A Member of the `Lippmann Committee' Recalls the George Polk Case

I WAS a member of the ``Lippmann Committee,'' a committee appointed by Overseas Writers, a Washington organization of journalists who have served overseas, which was given the assignment to make sure that everything possible be done to find the murderer of George Polk and bring him to justice. We appointed Walter Lippmann as our chairman and Gen. ``Wild Bill'' Donovan as our counsel. We sent Donovan to Greece to monitor the Greek government's prosecution of the case. The report published by the committee stated the following:

``The committee is satisfied that Staktopoulos and his mother received a fair trial. Moreover, it is satisfied that Staktopoulos was in fact an accessory, that he was the `finger man' who led Polk into the trap where his murderers were waiting for him.''

In other words, we, the committee, ended up accepting the Greek government contention that Polk had been murdered by Communists.

There can be no doubt from evidence known today that some members of the American Embassy in Athens and in the United States consulate in Salonika helped the Greek government set up the ``Communist'' explanation of the murder. It is clear that they did not give Donovan full help in exploring other possible explanations. It is clear that Donovan, at the beginning of the process, did try to explore other possibilities.

The question left over is whether Donovan was persuaded during the process that ``reasons of state'' overrode other considerations. At the end of the trial he stated that it had been a fair trial and that he was satisfied that Stak-topoulos was an ``accessory.'' Incidentally, so too did the two CBS reporters, Winston Burdett and John Secondari, who covered the story for CBS.

Donovan's conclusions about the case were, unquestionably, decisive to the views of Lippmann and in the drafting of the final report. But most of us were skeptical to the end and agreed to the report with reluctance and hesitation. Lippmann was quoted later as saying that, ``My personal opinion is that Polk's murder was planned by the Cominform and was carried out by the Communist Party of Greece ... ''

The only other still surviving member of the committee is James R. Reston of the New York Times. He and I agree that we would never have made that statement. We cannot speak for the others, but I doubt that anyone but Lippmann would have been so certain of a Cominform genesis for the murder of George Polk.

The explanation of Lippmann's position is his absolute confidence in the integrity of General Donovan. His biographer, Ronald Steel, says of the Lippmann connection with the Polk case that, ``Lippmann would never have gone along with a State Department coverup, but neither could he believe that the honorable men he knew would be capable of such infamous action.''

We are left, therefore, with the question of why, halfway during the Polk trial, Donovan ceased pursuing other possible explanations and accepted as valid the questionable Greek government version of a Communist deed.

I.F. Stone said that, ``George Polk is the first casualty of the cold war.'' His murder pointed to many more victims of that era. Whether George Polk was killed by Communists or anti-Communists, his murderers were fighting the cold war in killing him.

On Dec. 2, 1980, in El Salvador, three Roman Catholic nuns and a female social worker were killed, presumably by right-wing death squads.

On Nov. 16, 1989, also in El Salvador, six Jesuit priests were killed, presumably by right-wing death squads.

On Jan. 1, 1990, in Nicaragua, two Catholic nuns and a Catholic bishop were killed and a third nun was wounded. Communists and ``contras'' accused each other.

No person has been yet convicted in any of these recent political murders. In a cold war, it is difficult to find and convict the guilty.

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