Diplomatic Intervention of the Jonestown Conspiracy

by Riley de Leon

What would somebody have to say to a person to get him or her to do something they could not possibly believe they were capable of? On November 18, 1978, after unlawful persuasion, Jim Jones and 908 other Peoples Temple members were found dead in the South American jungle. Despite his intentions, Jim Jones was truly a charismatic Christian preacher who championed the cause of the underclass. Unfortunately, he was also able to manipulate a congregation of nearly 1,000 people that resulted in “the largest single loss of American civilian life, in a non-natural disaster until the events of September 11, 2001” (“Moments”). Faced with the problem of potential Social Security fraud and continued human rights violations by the Rev. Jim Jones, Congressman Leo Ryan traveled to Guyana to investigate the safety of American civilians living in Jonestown. However, had the U.S. government agencies upon whom Ryan depended for background information been more informed themselves about the origins of Peoples Temple, they might have been better able to protect those susceptible to cult involvement and prevent the fleecing of U.S. citizens and the mass suicides in Guyana.

The power of the church seized Jim Jones from a young age. An Indiana native, Rev. Jones grew up with an abnormal interest in healing and spirituality. After marrying Marceline Baldwin in 1949, he moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where he earned a degree in secondary education (Reiterman 28). Jones was very studious and particularly enjoyed scrutinizing the strengths and weaknesses of powerful leaders that came before him. His interest in communism was sparked after attending several local rallies in 1951. After the fall of Joseph Stalin, Jones began to identify with the ostracism faced by open communists (Reiterman 24). Jones distinguished himself from other authoritarians by infiltrating the church with these ideals. Hoping to integrate congregations across the United States, Jones began his own church originally known as the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Christian Church (Rosenberg).

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the streets of America erupted in violence and civil strife. The war in Vietnam, civil rights marches, and political assassinations were bearing heavily on a financially-depressed nation (“Jonestown”). Out of this turmoil, thousands of Americans flocked to hear the sermons of Rev. Jones. The Peoples Temple congregation would spend months at a time traveling cross-country, acquiring revenue for the church and spreading the word of Rev. Jones, recruiting people to return to Indianapolis with them. To many, Jones was the perfect integrationist (Scheeres 11). His comforting speeches became a mixture of socialist ideals and Christian redemption. What many people failed to see was Jones’ ability to disguise his Marxism as religion (Reiterman 61).

As Peoples Temple continued to grow, Jones became more concerned with accomplishing his social goals and ensuring member loyalty to Peoples Temple. In 1961, Jones claimed that he had a vision of Chicago coming under a nuclear attack and that Indianapolis would also be destroyed (Kilduff). At the same time Jones began to find more community in the Pentecostal Church. Hoping to move power to an urban area, the Temple began holding services in San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1970 (McGehee).

In 1977, as media scrutiny of Peoples Temple began to intensify, Jones and his followers moved to Guyana, where they had created the community “Jonestown,” formally known as “The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project.” (McGehee). Jonestown exceeded the expectations of Jim Jones. The close-knit community existed in a sovereign nation where socialism ruled and people were isolated from the racism and poverty that they experienced in the United States. Ultimately, Jonestown was the result of Reverend Jones’ ever-expanding fascist views in the United States. Most importantly, members of Peoples Temple were living in an environment where somebody cared about them and they were being cared for— or so they were led to believe.

Meanwhile, numerous domestic allegations of impropriety were being made against Jim Jones. A so-called “government conspiracy” led to the eventual investigation of Peoples Temple in Guyana. Former Temple members notified various government intelligence agencies, including the State Department, of their concerns. Among those concerns were Jones’ ability to control members through disciplinary beatings, relinquishment of private property and government entitlements, and in some cases, custody of their children. Further, Jones controlled members of his Temple through a multitude of human rights violations including demoralization, exhaustion, and malnourishment. His ability to hold people against their will with the threat of death as retribution if they chose to leave Jonestown was a powerful glue that kept his flock largely intact (“Jonestown”).

In early 1978, defector Tim Stoen joined several former members of Peoples Temple who formed an alliance known as the “Concerned Relatives” and made attempts to reach out to the American government seeking aid (Steel). Up to this point, there had been no national security interest in the Peoples Temple presence in the Guyanese jungle. In response to these complaints and original suspicions, Congressman Leo Ryan tried to entice several additional members of Congress to accompany him to Guyana and investigate the potential safety concerns, although they all declined his request. In 1978 the U.S. Embassy questioned numerous Social Security recipients to ensure that they were not being held against their will. “None of the 75 people interviewed by the Embassy stated that they were being held against their will, were forced to sign over welfare checks, or wanted to leave Jonestown” (Ma’at-Ra). Temple members believed that someday the government, through the FBI, CIA, or another agency, would try to destroy “the most promising hope for world socialism” (Reiterman 164).

Ryan flew into Georgetown, Guyana on November 14, 1978, accompanied by a team of eighteen people consisting of government officials, media representatives, and various members of the Concerned Relatives. The media presence aggravated Jones. Because of this, Ryan and his delegation originally were not accepted into Jonestown. However, after several pleas made by Peoples Temple lawyer Charles Garry to Jim Jones, the crew was granted entry (Steel).

Tim Reiterman, one of the journalists that traveled with the congressional delegation to Jonestown, claimed that it was “disturbing to hear him [Jones] put a figurative gun in the hands of those [Peoples Temple members] who had come to visit Jonestown. It was shocking to see his glazed eyes and festering paranoia face to face, to realize that nearly a thousand lives, ours included, were in his hands” (“Jonestown”). After receiving private requests from several defectors to leave Jonestown, many of the delegation realized that there had been a potential for danger all along. When Jim Jones recognized that people wanted to leave his utopia, he became weak. Paired with his consistent drug abuse and pathological insanity (Knight-Griffin), Jim Jones had finally fallen apart.

When the Ryan delegation had processed as many defectors as the U.S. Embassy could manage to safely return to the States, Jim Jones had given his loyalists orders to close in with rifles and shotguns and take revenge at the Port Kaituma airstrip. As a result, the congressman and several members of his delegation were killed. After the ambush at Port Kaituma, Jones coerced his followers into what he phrased “revolutionary suicide,” protesting the conditions of an inhumane world (“Jonestown”). This consisted of nearly 304 children and 603 adults voluntarily or through forcible injection, drinking a fruit-flavored drink laced with cyanide poison. Jones believed that those who shared his conception of peace should, “die with a degree of dignity” (“Jonestown”). Jones was killed that same day with a single gunshot wound to the head, one of only two people to die by gunshot.

Many people willingly followed Jones to Guyana because they adored his fiery rhetoric and his promise of a society free of discrimination. The Jonestown massacre has left an indelible mark on subsequent history, which has a tendency to reveal flaws that were thought to be nonexistent. The Guyana tragedy brings very poignant issues to the forefront of society that hopefully have since been reconciled. Although the federal government is careful not to infringe upon constitutional rights of American citizens, it is likewise incumbent upon them to protect those citizens as well.

“In June 1978, Leo Ryan read excerpts from the sworn affidavit of Debbie Blakey, a defector from Jonestown, which included claims that the community at Jonestown had, on a number of occasions, rehearsed for a mass suicide” (Steel). Before traveling to Guyana, Ryan read on the 1977 edition of New West magazine, which headlined, “…Jim Jones is one of the state’s most politically potent leaders. But who is he? And what’s going on behind his church’s locked doors…” (Kilduff). This is evidence that official government agencies had suspicions of ill-gotten gains on Jones’ behalf, but failed to act in the absence of concrete facts. Historically, it was not a priority of the government to care for those minorities susceptible to cult type involvement.

A plausible alternative solution to the drastic investigation of Jonestown would have been a more in-depth, domestic investigation of Peoples Temple origins, prior to cult evolvement. This would include paying more attention to those that represent the masses in the United States versus a choice few who generate revenue for the political parties involved. Had the federal government put more emphasis on the best interest of Americans in general, versus Americans who are constantly in the limelight, this tragedy and others similar to it may have been averted.

One of the demands placed upon elected officials is confirmation and verification of the adherence to the rule of law. Given the events of the last decade, the expectation for security and accountability has risen to an all-time high (“Moments”). Citizens of the United States now have preconceived ideas about what their elected officials should do to procure security. This security must be balanced with sensitivity towards discrimination from both a racial and financial standpoint.

Alternatively, had the congregants of Peoples Temple been more financially literate and better informed as to their religious and social options, a crisis of this magnitude could have been easily avoided. An informed consumer is always more inclined to make good decisions. This would have certainly held true in the case of the Guyana tragedy. Had people been better educated and cared for, rather than being given the rubber stamp of approval from government authority, it would have been less likely that they be taken advantage of. Part of their ignorance was the limitations involved with access to information as compared to the modern world.

This alternate solution directly involves implementations on the behalf of various government intelligence agencies. Had agencies such as the FBI or CIA made an effort to release information obtained about Jones’ motives to move to Guyana, they might have better been able to prevent Jones from fleecing U.S. citizens of their Social Security entitlements and other crimes. It is possible that these agencies were aware of the direction of the flow of funds but had restrictions placed on their ability to pursue effective intervention (Knight-Griffin).

According to McGehee, “The FBI withheld these startling revelations from the public under the national security exemption to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for 31 years, until a recent review of all classified material in government files which are more than 25 years old resulted in their release.” Had there been less government restriction, the U.S. State Department would have been able to step in and give government officials a more specific directive regarding potential abuses or neglect (Knight-Griffin). Further, interrogation by the U.S. Embassy in Guyana would have been more organized had they known of these revelations. Had this happened, it is possible that the mass suicides could have been prevented and Jones could have defeated before he spiraled out of control. If not for the complete lack of control over rogue organizations such as Peoples Temple, the Guyana Tragedy may not have gone down in history as one of the most tragic public relations disasters in U.S. State Department history.

Historically, Jonestown and the disturbing events that occurred there have proven that there is a fine line between citizens’ autonomy and a government’s socialistic intervention. It is unfortunate that it takes an event of such epic proportion to bring this truth to the foreground. Nonetheless, a society can only operate effectively under adherence to a minimal set of standards and the concept of lowest common denominator.

Faced with the problem of potential Social Security fraud and continued human rights violations by the Rev. Jim Jones, Congressman Leo Ryan traveled to Guyana to investigate the safety of American civilians living in Jonestown. However, had the government agencies providing information to Ryan been more informed about the origins of Peoples Temple, they might have been better able to protect those susceptible to cult involvement and prevent the fleecing of U.S. citizens and the mass suicides in Guyana. If groups or individuals are allowed to act with impunity and without consequences for their actions, the moral fabric of that society will deteriorate and ultimately cease to exist. In the infamous words of French philosopher Voltaire, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities” (Voltaire 9).

Works Cited

Jonestown: Nightmare in Paradise. Dir. Tim Wolochatiuk. Perf. Stephan Jones. National Geographic Channel. N.p., 2012. Film.

This documentary was found on the National Geographic Channel while I was browsing through television programs. It was a catalyst for choosing this topic and it provided a reliable general source for my research.

It was useful because it included eyewitness testimonials from Jim Jones son, Stephan, several members of the Ryan delegation who survived the Port Kaituma shootings, and several defectors who lived to tell their stories. The source provided a lot of background information about my historical event, but it did not specifically analyze my research question.

Kilduff, Marshall and Phil Tracy. “Inside Peoples Temple.” New West Magazine 1 Aug. 1977: 30-38. Print.

This periodical was referenced in several other resources that are cited in this paper. The transcript was found online. It provided reinforced evidence that government officials were suspicious of criminal activity on Jones’ behalf, but remained skeptical and failed to act.

The source is well documented, and it gives insight from a different perspective than that of Jim Jones loyalists. This introduced the potential safety concerns to be investigated in Jonestown, but because it was written within its historical setting, it did not go into great detail as to what would come of the safety concerns.

Knight-Griffin, Chris. Personal interview. 4 Feb. 2013.

This historian is a contributor to the McGehee citation listed below. Email correspondence began my research on the topic, and Knight-Griffin helped pinpoint an alternate solution. He pointed me in the direction of several other resources listed. Specifically, he confirmed the lack of a government conspiracy and Jones’ evident insanity.

Ma’at-Ra, Djehuty. “Jonestown Massacre.” DHealthStore. N.p., 8 Aug. 2012.

This website was found online as a subscript from the McGehee citation listed below. It was used solely to provide factual evidence that members of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project were not technically being held against their will. It is a valuable and credible source because the U.S. Embassy in Guyana conducted the survey referenced.

McGehee, Fielding M., and Rebecca Moore. Alternative Considerations for Jonestown & Peoples Temple. The Jonestown Institute. San Diego State University, 1998.

This database was found online and is loaded with primary source contributions from historians, and former Peoples Temple members. The most efficient use of this information was to compare and contrast alternate considerations for Jim Jones’ establishment of Peoples Temple.

Overall this database lent itself to an abundant amount of additional sources and submissions, including specifics on the relations between U.S. and Guyanese policy. This most sufficiently answered my original research question, because it led me to a wider variety of findings.

Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History.” Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. N.p., n.d. Web.

This webpage was found online during the beginning stages of my research. Its primary function was to serve as a resource that would put the event in its historical context and additionally, into perspective when considering other tragedies like it.

Specifically, this source identified that the great majority of Peoples Temple loyalists did in fact, kill themselves. It further gave reasoning behind this claim, and provided details about the CIA involvement in the events of the Jonestown Massacre as they unfolded.

Reiterman, Tim, and John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: Dutton, 1982. Print.

This book was found at the Meyer Library at MSU. It is rich source of primary information from Jonestown. Reiterman was a member of the Ryan delegation that originally traveled into Jonestown to investigate the allegations against Rev. Jones.

For my research it was most useful in making claims about Jones’ early interest in communism, and how that developed throughout his establishment of Peoples Temple. Though the book was light on government sources, it did support my research topic by analyzing the socialist views of Jim Jones, and how he convinced his congregation to believe these views were revolutionary.

Rosenberg, Jennifer. Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. 20th Century History. About.com, n.d. Web.

This information was found online at a credible website, “about.com,” often used by researchers to gain general knowledge. When analyzing the information this source offered, I specifically focused on Jim Jones’ infatuation with the spiritual healing process, and his future drug abuse, power, and paranoia.

This source did help to answer my original research question when developing my alternate solution, because it explained the origins of the People’s Temple in greater depth.

Scheeres, Julia. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown. New York: Free, 2011. Print.

This book was found at the Meyer Library at MSU. The information in the book was written in an obscure perspective; however, the research conducted from this source evaluated Jones as an integrationist and civil rights advocate during the 1960s and 1970s.

The source established a vivid contrast between Jones as an authoritarian and Jones as a humanitarian. The source was used very minimally throughout the rest of the research paper.

Steel, Fiona. Jonestown Massacre: A ‘Reason’ to Die. TruTV.com, n.d.

This website was found online and was used to investigate the details of U.S. State Department’s decision to send Congressman Leo Ryan and his delegation into Jonestown. The Congressman’s investigation was the only viewpoint this source focused on, which made it very easy to obtain detailed information pertaining to his visit.

This source was useful in addressing and researching the United States solutions to the problem. Ultimately, it makes inferences about the Ryan delegation visit and how it led to the massacre.

Voltaire, and David Claparède. Questions Sur Les Miracles: à Monsieur Le Professeur Cl….. Genève: n.p., 1765. Print.

This book was used to research minimal background information concerning religion and spirituality. The only use for it in my research paper was to conclude with Voltaire’s quote, which dramatically emphasizes the tragedy in its entirety. In similar contexts, the massacre is compared to similar tragedies and Jones is compared to similar authoritarians (e.g., Adolf Hitler, Karl Marx, etc.)

(At the time he wrote this article, Riley de Leon was a high school senior at Greenwood Laboratory School in Springfield, Missouri.)

Originally posted on October 13th, 2013.

Last modified on November 13th, 2018.
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