Dissent in Jonestown

Expressions of dissent within the Jonestown leadership – and especially criticisms of Jim Jones – may not have been encouraged, and certainly were not widespread, but they did exist. Several documents recording minutes of meetings indicate that people in leadership positions raised questions and offered alternatives as decisions were formulated, with results that often varied from the initial proposal on the table, even as the same leaders often deferred to Jones’ expressed wishes.

But the leadership was not monolithic, and written examples of dissent exist. Several appear below.

The first is an undated letter from Gene Chaikin (likely from the fall of 1977, shortly after the Six Day Siege) in which he criticizes Jones on a number of issues. Chastizing Jones for his handling of the John Victor Stoen custody battle, for example, the Temple lawyer suggests that Jones had overreacted to the summons to appear in a Guyanese court over his refusal to bring the child to Georgetown. There were any one of a number of ways – which Chaikin spells out – that Jones could have handled the situation.

However the whole thing immediately rose to the level of hysteria.… Officials all over the U.S. and Georgetown were importuned; our private affairs broadcast, “ultimatums” were presented to government which can only serve to make us look hysterical and immature to government, causing diminished respect and therefore diminished power and influence here; … the whole project stopped both in U.S. and here all plans halted with resulting lack of time, momentum and money, and in great frustration.… All of the above totally unnecessary and highly wastefull and destructive.

Then Chaikin lays the blame directly at Jones’ feet: “A relatively modest and ultimately controllable incident was made, by you, into a catastrophy [catastrophe] of major proportions involving the full expenditure of such goodwill and energies as we have available.”

Chaikin also complains about Jones’ treatment of him. “I detest being lied to and manipulated,” the lawyer writes. “How would you feel if I had ever (and I never have) knowingly gave false factual reports or false legal opinions to you in order to manipulate your behavior? Would you find that conduct acceptable in me on the grounds that: (1) my goal was pure (2) the ends justified the means (3) I understood the situation better than you?”

The letter concludes by declaring an impasse in communications between the two. “I obviously can’t trust anything you say,” he says in his final thoughts. “You leave me little to have confidence in. Your word is no better than the expedience that motivates you to utter it… I think you and I now have very little to say to each other.”

The second is a two-page memo from Dick Tropp following a White Night on May 11, 1978, in which he says he echoes concerns raised by Gene Chaikin “about our structure being self-defeating: do we create situations by our procedures and practices that make us vulnerable?” He questions the need for so much secrecy, pointing out that it plays right into the hands of their critics, and suggests “we learn to operate as if ‘guests’ were always here to view our public life style.”

The memo continues with a plea to give the community “a sense of a possible future” rather than merely focus on the day-to-day existence of the Jonestown project. Only with planning – which means setting goals, he emphasizes – will they be able to motivate and mobilize the community to grow.

The third, a memo to Jones from Harriet Sarah Tropp, is also undated, but its reference to the imminent arrival of Hollywood screenwriter Don Freed places it in August 1978. Entitled “The uglification of Jonestown,” the memo complains that their efforts to improve Jonestown’s appearance have been undermined by Jones’ edicts. The  leadership meets with local Guyanese and other “people who have lived here for several years” for their advice on how to repair the roads and paths, but then Jones declares “there must be a way” to do the work the way he wants it done.

“Well, there wasn’t a way,” Harriett Tropp adds. “I think the above just serves to highlight a problem we have in decision making. That is, if you say you want something done, we ignore any advice we’ve been given and we go against our own judgment, and go ahead.”

There is an “ugly mess” in Jonestown,  she concludes, “And it was all unnecessary, if we’d just followed advice” [emphasis in original].

Undated letter from Gene Chaikin, RYMUR 89-4286-EE-1-C-10 ff.

Memo from Dick Tropp, May 1978, RYMUR 89-4286-EE-1-T-64 – EE-1-T-65

Memo from Harriet Sarah Tropp, RYMUR 89-4286-EE-2-S-13A – EE-2-S-13B