Interview with William ‘Bertie’ MacFarland, author of ‘Back Channel: The Kennedy Years’

William Bertram MacFarland – 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. His degrees from Duke University were in Mathematics and Physics (Quantum Mechanics) but fate and the U.S. government extinguished any hope of a career in those fields.

Eager for adventure and travel, immediately after 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, he 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.

Back ChannelHe 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 but 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. His 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 he 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. Bertie never sought glory or recognition for his contributions. He did what he did purely from love of 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.

You can visit his impressive website at

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Bertie!  Can you tell us where you are from?

I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the title?

In a private conversation I had with President Kennedy in 1962, we were discussing informal and deniable ways of communicating with other governments.  I remarked that it was sort of like going through the back door rather than through the front, public door but that ‘back door’ communications sounded a little sneaky somehow and suggested the alternate term ‘Back Channel.’  I was the back channel between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Q: They say you can judge a book by its cover.  Can you tell us a little about your cover and who designed it?

The cover reflects the link between Washington and Moscow as opposite ends of the spectrum but in some sense reflective of each other.  It was designed by the very talented artist Mel B. Jones.

Q: Can you tell us something about your book that would make me run out and buy it?

It is a fascinating insight into the internal workings of the White House during the presidency of JFK.  I was a Special Assistant to the President and my office was in the West Wing of the White House so it is told from an ‘insider’s’ perspective – and one that only I could have had.  I became a personal friend of President and Mrs. Kennedy and was their guest several times in Hyannis Port so the reader gets an insight into their personal side as well.

Q: Are there any messages in this book that you want the reader to know about?

I think each reader will come away with his or her own ‘message.’  It is not often that the average person gets to see the conflicts and problems which confront a President of the United States – and then wonder how they personally might have reacted in those circumstances.

Q: Why did you feel you had to write this book?

I wanted people to be interested in seeing how government works – it’s truly fascinating if you get to see what goes on ‘behind the curtains.’  I also want people to realize that responsible citizenship is not a spectator sport.  If you want a different government, you have to personally get involved.  I wanted to make events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis come alive as the nail-biting, nerve wracking event that they really were.  Finally, I think people may find my covert activities for the government, involving both spying and assassination, at least interesting – and perhaps enlightening.  How much do you really know about what your government is doing?  Are you sure?

Q: Thank you so much for this interview! Do you have any final words?

I appreciate the opportunity to express some of my thoughts.  I invite the reader to join me on a journey that is both exciting and compelling.

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