as part of the governing class and who were not willing to jeopardize government policy for the sake of a story. On the other side were some outsider journalists who had already begun to buck the Cold War consensus, and did not hesitate to challenge the government – particularly when one of their own had taken a fall.

-  Wendy Swanberg

read this post with footnotes 

read about the prestigious George Polk Awards, given out by Long Island Universtiy