Home » Author Interviews » Author Interview: William ‘Bertie’ Bertram MacFarland & Back Channel: The Kennedy Years

Author Interview: William ‘Bertie’ Bertram MacFarland & 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.

He 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 www.bertiemac.com.

Thank you for this interview, Bertie.  Can you tell us briefly what your latest book, BACK CHANNEL, is all about?

I began working for, and became Special Assistant to, President Kennedy in 1962, shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I served as the back channel communications link between the United States Government and the Soviet Union during that crisis.  My office was in the West Wing of the White House.  It’s a fascinating look at what happens ‘behind the curtains’ in the White House.  I also became personal friends with President and Mrs. Kennedy and was their guest on several occasions in Hyannis Port.  The reader gets to see that side of the Kennedys as well.

Can you tell us who or what was the inspiration behind your book?

I wanted people to be interested in seeing how government works – it’s truly fascinating when you get to see what goes on ‘behind the curtains.’  I also want people to realize that responsible citizenship is not a spectator sport.  You have to get involved personally if you want to make a difference.  I wanted to make events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis come alive as the nail-biting, nerve-wracking events 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?

Is this your first published book and if so, can you tell us your experiences in finding a publisher for it?

It is my first published book.  I had a very good introduction to a well-known publishing firm from a lawyer friend who represents several authors whose works have been published by the firm.  The publisher felt BACK CHANNEL was too controversial and wouldn’t touch it.  After a couple of similar reactions from other publishers, I decided to self-publish.

Where do you live and if I were coming to town, where would we go to talk books?

I can’t tell you where I live and I cannot do in-person interviews.

When you’re not writing, what do you do to relax and have fun?

The BACK CHANNEL series is probably going to consist of five, perhaps six, books.  I was Special Assistant to nine Presidents so there is a great deal more left to write and as I’m not getting any younger, I am writing pretty much non-stop.  Fortunately, I have a few friends who are privy to my background and when I need a break, I spend time with them.

Do you make a living off your books or do you have another job?

I am retired.

Do you have any words of inspiration from other writers who would like to be wearing your shoes?

We all learn from each other’s lives.  Tell the world about yours.

What’s next for you?

I’m working hard on Book 2 which will at least cover most of the Johnson presidential years, and perhaps all.  It will cover my establishment of an international spy network and lots of other things.  Incidentally, do you know how the Vietnam War really started?  Even if you don’t and moreover, simply don’t care (shame on you), there were a lot of other things which were happening contemporaneously that surely – you will find very interesting.

Thank you for this interview, Bertie.  Do you have any final words?

Ignorance of things past is a dangerous condition.  As Lewis Lapham has pointed out, “Cicero made the point fifty years before the birth of Christ: “Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.””


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