Reflections on Jonestown:
Conspiracy Theories or Inept Record Keeping?

by Edward Cromarty and Simone Elias

Many writers who have explored the questions that Jonestown offers may attest to the complexity in distinguishing the often-blurred line between historical authenticity and the illusions of deceptive narratives. This may lead us to ask, where does the responsibility reside for integrity in recording and portraying the events that occurred at Jonestown? The press? The government? Researchers? As members of our society, all of these stakeholders share an important duty – and at the very least as an ethical obligation – to place honest reporting of factual details above sales statistics for the sake of our societal memory.

Moral Obligation to Society

Gaining access to artifacts and factual information about the events of Jonestown is a moral obligation not only to our generation, but also to future generations. Profit-oriented media too often blurs the line between historical reality and fiction. While much of the ethical responsibility for clarity falls upon the government and military organizations responsible for maintaining records of the aftermath of Jonestown, some responsibility for accuracy falls on the integrity of researchers to conduct and relay valid information. The press also shares an important duty to place honest reporting of factual details. All have an obligation to consider new views based on valid interpretation of available data that differentiate from the norm. It is only through consideration of unspoken viewpoints that new information about the aftermath of Jonestown will come into public scrutiny.

The Jonestown Institute has conducted dedicated research of the many thousands of documents painstakingly acquired through academic and legal methods. Although it has released many documents, the government has not made a full release, through a combination of bureaucratic ineptitude and unwillingness to review its classification decisions, most of which are now almost 40 years old. In short, the government agencies involved have not completely fulfilled their obligation for honesty to the American people, have not maintained an accountable public audit of their activities to the taxpayers, and have limited the academic community in the conduct of valid research. Their inability or refusal to provide access for public review of existing records has encouraged the development of generalizations and false theories about the events that occurred in Jonestown. The resultant propagation of errant thinking has abetted the development of false stereotypes and conspiratorial theories which have stigmatized the families and individuals who experienced the events, and prejudiced innocent people in similar circumstances.

Conspiracy Theories or Inept Record Keeping?

In Reconstructing Reality: Conspiracy Theories about Jonestown (2002), Rebecca Moore provides an intricate discussion of conspiracy theories and how they have influenced public perspectives of Jonestown. It is important to be aware of the complex nature of social stimuli when analyzing the happenings of Jonestown. Multiple truths, which may have significant social meaning, do not imply connection to a historical event such as Jonestown. Maintaining validity in research when interpreting social events involves the support of verifiable details.

Instead of a conspiratorial agenda, government mishandling of documentation and materials relating to Jonestown is more likely the result of multiple factors that include bureaucratic negligence and inept record keeping. As the institutional memory of the contents of the Temple documents fades with the attrition of agency Freedom of Information caseworkers, a new generation of inexperienced and disinterested replacements have little interest in searching the voluminous set of records. But this is not an excuse – either morally, or even under the provisions of the law – to alter, misrepresent, or restrict public access to the documentation of the events or details of the investigation in the aftermath of Jonestown. Uncensored release of government records would allow for detailed analysis by scholars that could possibly produce valid theory and help to alleviate misrepresentation of these events.

The Value of Jonestown Research

Three examples that are of value to Jonestown research, but are often misconstrued due to lack of information by conspiracy theorists are described below.

The first example involves the Guyanese government, which had a stake in the progress of Jonestown. Jim Jones had a somewhat tempestuous relationship with the Guyanese government. The land surrounding the Jonestown region had vast resource potential. Corporations desiring to mine the region for gold, silver, diamonds, bauxite, oil, and other minerals were potential exploration partners with the Guyanese government. Jonestown’s location in the heart of the Guiana Shield and the Greenstone Belt in the disputed Essequibo region bordering Venezuela made the land a desirable long-term investment. Existence of these minerals is implied in section 10 of the Jonestown Land Lease with the Guyanese Government, which denied the mineral rights to “any gold, silver, or other metals, minerals, ores, bauxite, rock, gems or precious stones, coal, mineral oil or radio-active minerals in or under the land leased” to the agricultural project. Instead, the lease conditions imposed on the Jonestown community required beneficial occupation and cultivation of 20% (852 acres) of the 3,852 acres of land within two years and a continued annual 10% increase in cultivation for each of the next five years, to the satisfaction of the Guyanese Commissioner. Even if the agricultural project had fulfilled the quotas outlined in the lease, such strict standards based on quantity and time may have caused tension and helped explain some of the underlying stress and limitations encountered in managing the community. This example may involve an inflexible lease based on quantitative standards, which could have been renegotiated in the future, but most likely did not involve a government plot to disenfranchise the agricultural commune.

The second example questions the positioning of Richard Dwyer, the Deputy Chief of Mission to the US Embassy who was wounded at the Poet Kaituma airstrip during the attack on Rep. Leo Ryan. Although the US embassy shared building space with the CIA station in Georgetown, this does not imply that either the embassy and/or the CIA was involved in a conspiracy, only that an embassy representative was wounded on the runway. The allegations of abuse in the agricultural project and negotiations for relocation to the USSR or Cuba by the community may have been of concern to the embassy. It is possible that the events in Jonestown were being monitored by the embassy particularly during the Ryan visit. Nevertheless, observing an event is very different than a conspiracy to dictate or even influence its outcome.

The third example considers conspiratorial claims regarding government projects, such as the MK-ULTRA mind control experiments. While these programs did exist, Jonestown was not a likely candidate to have been part of such a program. Rather, Peoples Temple would more likely have been subjected to surveillance, either by the CIA, or by any of a number of other intelligence-gathering agencies, such as the FBI, NSA, or IRS. The FBI’s COINTELPRO program of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, was tasked with covert operations of anti-American activities from right and left wing groups as diverse as ordinary citizens, civil rights groups, anti-war groups, extremist movements, the Socialist Workers and Communist Parties. Even if the program survived – or was reconstituted in another form – after formally discontinuing in 1971, there is no evidence that Peoples Temple was ever under its scrutiny.

Conclusion

It is possible that the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was under surveillance by one or more government agencies, but this does not imply there was a conspiracy to destroy the project or to cover up evidence of such a conspiracy. These theories – and there are many of them – have one thing in common: they all lack the complexity inherent in valid social research and interpretation. The government’s lack of cooperation in releasing documentation has been counterproductive and caused a lack of information which may propagate falsehoods and prejudices. This promulgates intolerance against alternative thought and lifestyles in modern society and is a disservice to the memory of the innocent people who perished in Jonestown. It is logical that a practical manner of clearing up misunderstandings would involve government release of all documentation relating to Peoples Temple and the Jonestown community. Only with the release of the uncensored documentation can falsehoods be prevented and a just conclusion be obtained.

References

ACLU. More about spying. Accessed May 31, 2017.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. COINTELPRO. Accessed May 31, 2017.

Guyana Land Lease (Text). Accessed May 30, 2017.

Rebecca Moore (2002). Reconstructing reality: Conspiracy Theories about Jonestown. Accessed May 30, 2017.

(Edward Cromarty is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His complete collection of articles is hereHe can be reached at edwardcromarty@hotmail.com.

(Simone Elias earned a doctorate in Organizational Leadership Studies from Northeastern University. During her doctoral studies, she was awarded the Academic Excellence Award at the doctoral level, and was the recipient of the International New Directions in the Humanities Graduate Scholar Award. She actively participates in advisory boards, and is an experienced translator and interpreter. She can be reached at: elias.s@alumni.neu.edu.)

Originally posted on October 1st, 2017.

Last modified on May 18th, 2020.
Skip to main content