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Interview: William Bertram MacFarland, Author of Back Channel:The Kennedy Years

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William Bertram MacFarland – aka Bertie Mac never sought,or even imagined, a role as a Special Assistant to President John F. Kennedy. Even less did he imagine continuing in the role of Special Assistant to the President in eight subsequent administrations.  

Mr. MacFarland’s held degrees from Duke University in Mathematics and Physics (Quantum Mechanics) but fate, as well as the U.S. government, extinguished any hope of a career in those fields.

Eager for adventure and travel, immediately following graduation from university he entered the intelligence arm of the government, did extensive military training, became a U.S. Army Ranger, trained in Special Operations, hand to hand combat techniques, did rigorous advanced parachute training, and went through intensive training in Russian language and culture at the language school in Monterrey, California.

Subsequently assigned as a “diplomatic courier” to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Mr. MacFarland was callously betrayed by his own government – the government of the United States of America – and turned over to the Soviet Union where he was brutally tortured in Lubyanka Prison at KGB Headquarters in Moscow. He was rescued near the point of death in a clandestine operation carried out by two high ranking Soviet Generals and was entrusted, by them, with information which became vital to the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. His unique value to both sides was his profound distrust of both governments.

William Bertram MacFarland slowly came to be a friend and confidant of President Kennedy in his (unsought) role as Special Assistant to the President and he tried in vain (and disgust) to resign his position when President Kennedy was assassinated.  However, President Johnson would not accept it. The knowledge and “back channel” contacts that he had accumulated – and continued to accumulate as his career progressed – made him uniquely valuable to a long succession of U.S. Presidents. Mr. MacFarland’s 50 year access to the highest levels of nine Administrations and the highly classified materials that they generated make him uniquely qualified to relate these riveting and spellbinding memoirs.

His reputation as being totally incorruptible is not necessarily a good thing in the halls of power and the only thing that has saved him from assassination by officials in his own government is a vast collection of documents accumulated over the entirety of his career, which resides in a safe deposit box in a western European country – the key to which is held by a well known law firm in that country. Should Mr. MacFarland die under suspicious circumstances, those documents will be released to the public – at a horrific cost to hundreds of individuals and indeed, to the nation as a whole.

He describes himself as “a patriot, a soldier, a spy, and an assassin.” The description does not do him full justice. He was involved in intergovernmental intrigues at the highest levels and as a superbly trained and conditioned special operative he was an amalgam of James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Ryan. He is surely one of the American “cousins” described by John Le Carré. William Bertram MacFarland never sought glory or recognition for his contributions. He did what he did purely for love of his country. He is a true American hero – who will forever remain anonymous and in the shadows.

His story can be found in his latest book, Back Channel: The Kennedy Years.

Readers can learn more about the fascinating William Bertram MacFarland by visiting the following links:

Twitter| Facebook Amazon Barnes & Noble | Website

Could you please tell us a bit about your book? The story? The characters?

I was a Special Assistant to President John F. Kennedy. I joined the Administration in mid-1962, was given an office in the West Wing of the White House, and served as the direct back channel communication conduit between President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The story is an inside view of the Kennedy administration from mid-’62 through the weeks following his assassination and the characters are the top administration officials such as Secretary McNamara and Secretary Rusk plus the whole panoply of his closest advisors. In addition, I became a personal friend of President and Mrs. Kennedy and was their guest at Hyannis Port on several occasions. The book also describes some of those more personal moments.

How did you come up with the title and how much say did you have on the cover design?

I believe that I coined the term ‘Back Channel’ in a personal discussion I had with President Kennedy in mid-1962. In any case, I have served in that capacity through nine administrations. I had 100% say on the cover design.

Do you have a favorite line or excerpt that you would like to share from your book?

“As I sat in my office in the West Wing, I reflected on what an extraordinary man John F. Kennedy was. Throughout the entire missile crisis, he had constantly, and in the face of specific recommendations for “surgical” military action, never given up hope that a peaceful, political solution could be found. After it had been, many would claim that they had always advised the President to take the route that he took. That simply was not the case. President Kennedy had consistently displayed great courage throughout this entire crisis, refusing to yield to the intense pressure to react militarily coming from all sides (and despite all accounts to the contrary, Bobby had vacillated on at least two occasions in his support for his brother’s constant position). Without the President’s courageous actions, I probably wouldn’t be here to write this – and you wouldn’t be here to read it either.

There was something else. It’s very hard to describe but I’ve never again had the same feeling. It really was Camelot – it truly was. It was magical. There was this incredible sense of hope, the feeling that anything was possible. The President really had assembled an amazing team of “the best and the brightest.” I doubt if any one of us (besides Bobby, of course) could ever have been elected to any position whatsoever – I mean literally not even as municipal dog catcher – but the intellectual exhilaration of working with people who had such extraordinary minds, backgrounds and accomplishments, who had such novel ideas, such an unadulterated passion for doing whatever they could to contribute to the national good was almost euphoric. I felt like I was living through the fourth movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.”

What are some of your favorite ways to promote your work?

I know nothing of that black art but my publicist – Charlie Barrett of The Barrett Company in Los Angeles is a master of it. I gratefully leave such recondite affairs in his competent hands.

What is a typical writing day like for you?

Painful, in general. Dredging up memories that have been carefully buried for nearly 50 years is often a very unpleasant task. It’s cathartic I suppose, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

What are some ways that you like to relax?

I have a few friends that are privy to my hidden past and I enjoy spending time with them.

What author/s do you think are overlooked in the writing/reading world today?

Joseph Campbell and Publius (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay).

What author would you most like to meet and why?

Shakespeare. He had to be one fascinating man.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to share with readers?

I’m currently working hard on Book Two which will cover most, if not all, of the Johnson years. Do you know how the Vietnam War really started? Even if you don’t either know or care, a lot of other interesting stuff was happening then which you will be interested in.

What is something about yourself that would come as a surprise to many people?

That for some 50 years I have been a spy and – now and again – an assassin.

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