In order to discuss the possible external sources responsible for the Jonestown Massacre, we must understand why Jones ordered the mass suicide of 914 of his members and the assassination of four others. This is a difficult question to answer as Jones was not in the best mental state, and his actions had become unpredictable. In addition, Jones frequently lied to his followers so any justification made in the “death tape” – an audio recording of the mass suicide – cannot be held as full proof. However, it is clear that Jones and many members of his community felt trapped, that this was the only option. This is due to his paranoia and propaganda that insisted that the US and Guyanese governments and the media were involved in a conspiracy to destroy them – including by force – and that Leo Ryan’s assassination would be used as the reasoning for such an attack.
Throughout the world, but especially the United States, the media has the power to influence public opinion. Therefore, the media’s representation of Peoples Temple had the capability to negatively affect the outside world.
The issue I will discuss is whether, by negligence, intention or mistake, the media encouraged or legitimised Jones which increased the recruitment of potential members and their positive perception in government agencies. I will also investigate whether the negative media coverage increased his anger and paranoia that triggered the Jonestown Massacre.
The Ukiah Daily Journal
When Peoples Temple migrated to Redwood Valley, California in the summer of 1965, they gained immediate attention from the local newspaper, the Ukiah Daily Journal. This is significant in the history of Peoples Temple, as the newspaper was the group’s first major media contact. City editor Dan McKee sent reporters to look into this new church and their members, fearing they would stir up trouble in their conservative community. However, Jones was quickly informed, and only days into the investigation, Jones stormed into the offices and spoke with the publisher and executive editor. Although what was said is unknown, McKee recalls that after the meeting, the bosses informed the Journal that no investigation would take place. In fact, Peoples Temple would place articles in the paper about Temple ideology and activities, with no editing or input from the Journal. Essentially, they gave Peoples Temple a long-lasting, steady and free advertising platform for the group’s propaganda. Many of the articles were trivial, such as a story about Jones taking some stray dogs home, but they kept Jones in the public eye.
Furthermore, the Ukiah Daily Journal fed information they gathered back to Peoples Temple. When a journalist, Lester Kinsolving, contacted the Journal to ask what they knew about Peoples Temple, someone in the Ukiah paper informed the Temple of the investigation. Dozens of letters from Peoples Temple members praising Jones were sent to Kinsolving’s newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, as was the standard response to Temple opponents. This intrusion in another newspaper’s investigation gave Peoples Temple the chance to react and hide any illicit activities. What the overly-positive coverage of Jones and the interference in another investigation reveals is that the Journal was too heavily influenced by Jones. In that way, the Ukiah Daily Journal set the stage for Jones’ outlook on political life and his relationship with the larger media in San Francisco, as he believed he could bribe, threaten or persuade media outlets in order to manipulate coverage of his group. It therefore must take some minor responsibility for allowing the group to grow.
Jones also used personal relationships to manipulate people, Due to his charm and power, many people were taken in by him. When the Temple first arrived in Redwood Valley, Jones invited George Hunter, the Managing Editor of the Journal, and his wife, Kathy Hunter, a journalist for the same newspaper, to dinner. Kathy Hunter wrote several favourable stories, including “Ukiah Welcomes New Citizens to Community.” This was a perfect piece of public relations, especially as the writer’s connection with the editor gave the article status and authority. However, she was not infatuated or obsessed with Jones, as many Temple members became, when horrific allegations began to surface from Guyana. During her investigative trip to Guyana, Kathy Hunter was harassed and threatened, including being surrounded by Temple members on the street and being told in an anonymous phone call that her hotel was laced with bombs. When she returned home two weeks later, her story appeared in California newspapers, and her bravery helped attract media attention to Jones’ crimes. Kathy’s praising articles were all true – if exaggerated – and they were unaware of the terror inside the Temple, only wanting to support a local church that was regularly being verbally abused by the residents of Redwood Valley. Their actions had minor unintentional consequences for the future of Peoples Temple and thus they cannot be held responsible for any aspect the Jonestown Massacre.
Jones’ main focus and purpose for influencing the Ukiah Daily Journal is debatable. Several local citizens of Redwood Valley joining Peoples Temple were no doubt intrigued by the Journal’s articles and advertisements. However, it is unlikely Jones was using it solely to evangelise people into his church, as this would have been, on the whole, very difficult in Redwood Valley. The church was a socialist and racially integrated community which wouldn’t appeal to the community. Redwood Valley was extremely conservative and racism plagued the area. The articles had greater impact in reassuring those outside Redwood Valley in areas with more liberal views and targets for recruitment (San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles). Therefore, by printing positive media and giving the Temple a platform, the Journal gave Jones the ability to use the newspaper to further other relationships. For example, when trying to establish a presence among the San Francisco African American churches in the early 70s, Temple members gave out packets of information about their church to the leaders of the congregations. These packets included press clippings from the Journal. This gave Peoples Temple status and legitimacy, as the reader would be unaware of Jones’ illicit influence in the newspaper, and therefore increased recruitment and their growing presence in California that would give them the money and power to control their members.
While many of actions taken by the Journal were journalistically questionable, the small size of the local newspaper meant that it didn’t directly affect much outside Ukiah. However, it set a precedent for Jones’ manipulative practices, and it is possible that if they hadn’t succumbed, Jones wouldn’t have tried to influence the media in San Francisco. His attempts to control the media succeeded on several occasions, and when it did not, the damaged relationship between the Jones and the media caused him to act rashly, as occurred after the publication of the New West article. The Ukiah Daily Journal must acknowledge minor accountability, as their positive stories attracted others into the church and their weakness in allowing Jones to influence their reporting inflated Jones’ ego and ability to control the media.
The Kinsolving Series
The first major scandal concerning the Peoples Temple’s representation in the press formed a negative relationship for future involvements with the media. It was an eight-part series of articles written by Lester Kinsolving, an ordained Episcopal priest and religion editor for the San Francisco Examiner. The first instalment – published in September 1972 – revealed the staged healings, illicit financial dealings, and the armed guards patrolling the Temple grounds. Three more instalments were published in the next three days. The paper’s decision to publish Kinsolving’s articles as a series gave Jones time to react. In two demonstrations at the Examiner building – 150 people on the first day and 200 on the second – Peoples Temple protested against the articles. Kinsolving appeared in front of the building during the demonstrations and mocked the members, giving Jones ammunition for his charge of the media’s aggression which he could use as propaganda and perpetuating the lie to himself. Jones’ suspicion and hatred of journalists led to an increased paranoia, culminating in his response to the visiting reporters in 1978.
Another influential event during this series was that the Examiner abandoned the series after legal pressure. Their lawyers recommended this due to: the threats of a lawsuit, Kinsolving’s immature behaviour in mocking Temple members, and the fact that Kinsolving was a religion correspondent who didn’t have the expertise to report on the second half of the series (the legal and financial aspects). These four articles delved deep into Jones’ illegal activities, but were poorly sourced and unverified. In fact, many of the points in the first four articles were also false or misrepresented: for example, focusing on Jones calling himself Prophet, which he did not. These errors strengthened the Temple’s argument that the article was libellous and further angered Peoples Temple, proving to them that journalists could not be trusted. At first, the remainder of the Temple investigation was postponed only in order to verify accusations and interview Jones later that month. But this interview revealed Jones’ intelligence, and the executives and lawyers realised he was a serious threat towards the newspaper.
Kinsolving’s negative reputation with the press also weakened his arguments. In 1971, the year before the story, Time magazine called Kinsolving an “ecclesiastical curmudgeon.” As the evidence shows, Temple operatives researched everything about their opponents in order to destroy them, but their research into his reputation also reinforced the Temple opinion that Kinsolving had a personal vendetta against Jones, due to his religious beliefs. As journalists attack other journalists, they ignore the real issues and allow more negative attention to fall towards the reporters who will always be despised by those they are investigating. Time may have thereby damaged a reporter’s image and therefore all of his later stories, including this one.
Elsewhere in San Francisco, other newspapers not involved in the Kinsolving series didn’t take a stance against the Temple and Jones, even though it was clear he was threatening the media as a whole, by sending a chain of terror throughout the senior management. In the months following the exposé and embarrassing events revealing the Temple’s power over the media, Jones tried to reinstate himself as an advocate for the free press and sent thousands of dollars in donations to various newspapers in support of them. To the Examiner’s credit, they returned the $500, but their competitor, the San Francisco Chronicle accepted the donation, leading to Representative George Brown praising Peoples Temple in the Congressional Record, improving their status in the city. The Chronicle should have firmly refused a donation from someone infamous for his sway over the media as they allowed Jones influence to grow.
New West Article
Jones’ paranoia and fear reached its peak in 1977 due to a very damning article in New West magazine. Afraid that the horrible accusations of abuse, corruption and other illegal activities would cause American attention to turn against him, Jones organised a mass exodus of between 500 and 600 Peoples Temple members, including himself, to Guyana. The hope was that he would escape the jurisdiction of the United States. If he hadn’t fled, the mass suicide would have been much more difficult to carry out, their isolation in the jungle allowing them to escape government eyes. Therefore, the New West article is clearly a turning point, but the debate is whether the writers and publishers handled it with enough sensitivity and caution to try and avoid such a situation.
The article, headlined Inside Peoples Temple, and written by Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy was published in New West magazine. It included interviews from ex-members and therefore was validated, unlike many of the claims from the Kinsolving series, so Jones was less likely to feel wrongly attacked and defensive. However, the accuracy of the piece is what terrified Jones into self-imposed exile, although Kilduff and Tracy can hardly be condemned for being truthful. Nevertheless, it has been suggested that the magazine wasn’t focused on reporting truths, but instead to unseat George Moscone, the liberal mayor of San Francisco and friend of Jones, as the article focuses heavily on politicians who visited the church, especially Democrats. New West was a conservative magazine, and an election was approaching at the time of publishing. Although there is little else to verify this accusation, its effect would be to invalidate the rest of the article or suggest that they knew Jones’ reaction would be to flee. It appears that they were merely suspicious of the supporting politicians, such as State Assemblyman Willie Brown, who believed if you wanted to win elections in San Francisco in the mid-70s, “forget it without Jones.” However, this is more of an issue with the government than the media.
The main issue is why this information was printed to allow Jones to protect himself before the backlash hit and not sent to the police. The optimist would say that, as detailed in the article, Jones’ friendship with the District Attorney and the Chief of Police in San Francisco led Kilduff and Tracy to believe corruption would squash the case. Nevertheless, their focus was on politicians rather than law enforcement, and if they suspected a full-scale web of corruption, they should have highlighted that in their article. The cynic would simply say that it was printed in order to sell magazines. However, the end of the piece recommended an investigation into Peoples Temple. The article’s embarrassing exposure of government agencies involved would encourage them to act, if the article was widely read and public opinion fell against Jones. This strategy may be more useful than simply bringing the interviews they conducted to the attention of the police. This is especially worth considering, if ex-members like Grace Stoen and Elmer and Deanna Mertle who were interviewed for the article were willing to speak to a newspaper they have more than likely already spoken to the authorities, and therefore it is presumed that it was to no avail.
Although a subtler approach may have been wiser, considering Jones’ negative relationship with the media in the past, I believe that Kilduff and Tracy had innocent intentions and that the opinion of their magazine didn’t affect their reporting, as the focus was on the victims rather than the politicians. However, a rash and paranoid reaction from Jones was inevitable, as he had gone to the lengths of harassing, threatening and bribing the Examiner when the Temple felt threatened, so the two journalists cannot have been surprised that Jones fled. Despite this, there was little indication that the Temple was planning a ritual suicide before the affidavit of Deborah Layton Blakey, which I will discuss later. Also, it is unclear whether even the members knew it was a possibility. Therefore, neither Kilduff, Tracy, nor Kinsolving can be blamed or held wholly responsible for the events that followed their articles, as they didn’t have the information on mass suicide rehearsal needed to act with the appropriate caution.
NBC Nightly News
In 1978, a documentary on Jonestown and Peoples Temple made by NBC was cancelled at the last minute. The shocking revelations and evidence on the film was so damaging it could have rallied the public support to have prevented the Massacre.
Patricia Lynch was a three-time Emmy award winning producer who was running the Peoples Temple documentary. However, at the time, NBC was undergoing major changes: a new corporate president, Fred Silverman, was appointed. He was an entertainer who, according to Lynch, “couldn’t care less about news.” Therefore, the NBC Nightly Newsexecutive producer Joe Angotti was hesitant to approach Silverman and insist the studio focus on her investigation. Silverman’s ignorance and denial of real news ricocheted throughout the company and influenced all of the events following his instalment.
Furthermore, earlier in the year, Lynch had been inquiring into the actions of Synanon, a group with a history of violence. During the investigation, members of that group sent hundreds of physical and legal threats. After being advised against continuing by their lawyers, and fearing Silverman’s wrath, NBC cancelled the production. This proves that NBC was willing to give into pressure and were influenced by outside opinion and not reporting subjectively, denying citizens the information they needed.
After this incident, the NBC executives were hyper aware of any activity that could lead to a lawsuit and were therefore extremely hesitant to do stories similar to Synanon. It was therefore the worst time for Lynch to begin investigating Peoples Temple. Fortunately, after pressure from Lynch, they reluctantly reconsidered their decision. In October 1978, Lynch insisted the series air quickly, to encourage the government to give Congressman Leo Ryan official protection during his trip to Guyana. In mid-October, Lynch’s story was cut, although the trip was still going ahead. Access to all the information was cut off under the instructions of Silverman. Therefore, the story never aired before the visit – which is ludicrous considering the scale of the trip – suggesting that they were only doing it to humour Lynch. They didn’t seem concerned with reporting current affairs. It is very likely that if the story had been broadcast and well-received – which is likely, considering Lynch’s three Emmys – the government would have felt the pressure to give Ryan the official protection that many had requested and advised.
Attitude of NBC
At this point, everyone working on the story knew, or at least had access to, information about the physical abuse, presence of weapons and suicide drills, so Lynch understood that a response of mass suicide if Jones was exposed was a definite possibility. However, in Lynch’s opinion, she was ignored because she was female, and Angotti, “looked at [her] as if [she] was just another hysterical woman going through her period.” Furthermore, Lynch believed that none of the reporters in the Ryan party appreciated the danger of the investigation and ignored her warnings. The reporters felt they were safe due to Ryan’s presence and status as a congressman; in turn, Ryan felt he was protected by the media. This shows that communication between the two groups supposedly working together was poor and cost people their lives. The self-confidence not to seek government protection was caused by naivety. With proper protection for Ryan, Jones might have had second thoughts about murdering the congressman and then ordering the suicides.
It is interesting to note Lynch’s absence from the media delegation. Due to her extensive knowledge on Peoples Temple and her Emmy for a previous documentary, she would have been an obvious choice to accompany Ryan to Guyana. However, the network chose Don Harris, who had a reputation for being stubborn, over-confident and unable to take criticism or editorial changes. Harris didn’t return Lynch’s phone calls offering advice, neither did he watch the footage she had gathered. His ignorance entering Jonestown cannot have helped the relationship between the media and the Temple. At one point during the visit, Harris was handed a note by two Temple members, asking for help to leave. At first, Harris didn’t inform Ryan or the reporters from other news outlets, hoping for a scoop, and it was only when a member of the NBC crew let it slip that word got around. While Harris’ errors didn’t directly affect the trip, it clearly shows his attitude of prioritising the story over the well-being of the settlers.
Most importantly, Don Harris conducted a one-on-one interview with Jones, despite being warned not to. Unfortunately, NBC and the FBI have these tapes – which aren’t publicly accessible – but according to Lynch, who listened to them before they became classified, it was an unorthodox “take no prisoners” interview. She also claimed Harris was an “irresponsible, poorly informed reporter, breaking news rules.” I believe the interview was one of the final triggers for Jones’ anger that led to the murders which would occur only a few hours later.
These events at NBC were catastrophic. Lynch firmly believes they had the opportunity to prevent the Massacre, as do Concerned Relative Steven Katsaris, and NBC journalists Jim Siegelman and freelancer Gordon Lindsay. I agree, as during these last months, Jones was at his most vulnerable, impulsive and impressionable. Such an investigation should have been delicately handled, with the visiting reporters being given all the information, as Lindsay claims, “there was no aspect of the tragedy not known to NBC News.” NBC disregarded this, used the story when beneficial to them, and dropped it when things became difficult. The concealing of the three hours of tapes and videos collected in November 1978 in Guyana suggests that NBC was fully aware of its embarrassing behaviour.
In conclusion, the media was put in a difficult position and struggled to objectively report on a contentious and problematic affair. However, that does not excuse any mistakes. Therefore NBC must be held highly accountable, while the New West writers are moderately responsible, and the Ukiah Daily Journal and Kinsolving series had a smaller effect.
The US Government
For the entirety of Peoples Temple’s existence, the members had been American citizens, even as residents of Guyana. Therefore, the US government had a responsibility to protect Peoples Temple as an establishment, as it was recognised as a religion, but more importantly, to protect the individuals inside the church. Any deviation from this duty must be acknowledged.
At its height in San Francisco, around the mid-1970s, Peoples Temple’s growing strength began to attract the positive attention of several politicians. Their friendship and association would give Jones status and power in California.
George Moscone, who was running for mayor of San Francisco in 1975, was a liberal Democrat and therefore a prime target for Jones. Moscone had entered the political ladder through his friendship with State Assemblyman Willie Brown and members of the House of Representatives, John and Phil Burton. Getting into politics through connections set a behavioural trend for Moscone, who understood the importance of a large network of influence. He took this attitude in his approach to Peoples Temple.
Jones boasted a congregation of 20,000. The truth of this is unclear but the number is estimated more at 3000. However, that didn’t matter, as Moscone believed Jones had a huge proportion of the San Francisco voting population, and indeed, every member of Peoples Temple was required to register and vote. Moscone was a radical liberal at that time, and the straight, white middle-class were aggressively opposed to him, while the African American residents and growing gay community were pro-Moscone. His opponent, John Barbagelata, was a fierce conservative, aggressively opposed to the new leftist counterculture of San Francisco. As the city was only just beginning to establish itself as a liberal safe haven, Barbagelata had an almost equal number of supporters as Moscone.
The equal division between the two sides in San Francisco promised a close election, and every vote counted. More than 20,000 campaigners as well as voters would be vital in Moscone’s ambitions, and he felt the (seemingly) law-abiding nature of the Temple wouldn’t alienate the conservatives. Eager to become a political force and celebrity in San Francisco, Jones aided Moscone with campaigning, and all Peoples Temple members voted for him. On 11 December 1975, Moscone won the election, but only by 4,270 votes. Therefore, as he believed in Jones’ large influence and congregation, Moscone called Jones on 16 December, thanking him, saying Peoples Temple had won him the election. Inflating Jones’ ego never had good consequences, and such constant reinforcement throughout his life led him to believe entirely in his own decisions, including that of ordering a mass suicide. More importantly, it put Moscone in Jones’ favour until Moscone gave him a political position.
On 18 October 1976, Jones was appointed to the Housing Authority and he accepted. In theory, it was a less high-profile position than when he was a member of the Human Rights Commission in Indianapolis.However, Jones knew that, although there had been great progress for racial and sexual minorities and low-income citizens, there had been no improvement on where these people could live. From his first appointment, he brought in an entourage of Temple members to clap and cheer him on. He even brought Temple bodyguards to heighten the tension. To his credit, Jones did achieve great things, including voting to use $1 million in federal funds to acquire a dilapidated building (that housed impoverished citizens) that was due to be razed. Jones was a skilled and suitable fit for the Housing Authority, although Moscone’s appointment of him was not based on merit, but on pressure and debt. Furthermore, when people began questioning the appointment, Willie Brown – the strongest political ally of Peoples Temple – introduced legislation that disabled the Board of Supervisors from altering appointments in order to protect Jones’ position. This was a very undemocratic move and reflected Brown and Moscone’s unwavering trust in Jones that would allow him to run amok, even during the investigations into his church that began in 1977, as Moscone publicly defended him. This would, in turn, discourage newspapers from reporting on Jones as San Francisco adored their liberal Mayor Moscone.
By the end of 1977, as the ties between Moscone and Jones have been weakened due to the Temple relocation to Guyana and Jones resigning from his positions, the mayor would have had little effect on the last year of the group and the major turning points that led to the mass suicide. However, Moscone allowed Peoples Temple to not only survive during his years in San Francisco, but thrive, including a massive amount of recruiting that arose from Jones’ public position and government support. Therefore, Moscone must be held partly responsible for the Jonestown Massacre, as his political ambition allowed their illicit activities to continue and grow.
US Government Agency Investigations
During US government involvement in the Jonestown tragedy, two legal constraints severely hindered many agencies. The First Amendment gave Peoples Temple religious freedom, and any aggressive or persistent investigation could be seen to be opposed to this right. In addition, the recently-passed Privacy Act protected Americans against unwarranted collection of personal information. These two laws will reappear throughout my discussion.
Once in Guyana, Jones attracted the attention of two US government agencies that launched official investigations into Peoples Temple: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and US Customs. Ultimately, the investigations amounted to nothing, even though their rules were being broken. In my opinion, their lax approach is reflective of the attitude that I believe was present at the time towards an African American socialist group in South America. It was just less of a priority.
In February 1977, US Customs began investigating claims that 170 weapons had been smuggled out of the United States and into Jonestown. By August 1977, US Customs was monitoring ports in New Orleans, Houston and Miami. On August 29th, Customs agents searched a shipment heading to Jonestown but found nothing. However, only one of the ninety crates was searched, and the investigation was terminated in September. The guns that slipped through would later be used by Temple members to kill four people at Port Kaituma and threaten more than 900 others into suicide. Therefore, the US Customs neglect significantly affected the events at Jonestown, and it is my belief that, without any weapons of their own, the Jonestown Massacre would never have occurred at that scale (some victims would have been persuaded by Jones’ words alone). US Customs must take heavy responsibility for the deaths, especially considering they knew the allegation centred around weapons. They should have searched more diligently.
Unfortunately, Jones had also been unintentionally tipped off when a man investigating Jonestown, David Conn, mentioned the investigation to Dennis Banks, a Jim Jones supporter. Conn set off the chain of events to follow as he gave Jones time to react to better conceal the weapons. I believe he must accept minor responsibility for the eventual entry of guns into Jonestown.
The Federal Communication Commission
The FCC had a more minor role, with fewer direct consequences, but apathy led to the agency not carrying out its function. While in Jonestown, Jones would communicate with the Temple’s headquarters in San Francisco via short-wave radio. In April 1977, the FCC received numerous complaints from other amateur radio operators that the settlement was not complying with agency regulations. The FCC then began monitoring their communications and discovered several violations: failure to give call signs at stated intervals; use of broadcasts for business; and transmitting deceptive or false call signs. Each time the FCC sent a series of violation letters to Jonestown, the registered operator there would reassure the FCC that the issues would be resolved. At one point, the Jonestown operator apologised and turned in his license, but the replacing operator continued to break the regulations. Despite this, no legal action was taken.
The San Francisco office of the FCC sent the file on Peoples Temple to agency headquarters, recommending that the license be revoked, but Washington believed there was insufficient evidence and therefore didn’t act on the advice. Although I have a limited knowledgeof the legal proceedings of the FCC as the agency monitored the transmissions, it seems likely that, over time, they would have been able to gather the evidence required that Peoples Temple was frequently violating FCC regulations.
When Jones discovered the US Customs investigation from Dennis Banks, he quickly began using codes when asking for supplies and weapons from the San Francisco headquarters. In August 1977, Jones transmitted a message that, “I want you to go the Bible Exchange at Second and Mission.” He then detailed what to pick up. Being registered as a Christian group, this seems relatively innocent. However, Bible was his code for gun. To make matters worse, the FCC was, at this point, monitoring all radio communications from Jones, and a quick fact check would have revealed the only exchange on Second was a gun exchange. Furthermore, several days later, Jones sent an angrier message: “For God’s sake, send me ten copies of the book and I’ll review it.” In my opinion, with this wording, plus the fact that the FCC is meant to be studying every word of the messages (using code is strictly against their rules), clearly something illicit was occurring. It is surprising and disappointing that the FCC didn’t spot an obvious clue.
On the surface, it appears that the radio transmissions would be rather insignificant to the Massacre. However, the transmissions allowed Jones to send instructions to the San Francisco Temple that included sending of weapons and harassment of opponents. The constant connection to the America gave them an advantage against the US government, as the difficulty of communication between the State Department based in Washington and the Embassy based in Guyana weakened, damaged and slowed the Peoples Temple case, whereas Jones had no such issue between the two countries. Therefore, the FCC’s inability to assemble a case against Peoples Temple strengthened the group; they must be held moderately responsible for the use of weapons to enforce the mass suicide at Jonestown.
The Mishandling or Misunderstanding of Information
During the Peoples Temple case, none of the US government officials had training to understand Jones’ deteriorating mental state, which led many officials to disregard unusual accusations, such as public beatings and mass suicide. Neither did they understand the importance or nuance in the information that was being provided.
There was also an attitude within the State Department and Embassy that allegations from victims were not strong enough pieces of evidence, and that only official reports, such as the Consul visiting Jonestown, could be used as evidence. Furthermore, the Guyanese government, which the United States was encouraging to intervene, clearly stated they would only act with that sort of official evidence.
Therefore, the Blakey Affidavit, written by former member Deborah Layton Blakey, wasn’t given the attention it deserved, despite the fact it detailed almost all the illicit and illegal activities that would be discovered after the tragedy. Blakey had defected in May 1978 and signed the affidavit on June 15, 1978. She was a trusted aide to Jones and a Temple financial secretary. This gave her the authority and knowledge of the inner workings of Peoples Temple and should have strengthened her claims in the eyes of the US government.
The Blakey Affidavit was centred around the mass suicide threats and rehearsals. However, as previously mentioned, government officials had no context or understanding of Jones’ mental state and potential for violence, and therefore didn’t take such accusations seriously. The affidavit was repeatedly cited in Concerned Relatives’letters and phone calls to the State Department and the Embassy. Copies had been sent to officials throughout both agencies including Douglas Bennett, the Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs, after its initial signing, and therefore would have been widely accessible. However, no action was taken with the affidavit as evidence. Many of the officials who received it – the Consul, the Welfare and Whereabouts Unit and the ARA/CAR – did not reply or even read it. In addition, when the Consul did meet with the Welfare and Whereabouts Unit to discuss the affidavit, one officer described it as “nonsense.” This reveals the lack of respect given to the allegations, primarily due to the bias in favour of official reports and lack of understanding of Jones’ actions due to his psychological state. The first aspect is frustrating but understandable, if they wanted to remain impartial. However, it was a fatal mistake to neglect the psychological aspect of the case, as having the influence of such an advisor could have helped improve the US government’s prediction of the Jonestown Massacre. Therefore, the US government must be held responsible for not making the effort to understand and investigate the allegations in the Blakey Affidavit.
Consul Richard McCoy became heavily involved in the writing of the Blakey Affidavit but neglected to fulfill his role in spreading its message. He organised Blakey’s departure from Guyana, was the first to hear her accusations and drew up the affidavit. Therefore, he had a responsibility to ensure the information was received by other US government officials. He recommended she contact American law-enforcement agencies, which she did not as I will discuss later. Unaware Blakey had not contacted the law enforcement agencies, McCoy did not do so himself. This is due to his belief that: a second-hand account would be weaker; visiting the Department of Justice would attract attention that could lead to his visits to Jonestown being declared illegal; and that Blakey’s account in person would encourage sympathy and therefore more action. In hindsight, this was a misjudgement, and McCoy should have verified that Blakey had carried out his request. As a result. however, no appropriate investigation was made by these agencies concerning abuse, poor living conditions and suicide threats that were all detailed in her statement. Nevertheless, the Consul had a busy job and responsibilities for many other issues separate from Jonestown to attend to, so it is not a discredit to him. Overall, McCoy’s organisation of the affidavit was very beneficial for the case and a skillful strategy that unfortunately didn’t work. Furthermore, the State Department and Embassy, which both had access to the information from the Blakey Affidavit, didn’t encourage McCoy to visit the law-enforcement agencies. Therefore, he cannot be wholly blamed for this mistake. Hence, McCoy cannot be held significantly responsible for this aspect of the Jonestown Massacre.
The allegations in the affidavit accuse Jones of staging the official visits to Jonestown to reflect the settlement in a positive light. This would invalidate all the official reports from McCoy, that described the settlers as happy and the area as having good living conditions, which the State Department was using as proof to allow them to ignore the pleas of the Concerned Relatives. Properly acknowledging this aspect would completely discredit the reports, and the State Department would have been forced to organise surprise visits. This would put them in legal hot water, as they felt it was against the First Amendment and the Privacy Act, so it appears the State Department chose to believe the information that suited them. This reveals the general view in the department that accounts from officials overrode accounts from first-hand experiencers and victims. This infected the entire Peoples Temple case. It was extremely damaging, and the State Department should be held accountable for their bias against the victims.
The US Embassy
The US Embassy, although they were generally effective and responsive – more so than the State Department – also mishandled aspects of the Peoples Temple case.
In order to monitor the activities in Jonestown, the Embassy organised and promised quarterly visits to the settlement. However, from May to November 1978, there was a six-month gap during which time no government official entered Jonestown. This was due to the closing of the Port Kaituma airstrip in late August and a lack of suitable aircraft at the same time; followed by their agreement with Peoples Temple requests to delay the visits in order to correspond with the arrival of the Peoples Temple lawyer who brought depositions that required the Consul to notarise. By October, there was a shortage of Embassy staff due to a labour conference abroad. These issues, although valid, with proper effort, could have been bypassed. The Embassy should not have given Peoples Temple extra time to prepare, especially considering the Blakey Affidavit had revealed that the visits were orchestrated and a surprise would give a more authentic view of the settlement.
The Embassy visit occurred on 7 November 1978, only eleven days before the Jonestown Massacre. By this time, the discovery that Jones’ mental and physical health was deteriorating was too late. Leo Ryan went into Jonestown a week later without this information. Due to the plethora of legal constraints, the main action and power the Embassy had to offer was these consular visits. Neglecting them for the most tense and destructive months of Jonestown allowed Jones’ paranoia and ego to grow and develop. In this aspect, the Embassy made a significant contribution to the Jonestown Massacre.
In addition, Blakey’s statement made in Guyana – a precursor to the affidavit with very similar information – was not sent by the Embassy to the State Department when it was first written and signed. It was only delivered in November, delaying the time for the State Department to receive it and act upon it. Nevertheless, the State Department appears to have ignored the affidavit, and therefore the Embassy’s decision had little impact on the final events.
Moreover, when the Ryan party visited Guyana and stayed at the Embassy, his aides Jackie Speier and James Schollaert were not given access to the files on the Temple members by the Embassy. It is unclear why this happened, but any extra information could have been useful for a more sensitive and personal approach. Therefore, it was a major mistake of the Embassy to deny access as the knowledge could have made the trip more sensitive, appropriate and focused, perhaps even preventing the triggering of Jones’ paranoia and anger.
The most important moment for the Embassy was Ambassador John Burke’s plea for State Department assistance that fell on deaf ears. As American Ambassador to Guyana and most senior official in the Embassy, Burke was vital to the communication between the two countries, the Embassy and State Department, related to the Peoples Temple case. Throughout 1977 and 1978, the State Department was inundated with information and documents from Peoples Temple, the Concerned Relatives, other US government agencies, and the Government of Guyana. Realising this, Peoples Temple began using the Freedom of Information Act to read and retrieve all documents available to them, to understand the “enemy.” The Freedom of Information Act was relatively new – significantly amended in 1974 – and so there was a limited understanding in the US government of its implications.
Burke believed that practically anything he wrote could be seen by Peoples Temple and tried to avoid being too direct so as to not give the group any clues of their strategy. He also wanted to ensure they were not accused of being too aggressive against a recognised religious group. On 6 June 1978, Burke sent a cable to the State Department that recommended that the US intervene to encourage the Guyanese government to take more control over the settlement and enforce Guyanese laws (including everyday aspects such as health and education). However, it was done so vaguely, with language like “raises a legal question which this mission is not qualified to answer” – that translates as, the Embassy doesn’t have the authority to insist on American intervention, so the State Department must give us permission. The message behind the cable was not understood and no action was taken. Although it was more subtle than usual, a proper consideration of its content would have brought the meaning to light. However, as I will later discuss, the State Department disappointingly gave the task to someone with less experience.
On top of that, when Burke received the disappointing reply, he made no effort to rewrite and clarify his request, despite the fact he was in the State Department soon after. The Crimmins Report – the State Department analysis of its own actions following the Jonestown Massacre – insists that this final decision was the most important and catastrophic throughout the US involvement in Peoples Temple. Although I feel it was a very irresponsible choice, the State Department would have been reluctant to pressure Guyanese intervention into a religious organisation as that could appear as harassment against Peoples Temple and Guyana. Therefore Burke’s decision had less of an impact than it appears.
Burke also poorly handled the six month absence of consular visits. Not once during that period – in fact, during his entire tenure as the Ambassador – did he visit the settlement himself. He feared Jones would use it to his advantage in the child custody case involving John Victor Stoen and would use the trip as anti-American propaganda. These points were valid and Jones had a reputation for such a response. Tim Stoen had become enemy number one after his lawyer, Jeff Haas, visited the settlement. Nevertheless, there was never even a discussion of an ambassadorial visit, and the value of such a visit would have greatly outweighed the risks, especially if it was unknown to Peoples Temple beforehand.
In conclusion, Burke misjudged both the cable and visits but was not acting out of malice or apathy. His excessive caution was partially warranted but greatly restricted his action and, therefore, Burke must take minor responsibility for the Jonestown Massacre, as he may have prevented a faster escalation of tension.
The State Department
The United States Department of State represents the country in international affairs and has more authority and power than the Embassy. However, the State Department, housed in Washington, D.C., was more disconnected from the Peoples Temple case and had less context and cultural understanding of Guyana. Also, it received information about Jonestown later than the Embassy. As with the Embassy, it was vital to the State Department that the two agencies work collaboratively and efficiently.
A petition to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance from Concerned Relatives requesting a full-scale government investigation into Jonestown was not even acknowledged. This further increased the tensions between the government and the Concerned Relatives, as the State Department felt the Concerned Relatives were harassing the government and the Concerned Relatives felt ignored by the government, even suspecting corruption.
During the six month consular hiatus in visits, the State Department gave no encouragement to the Embassy to organise the visits. The gap occurred soon after the Blakey Affidavit, but as it was given little credence, there was no major concern for the settlers. Therefore, the agency is as equally responsible for Jones’ six months of freedom and downward spiralling as the Embassy.
Due to a lack of priority and understanding of the seriousness of the Peoples Temple case, inexperienced people were repeatedly assigned to the task. When the Burke cable was received by the Special Consular Services (SCS), a junior officer who didn’t have the knowledge to understand the nuances of Burke’s plea, drafted the reply. The reply made clear that the State Department and Embassy should not interfere. Later, when Burke recommended the Ryan party travel with a State Department lawyer, the Department only organised legal officers to brief two associates of Ryan on their legal standing in the Guyana. This meant that the delegation was not given the legal authority in Guyana and were dependent on the permission from Jones and the Guyanese government to enter Jonestown. More senior officials would have been better equipped at dealing with the Peoples Temple case and preventing the Jonestown Massacre. Therefore, the State Department is responsible for not handling the case with maximum efficiency and diligence.
The State Department agreed that Guyana should take more control over the Jonestown settlers and treat them as ordinary Guyanese citizens. When they received the cable from Burke, the State Department refused to interfere until a current member – not a defector – spoke out against the Church, or evidence of unlawful activity was found by an official. Both of these could only be gathered through an investigation with visits and interviews with people of Jonestown. The State Department cornered themselves so that they couldn’t act and therefore, in all aspects of the case, chose to be so impartial and cautious that they took no action. This was severely detrimental to the protection of the settlers.
The only major incidence of Department involvement was on 13 October, when the Social Security Administration requested the State Department investigate the alleged mishandling of Social Security checks. However, interviews were to commence in January 1979, two months after the Jonestown Massacre. The investigation was significant as the large proportion of elderly members of Peoples Temple allowed Jones to fund many of his projects by aggressively encouraging these members to donate this money. Without it, Jonestown would have likely fallen apart and Jones would have been forced out. However, the investigation would have been unlikely to change the outcome of the Jonestown Massacre, as feeling threatened by financial issues and fearing the collapse of the Church, Jones would have felt trapped and inevitably ordered a mass suicide.
Furthermore, the State Department received a California court order from Haas, Tim and Grace Stoen’s lawyer in the John Victor Stoen custody case, giving Grace Stoen custody of her child. But the Department took no action to respond to this and request Jones return John Victor to his legal guardians. However, the loss of John Victor would have been a symbolic defeat and would have encouraged more defectors and Concerned Relatives, which in turn would have led Jones to the same outlook of hopelessness for the Church, and therefore a mass suicide. Therefore, these two failures of the State Department would have had little impact on the final events of the Jonestown Massacre.
The Stoen case was both a focus for Jones and the State Department. The Crimmins Report details how “it consumed considerably more than half of the total time and effort devoted,” despite only affecting one member out of nearly a thousand. This was primarily due to the Stoens’ strong presence in Peoples Temple – while they were members – and the Concerned Relatives. In addition, there were suggestions that Jones’ influence in the Guyanese government was causing them to favour Jones in the case. If true, the State Department could have proven corruption and therefore have a legitimate reason to intervene without permission from the Guyanese government. However, this meant information was wrongly perceived as their motivation – to return John Victor to his family – gave them the incorrect perspective. For example, the Blakey Affidavit was originally sent to the State Department as evidence for the Stoen case and thus helps explain why the allegations were only lightly absorbed and acknowledged.
The day before Ryan’s visit to Guyana, the delegation met with the State Department which failed to mention either the account of a high-profile defector named Leon Broussard, or the reports from the recent visit to Jonestown that detailed, primarily, Jones’ declining health. Once again, this is an example of Congressman Ryan being allowed to enter a hostile environment with a complete lack of useful information, increasing the chances of a violent act like the Jonestown Massacre.
Therefore, the State Department’s general involvement was characterised by a lack of enthusiasm for the Peoples Temple case, which never appeared to be a priority to any agency in the Department.
Overall, the most damaging actions for US government were: the backing of the respected politician Moscone as it provided support for Peoples Temple whilst in San Francisco; the lack of psychological expertise as it hindered the absorption and understanding of all information; and the poorly handled US Customs investigation.
Guyana made a deliberate choice to permit the establishment of Jonestown, despite being surrounded in great controversy. Therefore, the Guyanese government will be put under scrutiny to ascertain why they made this decision.
All members of Peoples Temple were subject to Guyanese law. It was the Government of Guyana’s responsibility to enforce its laws – such as regulations on education and medicine – and should not have been an issue for the State Department and Embassy, whose primary role and concern was the protection and safety of the American citizens. In addition, Guyanese courts were responsible for dealing with the Stoen custody case that was a focal point of all the groups involved in the Peoples Temple case.
Therefore, Guyana was heavily involved in the affairs of Peoples Temple and must be questioned on why the mass suicide was not predicted or prevented.
Contemporary Politics and Foreign Relations
In the 1970s, Guyana was in a tumultuous transition period between colonialism and independence. In response to this unstable political climate, Guyana was far too hasty to welcome Peoples Temple in 1974. This was due to a mutually beneficial deal on both sides.
Jones wanted a safe haven, away from the surveillance of the US government and media, whilst trying to prove to his followers that the self-sufficient communal lifestyle was possible. On the other hand, the area in Guyana designated for the settlement, called Guyana Esequiba, was of high strategic importance, due to oil reserves and other minerals.
Unfortunately for Guyana, when Venezuela – which borders Guyana to the west – declared independence from Spain in 1810, they claimed the Guyana Esequiba, which was owned by the British colony of Guyana and consisted over half of Guyanese land. In retaliation, the area was reclaimed by the British in 1899. However, in 1962, the Venezuela once again claimed the region for its minerals. Four years later, in 1966, when Guyana became independent of Great Britain, it lost the support of the British and its ability to defend the contested territory..
In 1974, at the same time Peoples Temple was making its overtures to emigrate to Guyana, Venezuela had 18 times the population and 67 times the GDP of its neighbor. Furthermore, the area, covered with thick jungle, had a small population, mostly of native tribes who wouldn’t necessarily identify as Guyanese. This would make Guyana’s claim to the land more precarious.
In order to keep the Essequibo region, Guyana needed the protection of a country that could rival Venezuela; the US was the perfect choice. The Guyanese government felt that, by permitting Peoples Temple to settle into the highly contested area, they’d have a human shield. As Peoples Temple members were American citizens – and remained as such even whilst living in Guyana – any invasion from the Venezuelans into the Guyana Essequibowould be an attack on Americans, and a retaliation from the United States could be expected. Therefore, the Venezuelans would be much more hesitant to dispute the border, and the Guyanese could keep their land.
In addition, Peoples Temple came highly recommended, with members in political positions (Jones on the San Francisco Housing Commission), a close relationship with Moscone, and letters of recommendation from politicians such as California Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally and First Lady Rosalynn Carter. In 1974, the Government of Guyana was being given far more evidence supporting Peoples Temple than against; this would change over the next four years.
Clearly, the benefits for the Guyanese government were immense. As a result, they were far too quick and eager to permit Peoples Temple to settle in its country, considering all the damning information available if the Guyanese government had been willing to look. Although Guyana was only protecting its own people, it gave Jones the perfect environment to hide – i.e., the jungle – and, in turn, to harm his followers away from the watchful eye of governments and civilization. Thus, Guyana must take a heavy responsibility for embracing Peoples Temple.
In an effort to incorporate Peoples Temple into Guyana in 1974, the government gave the Temple the right to import certain items – personal; construction; and agricultural equipment – all duty free. Furthermore, the government gave Jones the impression that Peoples Temple was being welcomed to their country due to their socialism and racial integration. However, they ignored the fact that Temple leadership was majority white – despite the church membership being around 24% white – this directly opposed to their apparent ideals of racial integration. This is further evidence that the Guyanese government prioritised their foreign policy with Venezuela over their ideology.
The Stoen Case
The Stoen custody case was supposed to be handled by Guyanese courts. Unfortunately, they were unable to properly enforce their rulings or communicate clearly with the US government and the Stoens.
The Stoens’ attorney, Jeff Haas, brought a California court order to Guyana that ordered John Victor Stoen be returned to the United States with Tim and Grace. On 6 September 1977, a brief hearing in the Georgetown courtroom led Justice Aubrey Bishop to order Jones to bring the child to Georgetown in two days to argue his case.
Later that day, Haas flew out to Jonestown with a Guyana Supreme Court marshal to deliver the court order, but a Temple representative told them that Jones had been away for two days. Upon their return to Georgetown, they were told by two immigration officers that they had spoken to Jones that very day. However, the immigration officers refused to fly back to Jonestown with Haas and instead only promised to report the incident. The Guyanese officials missed an opportunity both to catch Jones in his deceit and to simultaneously help a child return to his family and home country.
There are two main reasons that this may have happened. Similar to the US government, there was a lack of importance placed on information available to the Guyanese government, such as the Blakey Affidavit. This caused a decreased sense of urgency regarding Peoples Temple issues amongst many Guyanese officials.
Otherwise, it was self-preservation: Guyanese interference in the Stoen case would likely have appeared biased against Jones, which would anger Peoples Temple. In addition, American involvement in a Guyana court proceeding would be embarrassing for a socialist country that had only recently gained independence. Whatever the reasoning, this decision was extremely damaging to the Stoen case and held it back. Indeed, it had not been resolved by 18 November 1978, and six-year-old John Victor Stoen died in the Massacre. It also led to a focus from the US embassy and State Department on the Stoen case, and not on the Peoples Temple issue as a whole. This clouded the judgment of officials in both countries as they primarily concentrated on evidence for that case.
Even more catastrophically, Haas’ visit was the catalyst for the first White Night, in which Jones falsely told the settlers they were under siege from the Guyanese Defence Force. This allowed Jones to create fear, panic and desperation. Furthermore, it was the first practise run of mass suicide and therefore seeded the idea into the followers’ heads, making them more susceptible during the Jonestown Massacre. Jones’ panicked response was triggered by the increased pressure from Guyanese courts that Haas had brought.
A return visit to Jonestown that day could have stopped the White Night from spiralling out of control, reduced the members’ belief in mass suicide as a revolutionary act, and given the outside world a clearer image of Jones’ madness and unpredictably that was being downgraded in the State Department. It is unclear whether it would have entirely prevented the deaths, but it is unambiguous that more could have been done by these immigration officers to stop it. Therefore, they must take heavy responsibility for the subsequent mass suicide.
Enforcement of Guyanese Laws
The US State Department’s main issue with Guyanese handling of Jonestown was that they weren’t enforcing Guyanese laws on the American citizens, but were rather allowing them to become so isolated from Guyanese life that there were no controls on Jones’ action.
Guyanese law prohibited private schools, and the Education Ministry wanted Jonestown children to be a part of the Guyanese school system and to integrate their schools with Guyanese children and teachers. This would expose Jones’ indoctrination, so Peoples Temple claimed its Jonestown school was at full capacity. When Guyanese Education Minister Vincent Teekah, came to inspect the Jonestown schools in early 1978, Guyana Minister of Foreign Affairs – and Jones ally – Fred Wills, advised Peoples Temple to allow Teekah to feel “as if [Teekah] runs education in Jonestown.” This technique appeased Teekah, and on 8 March 1978, Wills informed Jones that the integration between the Jonestown and Guyana’s school systems was only a technicality. No Guyanese teachers or pupils joined their schools. Wills encouraged and aided in staging a government inspection.
Whether or not someone agrees with your political views, it is unprincipled to have bias to protect them from legal scrutiny. If Jonestown and the rest of Guyana had become more connected, an investigation would have been much easier, as people meeting and interacting with Peoples Temple members wouldn’t be stooges of Jones, and any statements they made would have been much stronger. Defectors statements, such as the Blakey Affidavit, were weakened by the fact that she clearly had an agenda against the church. Nevertheless, Wills is only moderately responsible for the Jonestown Massacre as Peoples Temple knew how to orchestrate a positive official visit, as was done with the Consul’s trips. It is therefore unlikely his warning affected the outcome of the inspection. However, he is another example of an over-eager official, desperate to keep Jones onside and in the country, either to protect his country from invasion or to set an example for socialism to prevent a rebellion against the new system.
Officials were too lenient in enforcing another aspect of Guyanese law. An extremely important player on Jonestown’s final day was Dr. Larry Schacht. He was the only physician in Jonestown and ordered all the medical supplies, even those for Jones’ drug addiction. Most importantly, however, on Jones’ orders, Schacht ordered one pound of sodium cyanide, enough for 1,800 lethal doses, for only $8.85. It was preventable.
Dr. George Baird, chief medical officer for Guyana, wanted to rescind Schacht’s licence to practice, as Schacht’s only real experience (other than school) was a five-week internship programme. This was not nearly enough to act as the sole monitor of 1,000 malnourished people who were not used to Guyana’s humid climate. Baird kindly and diplomatically suggested that a doctor from nearby Matthews Ridge treat Schacht’s patients, so Schacht could take an internship in Georgetown. Jones refused, as expected, but more importantly, Baird didn’t pursue the issue. Once again, it was naïve not to realise that Jones’ refusal of more appropriate medical treatment for the people he claimed to protect indicated the group was hiding something. Furthermore, no other Guyanese officials stepped in to support Baird’s idea. As the State Department had implied, Jones could roam free from the law. Baird and the rest of the Ministry of Public Health neglected their important responsibilities for their residents. With a proper medical officer, not only would the members suffering from hard labour have been protected, but Jones wouldn’t have had the knowledge or access to acquire such a cheap and lethal method of killing. Guyanese health officials must take a significant responsibility for the Jonestown Massacre.
On the other hand, despite Guyana’s apparent desperation for the establishment of Jonestown, Jones wasn’t given easy access to – or allowed to form a close relationship with – Prime Minister Forbes Burnham as he had expected. They saw each other only on social occasions, and therefore his influence in the Guyanese government was limited. To his advantage, the Temple’s representative for the Guyanese government, Paula Adams, began an affair with the country’s ambassador to the US, Laurence “Bonny” Mann. According to Kit Nascimento, Mann was “a sort of favourite son” to Burnham and that “Bonny could get away with anything” and “took advantage of [Burnham’s] affection.” Mann was in a key position and Adams’ access to him was vital. Jones ordered her to report anything pertaining to Jonestown and search his files and bags whenever she could.
In April 1978, Concerned Relatives wrote a letter titled “Accusation of Human Rights Violations by Rev. James Warren Jones Against Our Children and Relatives at the Peoples Temple Jungle Encampment in Guyana, South America” which essentially gathered all the evidence against Jones into one place. Burnham received a copy, which Jones quickly learned from an inside source. It seems clear that Mann was Jones’ contact, as he had few friends in the Guyanese government. However, caution must be kept as it is currently unverified. Nevertheless, the fact that Jones had anyone prepared to share these secrets reveals the weakness of the Guyanese government in containing their own information. However, this discovery had little effect on Jones’ mental state as he was already immensely paranoid without any evidence. Therefore, Mann’s action had only a minor effect on the Jonestown Massacre.
With all this evidence considered together, it is apparent to me the Guyanese government had the opportunity to prevent the Jonestown Massacre. More scrutiny from the Guyanese government when Peoples Temple first requested a land lease might have led to Jones being rejected and having to remain in the United States. In addition, once the settlement was established, Guyana was lax on enforcing its laws. Although these laws may not have been able to prevent the Massacre, more contact between the Guyanese government and Jonestown to enforce them would have possibly caused evidence of abuse inside the community to surface. The Guyanese government must take significant responsibility for the Jonestown Massacre, as it had a great opportunity to prevent the event.
The Ryan Delegation – The Final Trigger
Without the visit by the Ryan party and Concerned Relatives in November 1978, it is irrefutable that the Jonestown Massacre would not have occurred on that day specifically, as it was, in theory, a response to Jonestown defectors leaving with the congressman. However, there are two questions that could relieve the party of such significant responsibility: Was the mass suicide inevitable and therefore the visit only chose the date; and could the party have visited Jonestown without causing Jones’ paranoid reaction?
Leo Ryan became involved in the Peoples Temple case, before Jones relocated to Guyana, when his friend Sam Houston came to him following the suspicious death of his son, Bob, who had been a member of Peoples Temple. Ryan was also congressman for a district in the Bay Area which was the home of more Temple members. The legislator promised to look into it but his other responsibilities got in the way. This was unfortunate as by the time Ryan visited Jones the members were outside his jurisdiction in Guyana and therefore he had less power. However, it is unsurprising and not unusual that domestic issues in his constituency took priority.
Reputation and Personality
Ryan’s reputation in Congress was a roadblock when he tried to gather support for the mission. Ryan was known for his publicity stunts, including getting himself incarcerated anonymously to investigate prison corruption. According to author Jeff Guinn, he “revelled in the widespread media attention” which lead his peers to joke about the next crazy stunt he would pull. Therefore, many of Ryan’s colleagues viewed his concern about Jonestown as another publicity stunt. This may have influenced the decisions of the other members of the Bay Area congressional delegation to decline when Ryan offered them a place on the trip. Such support may have balanced Ryan’s impulsive nature and forced the State Department to give the party more resources and attention.
On the other hand, Ryan’s publicity stunts were for a good cause and it appears that, on those occasions, he strategically used the media to further his political aims, not for any personal recognition. Therefore, it is difficult to make him responsible for the lack of support for the visit through his poor reputation, in light of the positive intention of these endeavours.
However, once Ryan planned the trip, he revealed his arrogance and naivety. A major issue was Ryan’s attitude. He was very relaxed and had no expectation of any violence occurring. This was due to his status as a congressman that, according to Ryan’s aide Jackie Speier, led him to “[feel] he had nothing to worry about…as if he had some kind of protective shield.” However, the State Department’s lack of official government protection should have led him to further realise the danger and vulnerable position he was in. With this attitude and infamous arrogance, Ryan was not behaving at his most cautious during these sensitive times. For example, when frustrated at Jones’ refusal to allow him into the the Temple’s Georgetown headquarters at Lamaha Gardens, he took it upon himself to climb over the fence in the hope that he could convince the members there to give him access. Instead, he was accused of trespassing and told that the members working there were there of their own free will. Ryan was seen as harassing Peoples Temple – just as Jones had predicted – and harassment was Jones’ major reasoning for mass suicide. As he said in the death tape, “they invaded our privacy, they came into our home, they followed us 6,000 miles away.”
In addition to his almost aggressive determination, Ryan’s decision to include the media and Concerned Relatives on his visit to Jonestown divided the delegation and angered Jones. It was an unusual decision which many disagreed with. The State Department and Embassy resented the media’s presence, and perhaps expecting another stunt from Ryan, had refused to allow them to join the Embassy meeting with Ryan’s delegation. This meant that the Embassy was not prepared, or willing, to debrief the media and Concerned Relatives with the information required to sensitively handle the visit. The Embassy was unaware of the specific individuals in the Concerned Relatives’ delegation – due to Ryan going against their recommendation – and when Sharon Amos, a Temple loyalist at Lamaha Gardens, learned that her ex-husband was in Ryan’s entourage, it “really made her paranoid,” according to Jonestown Massacre survivor Tim Carter. Ryan’s deception heightened tensions between the Embassy and Peoples Temple, further isolating himself from the two groups and making the visit much riskier.
However, while taking this huge risk by including these two groups, Ryan simultaneously disregarded them. Several media members’ visas were rejected and Ryan did nothing to intervene. Ryan and his two staffers were housed in the Embassy while the media and Concerned Relatives stayed at the Pegasus Hotel where their reservations had been mixed up so they had no rooms. The media and Concerned Relatives spent the first day waiting around for Ryan to give them news or instructions, but he never did. It is understandable that he was preoccupied with the Embassy and Jones arguing against the visit, but he shouldn’t have invited them, especially the Concerned Relatives, who didn’t have experience in these situations, if he didn’t think he could handle them. Without proper coordination, the media and Concerned Relatives were all given different information, and they all had different goals for the trip. This divided the delegation and weakened their investigation, thereby increasing the chances of the Jonestown Massacre.
Dismissal of Recommendations and Information
On 15th September 1978, the State Department made two recommendations that Ryan chose not to accept. One was that the congressman exclude any Concerned Relatives from the trip, as the hostility between them and Peoples Temple would increase the tension on this delicate trip. Ryan officially separated himself from the thirteen Concerned Relatives who travelled to Guyana with his delegation on 14th November and weren’t travelling with government protection. However, he clearly supported and encouraged their presence, and it is possible that this was to increase the drama and emotion for the media accompanying him. Jones was furious about the Concerned Relatives’ inclusion and it inevitably heightened the tension and contributed to Jones’ instability during the days leading up to the Jonestown Massacre.
The State Department also recommended a clinical psychologist accompany Ryan to Guyana. This decision by the Department is admirable; it was their first serious consideration of Jones’ mental state. Although Ryan at first agreed, the psychologist he knew personally wasn’t available, so he abandoned the idea. This was a poor decision, especially considering Ryan was reasonably aware of Jones’ immense paranoia. A psychological advisor would have spotted Jones’ visibly damaged mental state – primarily through drug addiction – and ensured that the interviews, such as Don Harris’ intense conversation, would have been handled with sensitivity. Furthermore, such an advisor would have taken more consideration of the feedback from Consul Douglas Ellice that I will discuss further next. The psychologist would have been a gateway to an aspect of the Peoples Temple case that had been completely ignored. As previously mentioned, no other psychology specialists were consulted in the State Department, the Embassy or anywhere in the Guyanese government. That knowledge and advice would have been invaluable in diffusing the situation and understanding Jones’ actions and potential reactions. Therefore, it was extremely irresponsible for Ryan to not seek out another psychological advisor, and it greatly increased the risk of entering Jonestown.
As previously mentioned, Ryan dismissed another major piece of information. Consul Douglas Ellice had made his first visit – the fourth consular visit, and first visit since May – on 7 November 1978, less than two weeks before the mass suicide. Although he found nothing suspicious, and all members reassured him that they were voluntarily remaining in Jonestown, the timing of his visit occurred soon after Jones had had a heart attack. Due to his drug abuse, he was by now close to death. Ellice described Jones’ slurred speech, difficulty spelling, gauze mask, a 105°F temperature and the assistance he needed to stand. This key information revealed Jones’ delirium and separation from reality, and a belief that he had little time left and was perhaps apathetic about life. However, when Ellice approached Ryan whilst the delegation stayed at the Embassy, Ryan dismissed him and didn’t accept the information he had to offer. This was clearly a foolish decision and, regardless of the importance of Ellice’s account, Ryan should have been scrambling for any extra information to try to be fully equipped with every resource available. The misplaced confidence not to do so was detrimental to the trip as, by the time Ryan visited, Jones appeared healthy, although he was not. Therefore, Ryan didn’t understand Jones’ lack of care for life which would have contributed to his decision to order the mass suicide. With such insight, he would have been able to handle the situation with more appropriate and specific care.
In summation, Leo Ryan was a well-meaning Congressman whose vivacious personality and habit of making publicity stunts was detrimental to ensuring the safety of the settlers. Therefore, I believe he was moderately responsible for the Jonestown Massacre.
Formed in August 1977, after the New West article, the Concerned Relatives’ primary focus was the protection of their family members from a violent incident such as the Jonestown Massacre. Unfortunately, they were unable to do so, but the question remains: was it an impossible task, or could the Concerned Relatives have prevented the deaths?
Steven Katsaris was the spokesperson for Concerned Relatives and the father of Maria Katsaris, a prominent figure and one of Jones’ lovers. However, he made a minor and understandable error of judgment when he found himself in a crisis.
In late October 1977, Katsaris became exposed to personal attacks. Maria accused her father of molesting her as a child, which was devastating for Stephen’s reputation as he was the administrator of Trinity School for Emotionally Disturbed Children. With Tim Stoen’s aid, Katsaris attempted to sue Jones for defamation. Although not unwarranted, this lawsuit distracted attention away from the Peoples Temple case. It also made him a clear and public enemy of the Temple, giving Jones a scapegoat that brought the group together in a common hatred of Katsaris. It would have been smarter to have ignored the accusations, as his lawsuit strengthened the bonds and comradery between Peoples Temple members and heightened the tension between the Concerned Relatives and Peoples Temple which led to Jones’ increased paranoia during the Ryan visit. However, Katsaris’ decision to sue may have been a strategic plan to further weaken and expose Jones. In addition, the accusations against him were so damaging it is understandable that he took that action. Therefore, it is unfair to hold Katsaris responsible for any aspect of the Jonestown Massacre concerning this lawsuit.
Although Katsaris was the spokesman of the Concerned Relatives, Tim Stoen was much more visible and aggressive in his approach. In my opinion, this is due to his previous role as a prominent figure in Peoples Temple for eight years. It is not surprising that feelings of guilt, especially for signing an affidavit designating Jim Jones as John Victor Stoen’s legal guardian, would cause him to retaliate much more fiercely than Katsaris or other members. This argument is strengthened by the structure of his book Love Them to Death, which focuses much more on his role as a Concerned Relative, which was only for a year, compared to his time in Peoples Temple.
Whatever the cause, Tim Stoen’s brash and hostile actions heightened the tensions between the two groups. During a meeting, when someone exclaimed “What a coup!” Stoen replied in a veiled threat “Wait ‘til you see what happens once you get to Jonestown.”
Unfortunately, according to one account, Temple member and Jonestown survivor Tim Carter had secretly infiltrated the Concerned Relatives by declaring that he had defected. A report was sent to Jones declaring that Stoen’s primary goal was to destroy Jones. This information gave Jones the ammunition he needed to feed into his and his followers’ paranoia that the world was out to get them. Stoen should have been more cautious in his wording, but, as he didn’t know Carter was a spy, this event gives Stoen very little responsibility for the final outcome.
However, Stoen’s passion and persistence meant that he angered the US government and reduced the respect for the Concerned Relatives. Stoen constantly sent letters to officials which mirrored the strategy of Peoples Temple to bombard agencies with information and letters. One piece of correspondence was the Stoen cable in which he threatened to retrieve his son by “any means necessary”; and in a separate letter to US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Stoen described the State Department’s progress as inexcusable. On several occasions, he would spend entire days scurrying through the US Capitol in an effort to enlist supporters or aid. His aggression led to some officials in the Department to believe he had “purposes beyond his parental concerns.”
This approach kept Jonestown constantly in the eye of the government officials but led them to resent Concerned Relatives and view their information as “emotional” and therefore “doubts inevitably arose about the motives and credibility of [Concerned Relatives].” Without the faith and trust of the US government, the Concerned Relatives were unable to achieve any real progress.
His more extreme methods also led to resistance from other relatives. For example, Barbara and John Moore, the parents of two high-ranking Temple members, refused to join the Concerned Relatives, stating that their previous meeting with Tim had been “not in any way positive… we do not trust [Tim Stoen].” An increased number of Concerned Relatives would have put more pressure on the US government to act. Therefore, Stoen’s approach affected the Peoples Temple case by increasing the tensions with the government and his supporters.
Deborah Layton Blakey
Although Blakey efficiently produced the affidavit in a time of personal crisis, she mishandled her new responsibility after its signing.
As a first-hand source, Consul McCoy requested she visit law enforcement agencies (e.g. the Customs Service and the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Control Bureau of the Treasury Department) in person to ensure that the effect of Jones on a survivor as documented in the affidavit was fully understood and appreciated. However, for some unknown reason, Blakey never visited any of the law enforcement agencies which caused her affidavit to have even less impact on the actions of the US government. Unfortunately, therefore, she has some minor responsibility in not doing her utmost to prevent the Massacre.
The Peoples Temple case was an excruciatingly difficult situation to diffuse and even now, after 40 years, a definitive strategy to have prevented the Jonestown Massacre is not apparent. However, it is clear that, due to the abnormality of the situation, the United States and Guyanese government were not equipped for investigating a cult-like group or expecting a mass suicide on an incomparable scale. The aspects in which their inexperience is most apparent is the handling of information and communication between agencies, as it was not done with the diligence and scrutiny required to analyse the complex Jim Jones, primarily due to the lack of understanding of his mental state and the capabilities of brainwashing that would have been gained from psychological expertise. However, the Guyanese government is more significantly responsible for the Massacre than the United States, as it had several opportunities to prevent the events, whereas the US government was usually unable to interfere.
In the media and Ryan’s delegation – especially the Concerned Relatives – the opposite was true, as their eagerness to prove Jones’ insanity, psychological and physical abuse and other illegal activities brought the focus away from the (mostly) innocent residents of Jonestown and instead towards Jones. The Concerned Relatives’ aggressive and hostile manner increased the Temple’s distrust for the outside world. Nevertheless, this is a predictable and not an abnormal response. The Concerned Relatives had a personal fear for their loved ones, and the media will undeniably heighten drama in order to sell their stories (although the latter is much more morally dubious). In addition, a select few individuals in the media were also influenced by other factors that should be avoided in reporting: corruption; fear; and over-confidence.
Overall, numerous small failings across all the groups contributed to the Jonestown Massacre due to overarching attitude issues. However, although no single group or individual can be held entirely responsible for the Jonestown Massacre, of the four elements I consider the Guyanese government as the most significantly responsible, especially considering the fortification and isolation of Jonestown that made the issue extremely difficult to solve.
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(James de Planta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)