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Kati Marton has constructed a vivid, convincing account of who ordered the assassination of George Polk--and the motive behind it in a story of a peculiarly American hero whose blunt honesty and idealism proved insufficient aids in traversing the treacherous grounds of Cold War politics.
"You won't be hearing from me for a couple of days, Bob," George Polk said, his voice crackling over the transatlantic line into Robert Skedgell's earphone. Skedgell, a young CBS editor, was lining up the morning news spots from around the world. It was 7:55 a.m. in New York on Thursday, May 6, 1948.
"Where are you off to now, George?"
"Up north, to have a last look around ... see some places I've never seen ... Kavalla ... Konitsa ..." Polk said, ticking off datelines the Greek Civil War had put on the CBS map. "Rea's coming with me, though her mind is already on New York," Polk added, laughing. It was an easy laugh that Skedgell would remember for years.
"I'll bring her in to meet you in a couple of weeks. She's a beauty, Bob."
"O.K., George. Stand by, please." Skedgell gave Polk the countdown cue. "Three, two, one, go ..."
"Here in Greece," Polk began, "this capital city has a slight case of the jitters. So far today, and it's only early afternoon in Athens, forty-four alleged Communists have been executed.
"The British government has indicated an official protest, saying the shootings have come 'as a great shock for all in London.'"
Though less deliberate than Edward R. Murrow's famous staccato, Polk's pared-down delivery owed much to the man whose career he hoped to emulate. He tried not only to sound like his mentor but to be as uncompromising in his reporting.
"There has been no official reaction from American authorities," George read on. "Since Monday, more than two hundred persons have been put to death by Greek Army firing squads...."
Skedgell did not want to interrupt the reporter's flow, but the editor was concerned about the broadcast's air quality. Polk's voice kept fading out under the transatlantic hum.
"These executions," George Polk continued, "followed the assassination last Saturday of an important Greek cabinet minister, Christos Ladas, Minister of Justice. The assassin was a twenty-two-year-old Greek. He allegedly is a member of the Communist Party and was working under the instructions of Communist guerrilla chieftain Markos ... according to Greek police.... The Greek government's anti-Communist measures include martial law, curfew at night, and heavy guards at strategic places. Today, a tommy gun is a more ordinary sight in Athens streets than a cigar.... This is George Polk reporting from Athens, and now back to CBS in New York."
"O.K., George, we got all that." Skedgell came back on. "Fine report. Lousy broadcast quality. Can't do much about the line, I'm afraid. Unusable."
"Oh well," Polk said, disappointed, but accustomed to the erratic temperament of transatlantic telephone lines, "Tomorrow's another day, right?"
"Have a good trip, George." Skedgell switched off the Athens line.
Polk had just signed off the air for the final time. The subject of the next CBS report from Athens would be George Polk's own assassination.
Two days earlier, Polk had gone to Athens' Ministry of Information seeking permission to travel to the north of Greece. The air had the soft warmth of summer that morning. The heady perfume of hyacinths and wild lupines wafted from the flower vendors' carts. Dazzling anemones and poppies brimmed from boxes everywhere on the square the Greeks call Syntagma, the heart of Athens. Polk inhaled it all as he walked toward the Ministry of Information, his reactions sharpened by his imminent departure.
The best hotels and two of the most important government offices face this handsome square. Dominating Syntagma is the Parliament House, once a palace, still radiating an air of self-conscious grandeur. The cafés squeezed together in the center of the square were crowded that morning with women already in their summer silks, the men looking prosperous in gray suits. Some of them fingered worry beads as they engaged in Athens' favorite pastime: passionate conversation. Waiters in long white aprons snaked between the tiny marble-topped tables.
This was a society addicted to news and rumor. A dozen different newspapers were strewn on tables. Silver pots filled with coffee, which was available in thirty-three varieties of strength and sweetness, gleamed in the sun. Here and there a flash of khaki muddied the pastel tableau, the only sign that this was the capital of a country at war against itself.
Turning down a narrow cobblestoned street toward the Ministry of Information, Polk saw a line of U.S. Army trucks covered with camouflage-colored canvas. A clutch of servicemen waited for the PX to open. Since the arrival of AMAG, the American Mission for Aid to Greece, some months before, the ancient winding street had been transformed into one more U.S. Army base.
Polk approached the ministry warily. It had been quite some time since he had encountered any response but icy formality, frequently followed by rejections of his many travel requests. Under martial law, travel was restricted primarily to military personnel and those favored by the Greek government. Polk was not among them.
Polk was regarded by most officials as a troublemaker. He did not take no gracefully, a dangerous quality in a police state. He liked to tease bureaucrats who had no intention of either changing their minds or appreciating his humor.
But on this day a man named Kavanides, who handled travel permits for the press, looked up from behind his baroque mahogany desk and smiled encouragingly at the lanky, blond American. "Your travel permit has been approved. You can fly to Kavalla on Friday," he said.
"And my wife and friends?" Polk asked. For he hoped to travel with Rea as well as his Greek stringer, Costas Hadjiargyris, and his English wife, Aileen. Hadji, as Hadjiargyris was known, was Polk's closest friend in Athens. This would be their last chance to take a trip together before Polk's return to America.
They, too, could travel north, Kavanides assured Polk.
Not long before, Polk had written to Ed Murrow that things had gotten so poisonous between certain members of the press and Greek and American officials in Athens that "somebody was likely to get hurt." Just the week before, he had received several threatening phone calls. "Watch out, Polk. We know you are a Communist," the hard-edged voice threatened before hanging up. But Polk wasn't overly concerned, regarding this as just one more attempt on the part of the Royalists to intimidate him.
On May 6, two days after Polk received his travel permit, his friend Hadji informed him that he and his wife would not be able to accompany him on the trip after all. The embattled north did not hold the same allure for Hadji as it did for the American reporter, and since Aileen felt she should stay home that week to help her new maid settle in, Hadji had decided to remain in Athens as well.
Polk was disappointed, but determined to go anyway. Rea would come along. Though relations between husband and wife had been volatile for some time, Polk was not comfortable with solitude. He was often plagued by pain from the war wounds that had never healed; at those times he appreciated company.
On the eve of their scheduled departure for Kavalla, George and Rea had one of their bad times. They had gone to a party around eight o'clock. Nobody ever thought of dinner until ten in Athens. There were the usual people in attendance. A handful of reporters, British and American, and a few Greeks accustomed to mixing with foreigners. While most of Greece was suffering from malnutrition, for this privileged group food and drink were always plentiful. In the shelter of a cosmopolitan capital, they lived as if in a colonial outpost.
George Polk was one of those men whose presence in a room is immediately felt. Tall and muscular, he had an unselfconscious elegance and a somewhat tentative smile that disarmed both men and women. Moreover, Polk seemed unaware of his power over people, which only enhanced his magnetism. People liked to please him.
On this particular evening, mostly from boredom, Polk engaged a cousin of Rea's, a pretty woman he barely knew, in conversation. Rea, watching from across the room, recalled how he had captivated her with his effortless charm not so very long before. Rea wondered why things weren't working out between them. She knew so little about him, except that she loved his looks and his endless ability to surprise and beguile. And now he seemed lost to her, caught up in some other woman's story.
Later, they exchanged a few hard, careless words. Upset, she said, "Go on your trip by yourself. I am staying home." It was the only way she could think of to repay hurt with hurt. These scenes were not uncommon between them. She hoped things would be better once they reached America. He needed a rest. Greece had gotten under his skin.
Still later that night, George stopped off at his friend Hadji's house. He hated the night. He never got through one without a nightmare. It was always the same: An ambush. The awful human scent of the Japanese soldier in the foxhole. The man's hot breath on his face. Just the way it had happened in Guadalcanal. He usually woke up screaming.
Polk counted on Hadji, not only for friendship but also for his knowledge of and remarkably dispassionate judgments about the labyrinthian world of Greek politics. As the stepson of the aged but respected Liberal Prime Minister, Themistocles Sophoulis (who referred to himself as the "captive Liberal" in the Royalist-dominated coalition), Hadji also had excellent connections. In addition to stringing for Polk and CBS News, Hadji was a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and also worked as a stringer for the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Homer Bigart, then of the New York Herald Tribune. Hadji, too, had his troubles with the authorities for resisting their attempt to spoon-feed him the news. He, like Polk and Bigart, had been called on the carpet by the American chargé d'affaires, Karl Rankin, who was incensed by the reporters' criticism of the regime America had chosen to support.
The regime itself took a more devious route in expressing its displeasure. Knowing how theChristian Science Monitor felt about reporters who imbibed, the Royalist disinformation people put out the word that Hadji, who rarely drank liquor, was a drunk. But there wasn't much more they could do to Hadji, not while his stepfather was in office.
The two friends talked about Polk's trip. Hadji told him Kavalla was the only really lush part of Greece. Polk said he would spend a few days there before pushing on to Konitsa, near the Albanian border. He wanted to get close to the battleground. Too many reporters were covering the civil war from the bar of Athens' swank Hotel Grande Bretagne. Polk planned to do some descriptive broadcasts about Greece as soon as he was back in America, the kinds of pieces that capture the smell and sound and feel of a place. Murrow loved that kind of broadcasting. George wanted to be prepared.
Polk arose early the next morning, May 7. He had already telexed CBS London bureau chief Howard K. Smith: "I am northward because unscheduled presently, plus Athens news paucity. Expecting return Tuesday. Hadjiargyris by-standing. Regards, Polk." In those pre-technological-revolution days, foreign correspondents informed the home office what their plans were. Not the other way around.
Rea did not stir, but the man both she and her husband called Baba, her father, was already up. He made George a cup of the thick, strong Greek coffee he loved. They sat in the small kitchen and chatted quietly.
Baba, whose wife had left him the year before, knew something about loneliness. He was always ready with coffee and quiet conversation. In this gentle, wise Greek George found the father he had lost so many years ago. He could talk to Baba about anything. He could even talk about the woman to whom he had been married before he met Rea, the woman who had left him in Cairo two years earlier.
Athens still slept when Polk's taxi drove him to the airport. He breathed in that gummy scent, unique to Athens, that comes from its many evergreens and their dried needles. A faint orange light glowed on the horizon. The Acropolis Hill seemed suspended in the soft early-morning light. The marble columns shone pink and apricot, and Polk thought he had never seen anything so breathtaking.
The airfield, overgrown with tufts of grass, made no pretense about its business: military transport. British Spitfires were the dominant aircraft, a reminder that though Washington was now the chief giver of aid, London had been here first.
Polk was booked on an American military plane. These bookings were much prized, as air was the only way to reach the north, apart from a long and arduous boat trip. The guerrillas owned much of the countryside between Athens and Kavalla. After signing a waiver agreeing that in case of accident, death, or injury he wouldn't hold the United States responsible, Polk took one of a long row of bucket seats.
In less than two hours, he could see the magnificent sweep of Salonika Bay, bounded on the west by the mountains that were the dwelling place of the gods of Greek mythology, Mount Olympus. It was the bay itself, calm, deep blue, and filled with colorful little vessels known as caïques, each with a jaunty sail of a different color, that transfixed Polk.
Polk loved arrivals, felt his pulse quicken at the possibility they held out for the unexpected. Descending the steep steps that had been wheeled up to the AMAG plane, he inhaled the soft sea air of Salonika. He strolled over to the information counter inside the shabby terminal to ask the Greek Army officer how soon the flight would push on for Kavalla. The Greek answered in English. "Didn't you know? The Kavalla airport is closed. The airfield is flooded." No, Polk hadn't been told in Athens.
"What about a room in Salonika?" the officer inquired. Polk decided he might as well stay on for a few days. The obliging officer picked up the phone. Within minutes, Polk was booked in Room 25 of the Astoria Hotel. It was not one of the city's best, but it was very close to the bay. It was a hotel favored by Greek Air Force personnel, the officer informed Polk.
Carrying his bag out of the terminal, Polk recognized the erect bearing and always crisp khakis of Colonel Allen "Ace" Miller, assistant Air Force attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Athens. "Hello, Ace," Polk said, extending his hand. "Ride into town with me?"
"No, thanks, George, I'm headed back to Athens. But I'll be back Monday." Miller and Polk fixed a date for Monday. "What are you up to, George?" the colonel asked with the easy familiarity they had established since discovering they had attended the Virginia Military Institute at roughly the same time. Miller didn't pay attention to the embassy gossip about Polk bending over too far to see the dark side of things in Greece. He thought Polk was one of the best reporters he'd met in the field.
Polk told him he didn't have any real plans, that he hadn't expected to stay on in Salonika. But he'd been there before, so he'd look up some friends, talk to some sources.
"Got any contacts you could pass on, Ace?" Polk inquired, knowing the colonel had been around longer than most Americans. "Of course, I'd like to get to the other side before I go home."
Miller said yes, he'd built up some good contacts to the andartes, the Greek name for the guerrillas. Almost everybody else at the embassy called them bandits, the Greek right's name for them. "It's been some time since I've used those names. I'll have to look them up for you, George. But I'll bring them along on Monday."
They shook hands goodbye.
Another American officer, whom Polk knew only slightly, a Colonel Smith, was also headed toward the Astoria, and offered George a lift in his jeep.
The Astoria was located on Agias Sofias Street, a few minutes' walk from Nikis Street, the wide promenade that hugged the corniche and the harbor. The hotel was a place of no particular style or taste, neither very old nor new, just a place to stay. The Astoria's clientele was not the kind who made a fuss about decor. They were almost all Greeks, almost all connected to the military. But then most people who moved around Greece in 1948 were either fleeing an army or on military business.
The blond American who checked in at midmorning on Friday must have been a curious sight in the Astoria's faded lobby, though later no one would claim any memory of him.
Polk, a meticulous man, unpacked his small suitcase, opened his portable typewriter on the little desk the hotel provided, and hurriedly left the small room. His first stop was the U.S. Consulate, which faced the bay, a short walk from the Astoria.
Excerpted from The Polk Conspiracy by Kati Marton. Copyright © 1992 Kati Marton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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