By William Bertram MacFarlandI’ve been asked to describe how I felt and what was going on in the White House the day of President Kennedy’s assassination. It’s extremely painful for me to re-live that day. The world lost a great leader, our nation lost its last chance of avoiding involvement in a grotesque war in Vietnam and all Americans lost a true visionary who inspired the country and united everyone around him. I lost my best friend. His death was the end of Camelot.
November 22, 1963I was sitting in my office in the West Wing working on the troop withdrawal plan for South Vietnam when around 1:45 p.m. I heard somebody running down the corridor yelling, “Everybody drop what you’re doing and get to the Staff Dining Room!” There was an unmistakable note of panic in the voice and although I didn’t want to interrupt my train of thought on the mathematics of the model construction, I was concerned and figured, “What the hell. My train of thought has already been interrupted.” I wrote down some details of the mathematical trail I had been following, put everything in the safe for classified materials, and went out into the corridor. There were an astonishing number of people jogging towards the staff dining room and a palpable sense of fear and panic in the air.
I asked someone what was going on and he told me he wasn’t sure but he had heard someone say that the President had been shot.
To this day I clearly remember the icy knot that instantly formed in my gut and when I stumbled but recovered, my ‘jogging companion’ glanced at me and told me I should stop for a minute and sit down and put my head between my legs because my face had lost all color and he thought I was going to faint. I assured him that I was OK and that fainting wasn’t what I had in mind. When we got to the dining room, somebody had shoved three or four tables against the far wall, put a chair on each table and a TV on the seat of each chair.
We silently watched the unfolding events in Dallas with mounting horror and when it was finally announced that President Kennedy was dead, the room erupted with groans and cries of grief.
Some people couldn’t move and stood frozen watching the broadcast. Stunned, I went back to my office and spent the next half hour trying to get through to Bobby Kennedy on his personal line. It was swamped and I tried the private line of Angela Novello, his personal secretary, with no more success. Finally, I quit trying and just sat back in my chair to think. It was just so hard to take in. How could President Kennedy be dead? It was incomprehensible, impossible – but deep down, I knew it had to be true and I was completely heartbroken. I wanted to go back to my apartment and try to assimilate things and that’s when the realization of how much everything was going to change began to hit me. Did I still have a car and driver? I picked up the phone and got the White House car pool folks on the line and asked them and was told that since my limo privileges had been established by Presidential order, they were going to stand until another Presidential order cancelled them. I asked for a car in fifteen minutes. I straightened up my office and went outside to meet my car.
I’ll never forget walking through those White House corridors.
They were jammed with people, some by themselves, others in small groups. Some were wandering aimlessly – often weeping inconsolably – others talking softly and urgently to each other but the one constant was the look of horror-stricken despair on their ashen faces. I don’t think I looked any better. I know I damned well didn’t feel any better. Most employers had let their people go early and the streets were jammed when we left. Washington traffic is always difficult but I’d never seen it like this. So many drivers were so distracted that twice we came within a hairsbreadth of being run into. Others were not so fortunate and the police were out in droves directing traffic around fender-benders. Later, the police estimated the number of minor accidents that November evening was nearly four times the average.
The scene on the sidewalks was bizarre as well.
Normally (at rush hour) the sidewalks are jammed with people walking very briskly to get to their bus stop or car pool pick-up point and while there was certainly still a lot of that, there were an amazing number of people who were just ambling aimlessly or even simply standing on the curb, staring blankly out at traffic. It was a huge relief to walk into the quiet of my apartment. I arrived at the White House the next morning to turn in my letter of resignation. I wasn’t about to knock on the door of the Oval Office but I knocked on Evelyn Lincoln’s office door and there was no one there. I went by Security and asked if President Johnson (I about choked) was in the building and was told he was not. Determined to wait around until I could find somebody to hand my letter to, I went back to my office to start making plans for my future outside the White House.
About William Bertram MacFarlandWilliam 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.
Check out William and his book at the following online locations:
ABOUT BACK CHANNEL: THE KENNEDY YEARSThis 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.