Interview with William Bertram 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.

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

Q: Welcome to The Writer's Life, Bertie.  Can you tell us how long you’ve been writing and how your journey led to writing your latest book, BACK CHANNEL: The Kennedy Years?

It was in the summer of 2010 that I started to seriously consider writing the memoirs of my life as Special Assistant to President John F. Kennedy.  It was a hard decision to make.  First of all, I’d never written a book before and I wasn’t really sure how to go about it.  Secondly, I realized that it would involve the wrenching out of a lot of memories that I had ‘safely’ sealed off for nearly 50 years.  Lastly, I risked treading on some very powerful toes.  I decided to go ahead with it anyway because the story is so compelling. 

Q: How did you choose your title and was it your first choice?

I believe that I actually coined the term ‘back channel’ in a conversation I had with President Kennedy in mid-1962.  We were discussing the establishment of a direct but ‘informal’ (and therefore totally deniable) method of communicating with Chairman Khrushchev concerning the looming crisis arising from Khrushchev’s plans to install nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba.

Q: We all know that publishers can’t do all of the publicity and that some lies on the author.  What has your publisher done so far to publicize the book and what have you done?

Given the fact that my book is self-published, your two-part question devolves into a one-part response.  The first thing I did was to create a website and to establish YouTube, Facebook and Twitter accounts (links to all the accounts can be found on my website).  Next, I established a list of reputable publicists and interviewed each of them – then chose the one I liked the best.

Q: Open to a random page in your book.  Can you tell us what is happening?

Heavens, yes!  It’s my life!

Q: Do you plan subsequent books?

Indeed.  As we speak, I’m working hard on the second book which will cover most, if not all, of the Johnson years.

Q: What is the one thing you learned about your book AFTER it was published?

How very hard it is to get your book noticed.  There are thousands of new books published every year and it’s not easy to direct significant attention to your own.

Q: What is your most favorite time of the day or night to write?

From about 5:00 in the morning until 3 - 4 in the afternoon.

Q: What is usually better – the book or the movie?

I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a movie more than I did the book it was based on.

Q:  You’re about to write your next book.  What did you learn from your previous book to help you write your next book?

I don’t think I can point to any single thing.  I find the whole writing experience to be a very humbling one.  I know that every genre of literature presents its own challenges – if you are writing a scholarly research book, it is daunting work to assemble all your facts (which have to be meticulously checked and cross-checked) into a coherent, meaningful and rational narrative.  Novelists must credibly bring their characters to life and weave them into a carefully created, fascinating, complex and believable story.

Writers of memoirs must ensure that their recorded memories are reasonably conformal to recorded history but are generally given a good deal more latitude in that respect than is demanded of a journalist or a historian.  Memoirs are a record of what you remember after all and unless it is absolutely critical, if you recall someone’s name as being George when it was really Henry or get a date or a time slightly wrong, such minutiae are typically shrugged off.  With that kind of latitude and as the story and the characters and the facts already exist, writing memoirs ought to be a breeze – right?

If you are going to write your memoirs, you better make sure you have a really high pain threshold.  You’re going to have to dig out things you hoped you’d never have to think about again - much less write about in excruciating detail – and you are going to have to do it day after day.  If you’re going to be credible, there’s no hiding – you’re going to have to put it all out there - in public – warts and all your other flaws.  Revealing that you personally have been responsible for the deaths of a number of innocent people, for example, engenders the kind of pain and hurt that goes to your innermost core.  That’s what I’ve learned, anyway.

Q: Finally, what’s your best tip you can give to writers who want to be published?

Even though success (whatever ‘success’ means to you) may ultimately elude you, ‘it’s better to have tried and failed than to never to have tried at all.’  Get off your rear and go for it.
Q: Thank you for your interview, Bertie.  Do you have any final words?

A word to the vacillating would-be author:  If not now, when?

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