Pump Up Your Book Chats with William Bertram MacFarland
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.
This the first book of a remarkable memoir of a Special Assistant to President John F. Kennedy. Known familiarly as Bertie Mac, he reported directly to the President and his office was in the West Wing of the White House. Prior to achieving that position, he had been betrayed by his own government – the United States – and handed over to the Soviets. He was tortured in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow before being covertly rescued by two high ranking Soviet Generals who wanted to convey information directly to the White House to try to avert a nuclear confrontation. They believed that he would be a uniquely reliable conduit of information between the U.S. and the Soviet Union as he deeply mistrusted both governments and therefore had absolutely no motivation to “color” any information he might transmit. Bertie Mac coined the term “Back Channel” and served as a direct communication link between the White House and the Kremlin during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bertie Mac is a patriot, a soldier, a spy and an assassin. He served in all four roles during his time under President Kennedy. You will see the Soviet Union, the White House, Camelot, Vietnam and the assassination of the President in a very new light and watch history as it was being made.
Bertie Mac served under and reported to nine U.S. Presidents. This book is the first in the series. It is heavily documented with photocopies of documents which, though now declassified, originally bore the very highest of security classifications – Top Secret/ Sensitive/ Eyes Only. The documents are indisputably authentic and reveal the real facts that the American – and world – public never knew. Back Channel recounts the first stage of a totally fascinating journey.
Thank you for this interview, William. You are such an impressive figure in American history. Before we talk about your book, can you tell us how you got the position of assistant to John F. Kennedy?
Bertie: First of all, please call me Bertie. It’s the name everybody knows me by.
It’s a rather long story and quite a complex one. It’s treated fully in the book of course, but I’ll try to summarize.
In 1961, (I was 24 years old), I had been assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and was serving as the diplomatic courier between the Embassy and Washington. In mid December of that year I was returning to Moscow after a routine courier run and was startled to be stopped by Russian Customs. With my diplomatic passport, I normally breezed right through. I began to breathe more easily when I spotted another of the Embassy employees coming for me but was stunned when he unlocked the handcuff that chained me to the pouch, took it from me, turned on his heel and walked away without a word. My impression that I was in seriously deep trouble was immediately confirmed when two pro-football-sized KGB agents each silently grabbed one of my arms, lifted me effortlessly and conducted me to a waiting car. There was no question about it; I was going to be thrown into one of the world’s most dreaded prisons – Lubyanka. No one ever came out of Lubyanka alive – they just disappeared.
As I learned later, one our Embassy’s minor officers – it was the Cultural Attaché, I think – had been caught spying by the Russians. The Embassy offered to swap me for him and as my degrees were in mathematics and nuclear physics, the Russians apparently thought it was a good swap. All this occurred some nine months prior to what later became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis but the Russians were already actively considering the placement of nuclear-tipped missiles in underground bunkers and on mobile missile launchers in Cuba. The majority of Chairman Khrushchev’s military advisors were in favor of proceeding with this provocative act even though it might mean nuclear war. It was their opinion that the Americans would have no stomach for such a war and even if such war occurred, the Americans would suffer far more damage than would the Soviet Union.
Fortunately for me, two of the top Generals in Khrushchev’s military advisory group felt that the risk of being wrong carried far too high a price tag. The details of how they removed me from Lubyanka, gave me a message that was to be delivered personally to President Kennedy, dumped me on the steps of the US Embassy in Finland, and my subsequent return to the States are far too involved to discuss here. It took the physicians and surgeons at Walter Reed Hospital some four months of reconstructive and other surgery before I was in any condition to talk to anybody. Even so, I was still in a wheelchair when I first met with President Kennedy.
What was your first impression of JFK?
Bertie: Awe. This man smiling down at me in my wheelchair was The President of the United States! He was handsome, tanned, amiable, and thoughtful. He had a relaxed, easy grace which persuaded you to think of him as a new, but already trusted friend. I couldn’t believe I was actually talking to him.
I remember the day he was assassinated, everyone was crying, the schools were let out and the whole country came to a standstill. What do you believe was his secret for having so much love from the American people?
Bertie: He gave us hope and belief in the limitless possibilities of this country. He made us believe in ourselves and what we are capable of. His famous Inaugural statement, “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” followed his opening remarks which I can still repeat today – word for word.
We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom — symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning — signifying renewal, as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
That hope, that vision, that dream still gives me goose bumps. This was the beginning of Camelot. The youth and vibrancy captured in the countless photographs of the President and the First Lady which were broadcast around the world were in striking contrast to those taken of the previous occupants of the White House – Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower. This was the dawn of a new era.
What did the Vietnamese people really think about us invading their land?
Bertie: President Kennedy wanted to know the same thing. The only input he was getting was from our Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., other high State Department officials, Secretary of Defense McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, etc. The only people that they were getting their information from were high officials of South Vietnam – primarily President Diem, his brother Ngo, and the top Generals of the South Vietnamese military – all appointed by President Diem. When President Kennedy asked me to go to South Vietnam and try to get a sense of the mood of the people, he and I had developed a close relationship based on mutual trust and, dare I say? – respect. I had zero political ambitions, I was quickly establishing a reputation for being honest and fair and he had learned that he could – maybe uncomfortably – absolutely count on me to give him my honest analysis of a situation whether I thought he was going to like what I said or not.
I think he put some fairly heavy pressure on Secretary McNamara and Secretary Rusk to gain their grudging approval for sending me on a mission that would deliberately be kept secret from President Diem. The mechanics of how the mission was carried out makes for some extremely interesting reading but the bottom line was that through the efforts of my guide and translator, a member of a revered South Vietnamese family, we were able to meet with village elders all the way from the Delta to near the border of North and South Vietnam. There was a unanimous consensus among them. The peasants just wanted to be left alone to tend their farms. They felt (rightly) that they were going to be oppressed by whatever government was in power. At least Ho Chi Minh was Vietnamese. They viewed him as being far preferable to a government headed by a puppet of some foreign government. No leader can stay in power without the support of the people. South Vietnam was doomed from the outset. I believe my trip finally sealed his decision to have all American troops withdrawn from South Vietnam by the end of 1965.
Not so incidentally, my visit cost not only the life of my guide and translator but also those of his entire family. I killed three people, blew up a village meeting hut, got lost in the surrounding jungle, nearly got killed myself by an American patrol that stumbled on me by accident – oh well, there’s lots more. Read the book.
Your book, Back Channel: The Kennedy Years, can be called a very controversial book. How is that so?
Bertie: The book makes a strong case for the involvement of Lyndon Johnson in the assassination of President Kennedy. The case is supported by a number of documents but even though it does not rise to the level of legal proof, it is thought-provoking to say the very least. I certainly am not alone in believing that LBJ was complicit in the assassination of JFK. In 1991, Oliver Stone’s best-selling movie “JFK” made the same point. Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s trusted secretary/assistant who had been with him since his Senate days was with the President in Dallas when he was assassinated and flew back to Washington on the plane carrying both LBJ and JFK in a casket. As soon as the plane took off, she pulled out a sheet of paper to make a list of the people or organizations she thought most likely to have been involved in the President’s assassination. The first name on the list was Lyndon Baines Johnson.
I want to stress that the book does not devote a lot of time to the subject. The book is about JFK’s life – not his death.
In spite of all this, major publishers were afraid of once again bringing up the controversy.
Do you feel like you are putting your life in danger by releasing your book?
Bertie: I don’t think this first book will step on too many toes but as the succeeding books get closer to the present, that will increasingly cease to be the case. I believe that my “insurance documents” mentioned below will offer me a considerable amount of protection but only time will tell. All of us have to die sometime and while I have no desire to hasten that inevitable rendezvous, I’m not afraid of it.
I also have an ulterior motive for hoping these books attract a large readership. The better known I am to the public, the more difficult it will be for someone to arrange a quiet, fatal accident.
Can you tell us about these highly classified documents you talk about? Your so-called “insurance policy”?
Bertie: I have always been a strong believer in doing as much research as possible on the people I need to deal with. Negotiations go much more smoothly if you understand the background and motivations of the person you’re sitting across the table from. Quite often, in the course of doing such research, I came upon material that would be extremely damaging to the reputation of the person in question if it were ever revealed. I have never, ever used this knowledge or material directly. I think that’s unethical and borders on blackmail. People may suspect what I have collected but there’s no way for them to be sure. All everyone knows is that if I, or anyone else on a list that I have given to my law firm, dies a non-accidental or unnatural death, the totality of these documents will be released to every major newspaper in the world. Otherwise, all such documents will be totally destroyed 50 years after my death.
Thank you so much for this interview, William. You are doing the right thing. Any final words?
Bertie: I’m very grateful for your interest in the book. If you have further questions, I’ll be happy to try to answer them.
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