U.S./Guyanese Relations Affected Policies on Jonestown

Relations between the government of Guyana and the United States were strained over the subject of Peoples Temple and Jonestown, both before and after the deaths in November 1978, according to John R. Burke, who was the U.S. Ambassador to the South American nation at the time.

Burke spoke of the tensions in a far-reaching interview on May 26,1989. Charles Stuart Kennedy of The Association of Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs conducted the interview as part of an oral history project. (The interview appears here. The link is sporadic, though; if it doesn’t work, go here, and then type in “John R. Burke” in the search box on the left side of the page.)

The first half of the lengthy discussion with Burke is devoted to his career before and after his service in Guyana, up to the date of the interview (Amb. Burke died in 1993). After detailing his foreign service resume, Burke spends nearly the entire second half of the interview to the subject of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. He offers little known intricate details following the tragic events of November 18, 1978 and describes how both the US and Guyanese governments dealt with the aftereffects of the entire incident.

From the moment of Rep. Leo Ryan’s announcement of his intention to come to Guyana, Burke said, the visit presented unprecedented challenges to the embassy. Under the rules of diplomatic protocol, congressional delegations – or CODELs – are supposed to include at least one member of each political party. When the trip was first proposed, several Representatives, including Republicans, planned to go, but as time went on, the delegation dwindled until only two Democratic lawmakers were left. Unexplained is the official reason that Rep. Edward Derwinski – who, like Ryan, was on the Foreign Affairs Committee – suddenly and unexpectedly dropped from the CODEL mere days prior to its departure for Guyana.

The interview also spends time with the aftermath of the deaths in Jonestown, including the more mundane tasks of body removal, the US military involvement in the operation, and the decision to transport the bodies to Dover Air Force Base in the continental US. The operation was complicated by the fact that never before had such a massive undertaking been taken by either the American and Guyanese governments.

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U.S. relations with Guyana were tentative from the start, Burke said. Cheddi Jagan, the first prime minister of an independent Guyana, was a devout Marxist and cast his allegiance with Russia. While this alliance posed a problem for the US government’s diplomatic operations, the nation’s tilt serves to explain Jim Jones’ attraction to the South American country.

Burke said that the communications between Guyanese officials in various positions and the Jonestown community was open, and there was much interaction between the two. Peoples Temple was a member of the Guyana Council of Churches. Guyanese government visits to the Jonestown community were encouraged by Peoples Temple leaders. If there were problems that Jonestown had, Burke said, it was with what Jim Jones considered the intrusive U.S. government.

The amiable relations between Jonestown and the Guyanese may also explain the Guyanese government’s initial guarded dissemination of information regarding the Jonestown community. Although professional, relations between the two governments were then strained as the Guyanese well-established relationship clashed with the US government’s.

This extended to policies which may have hindered the truthful reporting of the entirety of the Jonestown situation. Any conveyance of information concerning any of the occurrences at Jonestown were carefully worded, Burke said. He explained his personal objection to conducting any official business via telephone citing the possibilities of inaccurate information dissemination.

Following the death, the US State Department made an in-house study of the embassy’s response. The document, called the Crimmins/Carpenter Report, remains widely unpublicized. Although the report fell short of his expectations, Burke thought it should have been released more widely.

The interview then goes on to discuss the contested Venezuela/Guyana border. Burke makes reference to the disputed area which was leased to Jim Jones as a means of settling the disagreement for the two countries – or at least of hedging the bet by placing Americans in the region. Burke had no proof to support his suspicions, but suggested it as a reason for the choice of that particular area of land. It is yet another interesting note to add to the already controversial Jonestown “myth.”

(Susan M. White Hicks’ complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She can be reached at rokkee4@yahoo.com.)