Back Channel: Book One: The Kennedy Years
William Bertram MacFarland
In book one of his memoirs, Back Channel: The Kennedy Years, author William Bertram MacFarland offers an intriguing account of his life as the Special Assistant to the President of the United States. MacFarland describes a life lived off the grid as a spy, presidential confidante, and an assassin. He includes extensive background information on historical events (including the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movement) and discusses the tension that occurred behind the scenes between top officials in the Kennedy Administration.
MacFarland was recruited by the CIA as a college student. While on assignment in Moscow, he was apprehended by the KGB and detained in the infamous Soviet prison, Lubyanka. It was later confirmed that MacFarland had been traded for an American Cultural Attaché who was caught stealing classified Soviet military information. MacFarland was severely beaten during his time in the prison. This episode ultimately changed the course of his life. After being freed from Lubyanka by two Soviet generals, the author was returned to the United States with a message he was charged to deliver directly to the President of the United States. During his first meeting with John Kennedy, MacFarland discussed the concept of developing a “back channel” method of communication with the Soviet generals who rescued him to discuss the missiles the Soviets were amassing in Cuba.
After a full recovery from his massive injuries, MacFarland finds himself with a job in the White House and on a first name basis (in private) with the president. In addition to being Kennedy’s eyes and ears during meetings with high ranking generals about Cuba, Vietnam, and other volatile matters, the president expected and demanded MacFarland’s professional opinion. Kennedy. He writes candidly about his personal feelings concerning Kennedy’s extra-marital affairs and the information that he collected about the White House officials he worked with including Bobby Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Lyndon B. Johnson. The accounts of attacks against MacFarland in the Soviet Union, Washington, D.C. and Vietnam are enthralling, but I found the author’s report on Lyndon B. Johnson the most intriguing part of this book. His research and personal encounters with the vice-president paint a disturbing picture of Johnson. The author includes supplementary information in two appendices that support the stories he relays in the book.
MacFarland humanizes the members of the Kennedy Administration; especially the president, and sheds light on the enormous amount of stress that comes with the job.
Back Channel is an annotated history lesson that allows the reader a behind the scenes view of the Kennedy Administration. It is a fascinating start for what promises to be an enlightening series of books about past leaders of the United States and the man whose secret mission influenced their administrations. I highly recommend it.
Melissa Brown Levine
Independent Professional Book Reviewers