The Neutron Bomb

Jim Jones had a lifelong dread of nuclear holocaust, a dread that contributed in no small part to his decisions to take his family to Brazil in the early 1960s, to move the Peoples Temple congregation to Northern California a few years later, and – albeit as a lesser factor – to site the Temple’s Promised Land in Guyana. He expressed that fear in scores of sermons in the U.S. and in virtually every Jonestown newscast.

The fear was genuine, even if it sometimes appeared in seemingly-cynical contexts. That cynicism could be said to have extended to his description of one nuclear weapon in particular: the neutron bomb.

The neutron bomb was designed as a low-yield tactical weapon designed to maximize radiation while minimizing the physical destruction from its use. In other words, as Jones (among many others) described it, the bomb was designed to kill people but not to destroy property. While the design and concept of the weapon began in the 1960s, it did not go into production in the US in 1974.

In a way, the neutron bomb was the perfect foil for Jones. His assaults on the economic and military proclivities of the American political structure had no better illustration: it gave the country the ability to rid itself of inconvenient populations and to preserve the houses, businesses and factories left behind. “The radiation level would soon disappear so the capitalists could move in and enjoy the fruits of their killing.” Moreover, as Jones pointed out, those inconvenient populations were those who lived in urban ghettoes, who depended upon social services and welfare, and who largely comprised racial minorities. In short, black people.

Jones concentrated upon this aspect of the weapon in his use of the phrase “nigger bomb,” often preceded with the remark that the weapon is what “the US army and Air Force jokingly call…” The origin of this particular epithet is unknown – it might indeed have been a phrase Jones coined for his own political and organizational uses – but in the Temple’s final years, it became increasingly familiar to members of both his congregation and the Jonestown community.