By John Isaacs
Some of the words that best characterize the life of Priscilla Johnson McMillan, who died July 7, 2021, are indomitable, always curious for more knowledge, gentle in her contacts with other people and a life very well lived.
In her 92 years, she was a witness to so much history, from the beginnings of the nuclear weapons age, to her work for and friendship with the most popular, if unfinished presidency of John F. Kennedy, to her close contact with one of the most despicable villains in American history, Lee Harvey Oswald, to her scholarly work on U.S.-Russian relations and one of the seminal events of the Cold War, the cowardly attacks on one of the most brilliant American scientists and a pioneer of the nuclear age, J. Robert Oppenheimer.
I worked closely with Priscilla when she was a longtime board member and supporter of Council for a Livable World. I would visit her at her distinguished Cambridge, MA home which had ample sleeping space for extra visitors like me, and for countless students, researchers and writers.
I had many occasions to travel to Boston when I attended Boston-area board of director meetings and later had lunch with her during visits to the area. During those visits, she always displayed a thirst for knowledge about the latest happenings in Washington, D.C., the direction of American politics, the evolution of American national security policy and so much more.
Priscilla remained active to the end even as she needed a cane to wander through Cambridge streets, visit with friends or attend some scholarly meeting or talk. In her last year, worried about the direction of American politics, she convened a group to study American democratic institutions in the wake of the four controversial years of Donald Trump’s presidency and the false post-election charges by Trump supporters that the 2020 election had been stolen.
Her great intelligence was attested to by her distinguished academic career at Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in Russian, and Radcliffe (then separate from Harvard) where she earned a master’s degree in Russian area studies.
Early in her career, she worked for Senator John F. Kennedy and remained friends with him afterwards. Fluent in Russian, while working as a reporter in Moscow in 1959, she interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald as he was defecting to the Soviet Union. Her work intersected when Oswald assassinated Kennedy in 1963, and federal authorities interviewed and consulted with her extensively as they, and the Warren Commission established to study the disastrous event, tried to understand what had happened.
She wrote some distinguished books, including, after befriending Oswald’s widow Marina, Marina and Lee: The Tormented Love and Fatal Obsession Behind Lee Harvey Oswald’s Assassination of John F. Kennedy and the later study of the shameful character assassination The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race.
As an expert on the hard-to-comprehend Soviet Union, an extremely closed society for decades, she co-edited Khrushchev and the Arts: The Politics of Soviet Culture, 1962–1964.
While in Moscow, she had met Svetlana Alliluyeva, Joseph Stalin’s daughter, who later defected to the United States. McMillan translated Svetlana’s memoirs.
Priscilla was one of the great chroniclers of the late 20th century American history. She saw much, she wrote much, and remained a delightful friend to the end. Her wise counsel and good sense will be missed.