In the summer of 1948, Mary Wolfe Price made history when she became North Carolina’s first ever female gubernatorial candidate. That same summer, however, Price also dealt with headlines of a much more negative nature. In six appearances before congressional committees, Elizabeth Bentley, a self-confessed former Soviet spy, had identified Price as a secret Communist Party (CPUSA) member who committed espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. Price denied the charges, and many historians came to see Bentley’s accusations as a crude McCarthyite effort to silence a voice for progressive social change. Post Cold War archival revelations, however, have forced a reassessment of this view.
1. Mary Price
Mary Wolfe Price was born in Madison, NC in 1909, the 10th child of a poor tobacco farmer. Highly intelligent, she overcame her disadvantaged circumstances to attend the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and graduated in 1930. Price moved to New York in 1933, and in 1939 obtained a job at the New York Herald Tribune as secretary to the renowned columnist Walter Lippmann. She worked for Lippmann until 1943. After spending some time in Mexico, and then working in an executive position for a union, Price returned to North Carolina in the summer of 1945 and helped organize the North Carolina Committee of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW). The SCHW was a strong advocate for labor rights and opponent of segregation. Price became secretary-treasurer of the committee, then executive secretary. At the end of 1947, Price resigned from her position with SCHW in order to help organize the North Carolina chapter of the newly-formed Progressive Party.
The Progressive Party was a left-wing third party created to support the 1948 presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace, Vice-President from 1941-1945, who had been left off of the 1944 ticket in favor of Harry Truman. Wallace and the Progressives ran on a platform of opposition to Wall Street, support for civil rights, and a foreign policy calling for accommodation of the Soviet Union. This led many to charge that the Progressive Party was a “front” organization secretly controlled by the CPUSA, a charge the Progressives vehemently dismissed as “red baiting.” Price played a leading role in creating the Progressive Party’s North Carolina chapter, and was subsequently elected chair. She helped organize the Wallace campaign in North Carolina.
2. Bentley’s Charges
On July 30, 1948, a woman named Elizabeth Bentley would appear before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Expenditures in Executive Departments. Her testimony would prove to be a bombshell. Bentley testified that she had secretly joined the CPUSA in 1935, and had been part of an extensive communist espionage apparatus that had penetrated the US government and furnished information to the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Bentley’s espionage activities ended when she turned herself into the FBI in November 1945.
At the prompting of North Carolina Senator Clyde Hoey, Bentley stated that she had known Mary Price since about February 1941, that Price was a secret CPUSA member, and that Price had given her information from Walter Lippmann’s files to be passed on to the Soviets. In the next two weeks, Bentley subsequently appeared five times before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where she expanded upon her allegations against a number of individuals, including Mary Price.
While overshadowed by the accusations of Soviet espionage leveled at individuals such as Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White, the charges against Price were widely publicized in North Carolina. According to historian Thomas W. Devine, the accusations against Price were actually regarded with skepticism in the North Carolina media, but did provide added fuel to the Progressives’ critics, some of whom were eager to tar any opposition to segregation as being communist-inspired. Price herself fully denied Bentley’s charges, calling them “fantastic.” She summarized her reaction to the allegations in a 1976 oral history interview:
That’s my memory of it and I fell sure that’s right, because I know that my reaction was that this was a putup job to discredit the Progressive party, when the reporters came to see me in the office in Greensboro, my to my surprise, to tell me about this Elizabeth Bentley before the House Un-American Committee in Washington. She had said that she was an agent of the Soviet Union and she had been assisted by me. She got much publicity, you know. (Interview with Mary Price Adamson, 122)
While Price admitted knowing Elizabeth Bentley, she denied any involvement in espionage or the CPUSA:
I knew her on the basis that I had met her casually in New York as one does, and when she found out that I lived in Washington, and again, as I do, I had a bed in my apartment and said, “Look, if you haven’t got a place to stay, you can sleep over at my apartment.” I just didn’t think about it at all. So, she never asked to sleep there but she would call up and say she was on an expense account and how would I like to have dinner? Well, I just didn’t see anything in it but a casual business. (Interview with Mary Price Adamson, 122-3)
3. Price, Bentley, and Venona: Post Cold War Revelations
For many years, scholars tended to take Price’s denials at face value. Historian Mary Frederickson, who conducted the 1976 oral history interview, never asked if the charges were true, asking instead “Did you ever consider suing Bentley for libel?” (Interview with Mary Price Adamson, 125) Similarly, Sayoko Uesugi, in a 2002 article, stated that Bentley’s “charge was absurd.” (Uesugi, “Gender, Race, and the Cold War,” 305) Starting in 1995, however, revelations from both American and Soviet archives have challenged this verdict and forced historians to reassess the question of Price’s guilt.
In 1995, the National Security Agency released the records of a 1940s program called Venona, which involved intercepting and decoding Soviet intelligence communications between Moscow and NKVD officers in the U.S. Among other revelations, the documents intercepted via Venona have greatly substantiated the truth of Elizabeth Bentley’s 1948 testimony and largely confirmed that those she identified were, in fact, engaged in espionage on behalf of the CPUSA and USSR, including Mary Price. Additional archival confirmation was provided by Russian journalist Alexander Vassiliev, who was briefly permitted to research Soviet intelligence archives in the mid-1990s and recorded extensive summaries of the documents he found.
The materials found in the Venona and Vassiliev files show that Mary Price, along with her sister Mildred, were both secret members of the CPUSA. Mary worked for the NKVD from 1941-1944, passing along information from Lippmann’s files. Lippmann had extensive connections with the highest levels of the U.S. government, and his files contained a great deal of sensitive information that never went into his columns. The NKVD thus greatly valued Price’s work. In addition to her own espionage, Price also recruited Duncan Lee, an officer with the OSS, forerunner of the CIA, as a Soviet source. Price served as his contact and handler, a relationship greatly complicated by the fact that the two had an affair.
The strain of espionage took a toll on Mary Price and was likely one of the main reasons she quit her job with Lippmann. In 1944, she asked CPUSA head Earl Browder to reassign her to “political work,” and her relationship with the NKVD ended. She was likely still a CPUSA member when she ran for governor. In the end, the Progressive Party campaign fared poorly in North Carolina, as it did nationwide. Mary Price eventually moved to California, where she died in 1980.
The case of Mary Price, beyond being a fascinating piece of North Carolina history, also has interesting historiographical implications. It is a good example of how new archival revelations can indeed occasionally overturn established historical interpretations. It also adds context to the longstanding debate between traditionalist and revisionist historians on the nature of the American Communist Party. Traditionalist scholars have emphasized the doctrinaire, conspiratorial nature of the CPUSA, as well as its subservience to the Soviet Union. Revisionists have focused on the genuine commitment of many CPUSA members to labor rights and ending racial discrimination. The life of Mary Price embodies both aspects of the CPUSA and shows the difficulty of disentangling them.
Export Policy and Loyalty. Hearings before the Investigations Subcommittee of the Committee on Expenditures, United States Senate, Eightieth Congress, Second Session. Part 1, July 30, 1948. (Not yet part of CWIS Collection: Available in ProQuest Congressional; ECU users only)
Hearings Regarding Communist Espionage in United States Government. Hearings Before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eightieth Congress, Second Session. July 31-Sept. 9, 1948. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4.Un 1/2:C 73/6)
Report on Southern Conference for Human Welfare. Committee on Un-American Activities, U.S. House of Representatives, Eightieth Congress, First Session. June 16, 1947. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4. Un 1/2: Un 1/RPT. 592)
Other Original Sources:
Cold War International History Project: Venona Project and Vassiliev Notebooks Index and Concordance
Documenting the American South: Interview with Mary Price Adamson, April 19, 1976
Wilson Center Digital Archive: Vassiliev Notebooks
Bradley, Mark A. A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior. New York: Basic Books, 2014. (On order for Joyner Library)
Devine, Thomas W. Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. (Joyner Stacks: E748 .W23 D48 2013)
Haynes, John Earl, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev. Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. (Joyner Stacks: UB271.R9 H389 2009)
Olmsted, Kathryn S. Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. (Joyner Stacks:HX84.B384 O45 2002)
Uesugi, Sayoko. “Gender, Race and the Cold War: Mary Price and the Progressive Party in North Carolina, 1945-1948.” The North Carolina Historical Review, 77 (3), 2000.