In Memoriam: Priscilla Johnson McMillan, 1928–2021

A longtime friend and associate of the Center who was known for her work on the John F. Kennedy assassination, Priscilla Johnson McMillan, A.M. ’53, died July 7 at the age of 92.

Priscilla McMillan was one of the very first alumnae of the then-Russian Research Center’s M.A. program in regional studies. In a 2014 toast she gave at a 65th anniversary party for the now-Davis Center, Priscilla explained that her studies were going swimmingly and she had just about wrapped up her degree when Joseph Stalin unexpectedly—and inconveniently—died.

Curious to see for herself how this dramatic event changed the Soviet Union, she went to Moscow in 1955. Her willingness to tackle intellectual risks with aplomb and grace enabled her to go where few (and even fewer women) dared to tread. She traveled to the Soviet Union and engaged in journalism that informed both the public and the U.S. government. In that capacity, she spent 5 hours interviewing Lee Harvey Oswald at the Hotel Metropol, where they were both living, in 1959. She found him more believable as an angry, naïve young man than as a perceptive Marxist. After the assassination of President Kennedy (for whom she had worked right after graduating from Harvard), Priscilla came to the idea of writing the book that became Marina and Lee. She earned Marina’s trust, even living with her for a while when working on the book; it is clear from the 1977 Dick Cavett interview with both of them that Marina trusted her deeply.

Priscilla inspired confidence in many people she interviewed. An observer writing in the House Select Committee on Assassinations Security file on Priscilla, noted that "the where-am-I expression she seems habitually to wear is a natural disguise for a fine mind and sensibility, as well as a stubborn talent for getting what she is professionally interested in having."

Priscilla also inspired respect and deep affection. She spent many long hours in Davis Center seminars asking knife-sharp questions thinly coated with a veneer of innocence. She was a loyal colleague, dear friend, and important mentor to many of us, and will be deeply missed. 

—Alexandra Vacroux, Executive Director, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies

Remembering Priscilla McMillan

Priscilla McMillan, who was affiliated with Harvard University’s Russian Research Center (later renamed the Davis Center) for the past seven decades, died on July 7, 2021, twelve days shy of her 93rd birthday.

Priscilla maintained a keen interest in international affairs throughout her life, with a particular interest in the former Soviet Union. She received her undergraduate degree in Russian language and literature from Bryn Mawr College in 1950 and then enrolled in the new M.A. degree program in Soviet studies at Harvard, completing the degree in 1953. The M.A. program at that time was not directly under the auspices of the Russian Research Center, but most of the faculty who taught in the program were affiliated with the RRC, and Priscilla got to know several of them, especially Adam Ulam, who was then a young instructor in the Government Department and later served fifteen years as director of the Russian Research Center. At a surprise 70th birthday party for Priscilla in 1998, Adam recalled her student years in the early 1950s, saying he had admired Priscilla’s fluency in Russian and had been convinced that she would “go far in whatever career path she might choose.”

For a brief while after Priscilla finished her M.A., she worked as a researcher for Senator John F. Kennedy, who had been elected to the U.S. Senate in November 1952 by a narrow margin over the incumbent, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Priscilla assumed she would be working on an assignment connected with the Soviet Union, but instead she found that the senator wanted her to provide an assessment of the French war in Indochina, a topic she later said she was “totally unqualified” to address. She nonetheless completed the assignment successfully and, in the process, became friendly with Kennedy. In later years, she insisted she had turned down his attempts to seduce her, but she acknowledged that, despite some reservations, she found the 35-year-old senator “mesmerizing” and charismatic in those early years. Priscilla saw Kennedy several more times in the 1950s, mostly in connection with his hospitalizations and medical procedures to try to repair his deteriorating spine and other ailments, which he kept hidden from the public.

After Priscilla finished her short stint on Capitol Hill, she moved to New York City to serve as a translator of articles from the Soviet press. During that time she also traveled to the Soviet Union, taking advantage of the more relaxed climate in the country after the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953. She worked as a free-lance journalist in Moscow, focusing in particular on cultural affairs and daily life in the USSR in the post-Stalin era, and she also worked for a while as a translator for the U.S. embassy. In November 1959 one of her contacts at the embassy, the U.S. consul John McVickar, requested that she meet with a young American, Lee Oswald, who had come to Moscow to renounce his U.S. citizenship and defect to the Soviet Union. Priscilla met with Oswald in the Metropol Hotel and interviewed him for several hours. She published an article about his case and the obstacles he was facing from the Soviet authorities, who were unenthusiastic about the would-be defector. Over the next four years, Priscilla had no further contact with Oswald, who eventually returned to the United States but continued to behave erratically and was increasingly violent toward his young wife, Marina, whom he had met and married in the Soviet Union.

Priscilla had to leave the Soviet Union temporarily in mid-1960 after tensions flared in the wake of the Soviet shootdown of a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane in May 1960. Upon returning to the United States, she became a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Russian Research Center, renewing the ties she had maintained off and on throughout the 1950s. She was able to return to the Soviet Union in 1962 and continued to write about cultural affairs and daily life in the Soviet Union, eventually publishing a book she co-edited on Soviet cultural policy during the years under Nikita Khrushchev.

Priscilla’s work as a journalist covering the Soviet Union was suddenly interrupted in November 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The event itself was dramatic, but even more startling for Priscilla was the news report identifying the assassin: the same Lee Oswald she had spoken with in Moscow four years earlier. (In the news media at the time, Oswald was invariably called by his full name, Lee Harvey Oswald, and that usage has persisted ever since, even though Oswald himself did not normally use his full name.) Oswald was swiftly murdered in the basement of the Dallas police station by Jack Ruby in apparent revenge for the assassination, but Priscilla was able to arrange through her editor at Harper & Row to interview Marina Oswald. Upon meeting with Marina for the first time in July 1964, Priscilla realized she could learn a great deal from her about the personality of the man who had killed the president. She hosted Marina and her two young children over the next seven months, engaging in lengthy conversations about the Oswalds’ married life and the way Oswald had behaved during and after his time in the Soviet Union. The conversations were the crucial first stage of Priscilla’s 13 years of archival research and investigative reporting on President Kennedy’s assassination, culminating in the publication in 1977 of her highly acclaimed book, Marina and Lee: The Tormented Love and Fatal Obsession Behind Lee Harvey Oswald’s Assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Marina and Lee stands out for its meticulous treatment of a subject that had been—and still is—plagued by wild conspiracy theories and nonsensical speculation. Priscilla took the full measure of Oswald, showing that no one would have chosen him to be the key figure in a grand conspiracy. Readers can see why a dishonest, unstable loner like Oswald, who was incapable of getting along with people, acted on his own and could not have done otherwise. Marina and Lee has been a classic from the time it appeared and will undoubtedly remain so for the indefinite future.

Marina and Lee focuses on the assassin, but it also offers penetrating insights into Kennedy. Priscilla always insisted that, despite succumbing to Kennedy’s charisma in the1950s, she had understood from the outset that he was a flawed figure. She said that if Adlai Stevenson had run in the 1960 Democratic presidential primary election she would have voted for him over Kennedy. She also claimed that although she voted for Kennedy in the general election in 1960, she was not sure she wanted him to be president. Some of Priscilla's reservations about Kennedy were clearly tied to the way he treated women. Over time, especially after Priscilla’s own marriage fell apart in the early 1980s, her misgivings about Kennedy deepened. After Robert Dallek’s biography of Kennedy appeared in 2003 and further information emerged about Kennedy’s use of David Powers to line up teenage White House press office “interns” for his sexual trysts, and after Mimi Alford's memoir appeared in 2011, I discussed the matter with Priscilla, especially Alford’s chilling description of how Kennedy forced himself on her. Even though Alford was unwilling to characterize his behavior toward her as rape, I told Priscilla that I would definitely call it rape. Without hesitating, she responded, “I think most people would, me included.”

Even as Priscilla was diverted onto the Kennedy assassination research project that resulted in her best-known book, she continued to follow the topics that had been a focus of her intellectual attention from early on — the Soviet Union and the Cold War. In 1965 her co-edited book about Soviet cultural affairs under Khrushchev was published by MIT Press, and in 1967 Harper & Row enlisted Priscilla — at the recommendation of the former U.S. ambassador in Moscow and public commentator George F. Kennan — to translate Dvadtsat’ pisem k drugu (Twenty Letters to a Friend), the memoir of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Allilueva, who had defected to the United States earlier that year. Allilueva’s memoir was not published in the Soviet Union until 1990 during the era of glasnost, but the Russian edition was put out in 1967 by the prominent Hutchinson & Co. publishing house in London. When preparing the translation, Priscilla hosted Allilueva for a while, though Allilueva’s combative behavior made it hard to sustain the relationship for long.

In the mid-1980s, when I first met Priscilla, she had just embarked on what became her final book, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race. She spent twenty years working on the book, benefiting from the huge increase in declassification of formerly top-secret documents after the end of the Cold War. The focus of the book changed somewhat over time, but in many ways the delay in publication proved advantageous because Priscilla was able to make use of materials that did not become available until the early 2000s. Although some might argue that the book goes too far in its defense of Oppenheimer (claiming, for example, that he was not a secret Communist Party member in the 1930s, despite the evidence adduced by the historian Gregg Herken showing that in fact Oppenheimer was a member), it convincingly debunks the most lurid allegations against the great physicist. The transcribed Soviet foreign intelligence documents brought out of Russia by the former intelligence officer Alexander Vassiliev in 2005 — too late for Priscilla to use — fully vindicate her conclusion in the book about the most crucial matter, that is, whether Oppenheimer ever spied for the Soviet Union. Priscilla maintained, rightly, that he never did, despite an aggressive Soviet campaign to recruit him.

Priscilla’s amiability and modesty throughout her long and productive life won her legions of friends and admirers. Despite knowing many illustrious (and in some cases infamous) people, she was never guilty of meretricious name-dropping. On the contrary, she kept a sense of innocence and wonderment about her that attested to her humility and basic decency. During the many years Priscilla lived in Cambridge, she came regularly to seminars at the Davis Center and would often ask questions, though never in an aggressive way.  I was delighted to have Priscilla at the seminars (the last one she attended in person was in February 2020, just a few weeks before Harvard shut down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic) because I knew that I could always turn to her for perceptive comments.

In addition to her intellectual pursuits, Priscilla cared deeply about the quality of life in Cambridge, especially the well-being of lower-income people in the city. She took an active part in various civic movements seeking to improve the way the city is run. Those who were accustomed to seeing Priscilla in attendance at various public meetings will find it disorienting no longer to have her around.

At a surprise party for Priscilla’s 90th birthday at the Davis Center in 2018, I told her that the Center would have another party for her when she turned 95. She chuckled and said, “Well, I’m just hoping to make it to 91.” She did make it to 91 and to 92, but unfortunately she fell just short of 93. Her death is a great loss for the Davis Center and for the wider community of scholars and journalists interested in the former Soviet Union, international security, and the future of Western democracy.

—Mark Kramer, Director of the Cold War Studies Project at the Davis Center