Wednesday, 19 May 2004 20:57

Priscilla Johnson McMillan: She can be encouraged to write what the CIA wants

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 Jim DiEugenio writes about Priscilla Johnson McMillan, who interviewed Oswald in Russia then worked with his widow after the JFK assassination.

marina pjm
Johnson McMillan (right)
with Marina Oswald

One of the witnesses used by Gus Russo and Mark Obenhaus to profile Oswald on the program was a woman named Priscilla Johnson McMillan (PJM). To the new generation of viewers, that is people born in the seventies and afterward, this rather old and wizened woman would not symbolize much. To those who have followed the JFK case since 1963, she symbolizes everything negative about those who report on the Kennedy assassination in the media, especially the foreshortened, myopic, restricted view of the almost superhuman complexities of the figure and phenomenon of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Priscilla Johnson interviewed Oswald in 1959 while he was in Moscow and she was working for a small newspaper syndicate, North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA). On the weekend of Kennedy's assassination, articles by her about Oswald appeared in several newspapers throughout America including The Boston Globe and The Dallas Morning News. Right after Oswald's death she did an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. In April of 1964 she wrote an article for Harper's entitled "Oswald in Moscow." In June of 1964 she signed a contract with Harper and Row to produce a book about Oswald and his wife Marina, a book that would not be published for over ten years. At about this time, she was questioned by lawyers for the Warren Commission, namely David Slawson and Richard Mosk. All of these activities are quite interesting in their frequency and scope and consistent message. Perhaps no other writer, outside of the Warren Commission staff, had more influence in molding the image of Oswald for the American public than Priscilla Johnson.

Up until 1967, no one really questioned who Johnson was or what she represented. Then something happened. The daughter of Joseph Stalin defected to the United States with the help of the State Department and the CIA. When Svetlana Stalin came to America she stayed in the home of Priscilla's stepfather and PJM helped her translate her account of life with her dictator father. For those who realized at the time how high level defections worked, and who had access to prizes like Svetlana, all kinds of bells and flags went off about Priscilla and it began to throw backward light on her association with Oswald. For instance NANA had always been a highly suspect agency. It was purchased by former OSS operative Ernest Cuneo in 1951 and became home to prominent rightwing and CIA associated reporters like Victor Lasky, Lucianna Goldberg, and Virginia Prewett. Prewett's husband was in the CIA and was handled by legendary CIA communications expert David Phillips. Finally, accruing even more suspicion to her role with Oswald, a former security officer for the State Department, Jack Lynch once wrote that Priscilla's encounter with Oswald in Moscow was "Official business."

In this last regard, according to Peter Whitmey, the man who approached Priscilla about Oswald being at the Metropole Hotel in Moscow was John McVickar, who worked at the US Embassy. According to John Newman's Oswald and the CIA, McVickar was working for the CIA also. (In 1990, PJM wrote Whitmey a letter asking him if he could remind her who McVickar was.) Much of what PJM told Mosk and Slawson was about her meeting with Oswald in Moscow so therefore it helped form their opinions of Oswald and helped shape the portrait of him in the Warren Report. In this regard it would have been important for Slawson and Mosk to know and report that Priscilla had altered her original 1959 report (published in a very small newspaper) after Kennedy's assassination in a pejorative way. And this new version was published nationally. For instance she added a line at the end which referred to Oswald like this: "However I soon came to feel that this boy was of the stuff of which fanatics are made." As Whitmey notes, in her first draft the image of Oswald is of a soft-spoken idealist who spoke in terms of "emigrating" as opposed to defecting. The word "fanatic" is much more in line with what the Commission is going to do with its image of Oswald as a disturbed young Marxist zealot. Whitmey also point outs two other revisions by PJM. According to McVickar's notes, she was aware that Oswald was headed out of the hotel to work in the electronics field. She ignores this at the end of her 1963 revised article and says that he disappeared and did not notify her about it, against her wishes. The final statement in the second draft was "I'd wondered what had happened to him since. Now I know." Since this second draft was published in the immediate wake of Kennedy's murder, the obvious suggestion is that the fanatical tendencies --- not in her original report --- had warped him into an assassin.

In her interview with The Christian Science Monitor, more details of this newly troubled Oswald emerge. PJM said that he was intensely bitter at the United States, that he displayed single-mindedness about "whatever he was attempting to do" and that he was bitter about capitalism and worker exploitation. In her Harper's article she added even more pop psychology in her profile: "Oswald yearned to go down in history as the man who shot the President." To explain why, if that was his intent, he then denied the act she wrote that he had a need to think "of himself as extraordinary" and "to be caught, but not to confess."

If this sounds very similar to what the Warren Commission's explanation of Oswald was, it should. For right after the article appeared she did two things. She first signed a rather large contract with Harper and Row to do a biography of Oswald with help from his widow Marina. Second, she arrived in Dallas to meet Marina and spent much of the summer and fall with her and her Secret Service escorts. This in itself is extraordinary because Marina Oswald was one of the chief witnesses before the Commission and as Harold Weisberg and Peter Scott have reported, she was basically cordoned off from the world and threatened with deportation if she did not cooperate with their wishes. Yet, Priscilla was permitted to live with Marina during the summer and fall of 1964 when the Commission was still working and even accompanied her on a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

One of the most fascinating interviews the Commission had with Marina occurred on September 6, 1964 at the U. S. Naval Station in Dallas. Two things occurred here that relate to Priscilla. First, Marina revealed that she was working on her memoirs which would be published perhaps in December. This alludes to her book deal with PJM and Harper and Row. The second point is of such extreme importance to the Commission and to Priscilla's role with it that it requires some background information.

In September, the Commission was in high gear on its road to wrapping things up. In fact, at this stage, as related by Edward Epstein, the lawyers had been told that they should be closing doors not opening them. Yet Senator Richard Russell was a sticking point. He was a skeptic on both the single bullet theory and on Oswald's mysterious trip to Mexico in September and October of 1963. He was actually threatening not to sign off on the Warren Report. Russell noted that in regard to the latter point, the Commission had little or no physical evidence that Oswald had been to Mexico City. So, miraculously, at this late stage, at one of the few hearings that Russell actually attended, an amazing discovery occurred. Marina reported that a bus ticket stub had been found inside a Spanish magazine and she further stated that she had "found the stub of this ticket approximately two weeks ago when working with Priscilla Johnson on the book." What the FBI, CIA, Dallas Police, Ruth and Michael Paine, and the Secret Service could not produce in ten months, Priscilla Johnson could find in a matter of several weeks, and seemingly by accident.

After the Warren Commission volumes were released in late 1964, one would have expected Priscilla to publish her book on the Oswalds. She did not. She first contributed to a book called Khrushchev and the Arts which was published early in 1965. She then helped Svetlana Allileuva Stalin translate her memoir on her father, Stalin. This book was also published by Harper and Row which might explain the delay and the publisher's cooperation in it. Especially since the advance rights on the Stalin project had already been sold for over a million dollars. Much later, after going back to the Soviet Union, Svetlana had some interesting comments about her experience in America. Talking to a group of reporters she stated that "she had been naive about life in the U.S. and had become a favorite pet of the CIA." She also said that she had not been been "free for a single day in the so-called free world."

In 1973, Priscilla and her then husband George McMillan wrote a glowing review for Warren Commission attorney David Belin's recycling of his work entitled November 22, 1963: You Are the Jury. This review was published in The New York Times, which is the same body which published the book. Her husband also wrote a book on the murder of Martin Luther King entitled The Making of an Assassin. Needless to say that book is a completely one-sided view of the King case that uses character assassination to enforce a guilty verdict on James Earl Ray.

Finally, in 1977, Priscilla's book Marina and Lee was published. As with the discovery of the bus tickets in 1964, it is interesting to note the timing. From about 1975 forward, there had been a series of events that would eventually provoke a new investigation of the Kennedy assassination. In fact, in late 1976, the House Select Committee on Assassinations had been formed. So her book appeared right in the midst of that investigation. The publicity surrounding the book was immense. Priscilla did an interview with Publisher's Weekly and the book was excerpted twice in Ladies Home Journal. Longtime CIA flack Thomas Powers heaped all kinds of praise on the book in his review in The New York Times. (Interestingly, Powers was working on his authorized and all too kind biography of longtime Kennedy nemesis Richard Helms at the time. On a show hosted by Phil Donahue in 1991about JFK, Helms appeared with PJM and asked her what had attracted Lee to Marxism in the first place.)

Marina testified before the committee and when asked the last time she saw Priscilla she replied it had been the night before she appeared. Another interesting fact she revealed was how much control PJM had over the book: "I just contribute very little to the book. It was up to Priscilla to fish out all the facts and everything and put them together some way."

By this time period, the suspicions about who PJM really was had gone public. Jerry Policoff wrote an article about her for New Times which accused her of working for the State Department and also added that the Warren Commission had known this fact. Priscilla threatened to sue and said she had no knowledge of any such employment or the Warren Commission knowing of it. Yet prior to the publication of Policoff's article, Mark Lane, in a public panel, had shown her the Warren Commission document which stated she worked for the State Department. She told Lane the information was a mistake she had failed to correct. At this same conference she is reported to have said, "I've devoted a lot of time to Oswald's life, so I have a vested interest in his having done it."

After the seventies, Priscilla continued in her efforts to convict Oswald in the public eye. In 1982, she wrote an article for Martin Peretz's magazine The New Republic about the attempted assassination of President Reagan by John Hinckley. In 1988, for CBS's Dan Rather, she did an interview in which she concluded that one of the last words Oswald spoke to her in Moscow were, "I want to give the people of the United States something to think about." Rather did not point out that this remark was not in either her original article published in 1959 in a New Haven newspaper nor in her revised one circulated in 1963. Further, it seems to insinuate that a) Oswald shot Kennedy, and b) He knew it four years in advance.

Priscilla was interviewed by the House Select Committee on April 20, 1978 in executive session. She appeared with an attorney at her side. And she submitted a very detailed affidavit. These circumstances --- the attorney and affidavit --- were so unusual that Representative Floyd Fithian stated he was struck by the approach where he was presented "with almost a legal brief of the whole thing plus counsel, when you are obviously not a subject of investigation." Interestingly, both the attorney and the affidavit were supplied by the law firm of Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering, David Westin's law firm. During the following interview, to many questions, she replies that she does not recall certain details. Interviewer Michael Goldsmith, on page 31 of the transcript, asks her if she had been interviewed by the CIA after her third visit to Russia. She replies yes. But, at this point, nine pages of the transcript are withdrawn by request of the CIA. When Goldsmith confronts her with a letter from the CIA which shows she is cooperating with them on reviews of Russian writers for American publications the following dialogue occurs:

Goldsmith: When was the first time that you saw it? [The letter]
PJM: When I read my file of documents from the CIA which reached me on February 1st, 1978.
Goldsmith: This, then, is a copy of a letter that was in your file that you received from the CIA, is that correct?
PJM:Yes, Mr. Goldsmith.
Goldsmith: Do you recall having written this letter?
PJM: No, but now that I see it, I think that I wrote it.

When Goldsmith asks the question of Priscilla, "What was Mr. McDonald [of the CIA] doing sending you materials?" there is another withdrawal from the transcript, this time of 23 pages. Later on when Goldsmith is questioning her about her attempted return to the Soviet Union in 1962, he asks her about a contact with the CIA and insinuates that she must have initiated the contact with the New York CIA station.

Goldsmith: This is a relatively unusual incident in your life, is it not?
PJM: Yes.
Goldsmith: People do not have contacts at Grand Central Station, or wherever this was with CIA stations every day, do they?
PJM: I have no idea.
Goldsmith: This is an unusual incident, is it not?
PJM: In my life, yes.
Goldsmith: Despite the fact that this was an unusual incident in you life you are unaware of how the contact was initiated?
PJM: I am unaware of it, yes.

Other documents released by the Assassination Records Review Board reveal why Priscilla was so defensive. For instance, the 1962 meeting resulted in a series of contacts that make up a two page memorandum from Donald Jameson, Chief of the Soviet Russia division. He concludes his memo with the following, "I think that Miss Johnson can be encouraged to write pretty much the articles we want." In 1964, the CIA called her for a meeting which lasted for seven hours. Another meeting took place in 1965 in which she called the CIA. From the declassified record, Priscilla seems to have been recruited in 1956, although she applied for service as early as 1953. In 1956 she was granted by the Office of Security an Ad Hoc Clearance through the status of "Confidential" provided that caution was exercised. Another document dated later in 1975 classifies her as a "witting collaborator" for the Agency. It appears that Priscilla had applied for work with the CIA prior to her 1959 interview with Oswald and was in clear contact with the CIA by the time of the assassination and was cooperating with them on various matters, including cultural assignments and the matter of Svetlana Stalin's defection. This, of course, brings her work on Oswald into serious question and dubious reliability especially since she said in person that she has a vested interest in keeping his guilt alive. And also since she has tried to keep her covert ties secret.

All this would have made a much more interesting program for ABC than Priscilla's unreliable cliches which she has been spouting off since 1963. Russo was likely aware of her declassified files. Did he tell Jennings and Obenhaus? Did they want to hear? They certainly didn't tell the public which, in CIA parlance, was unwitting to Priscilla's duplicity.

Mr. DiEugenio owes much of this information to writer Peter Whitmey and his three part article on Priscilla Johnson which ran in The Third Decade from 1991 to 1993. The articles are online at, as part of Clint Bradford's JFK Assassination Research Materials web site.

Last modified on Sunday, 26 February 2017 21:10
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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