Back Channel The Kennedy Years
Inside the John F. Kennedy White House


This is a preview to the chapter Camelot from the book Back Channel The Kennedy Years by William Bertram MacFarland.
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It was mid December 1962 and I was finally getting a chance to catch my breath a bit. On December 5 and 6, the Soviets had finally packed up their IL-28 bombers that they had left on Cuba and they began their long trip back to the Soviet Union. The naval blockade was lifted in consequence and the Cuban Missile Crisis was officially over.

No one who wasn’t part of the inner circle surrounding President Kennedy can imagine the intensity of that situation - and the fear that this really could be the beginning of a nuclear holocaust and the end of life on earth as we know it. I know I was petrified that I wouldn’t be able to live up to my role as back channel even after the generals finally made contact. It was like living through a nightmare - but it was real. Both sides were flexing their nuclear muscles and dropping atomic bombs over remote Pacific islands like they were water balloons.

As I sat in my office in the West Wing, I reflected on what an extraordinary man John F. Kennedy was. Throughout the entire missile crisis, he had constantly, and in the face of specific recommendations for “surgical” military action, never given up hope that a peaceful, political solution could be found. After it was, many would claim that they had always advised the President to take the route that he took. That simply was not the case. President Kennedy had consistently displayed great courage throughout this entire crisis, refusing to yield to the intense pressure to react militarily coming from all sides (and despite all accounts to the contrary, Bobby had vacillated on at least two occasions in his support for his brother’s constant position). Without the President’s courageous actions, I probably wouldn’t be here to write this book – and you wouldn’t be here to read it either.

An Incredible Sense of Hope

There was something else. It’s very hard to describe but I’ve never again had the same feeling. It really was Camelot – it truly was. It was magical. There was this incredible sense of hope, the feeling that anything was possible. The President really had assembled an amazing team of “the best and the brightest.” I doubt if any one of us (besides Bobby, of course) could ever have been elected to any position whatsoever – I mean literally not even as municipal dog catcher – but the intellectual exhilaration of working with people who had such extraordinary minds, backgrounds and accomplishments, who had such novel ideas, such an unadulterated passion for doing whatever they could to contribute to the national good was almost euphoric. I felt like I was living through the fourth movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.

Lastly, while I’m on memory lane, I’d like to address a question that I have been asked several times by the very few people who are familiar with what happened to me in the Soviet Union. They ask why, when my own government was willing to be complicit in my capture by the KGB (which they knew would lead to my certain death in Lubyanka1) would I ever want to work with the U.S. Government again? Actually, at first I did refuse but during my first meeting with the President, when he asked for my help as a patriot, I agreed to do so. A little Camelot went along way and even though I was somewhat ambivalent, the vision that Kennedy had for the country was something I wanted to help make happen.
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