History This Week No. 2008/47

By Cecilia McAlmont


Shortly after the twenty-third anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy, I wrote two articles on the subject. They had been inspired by the fact that several undergraduates at our university who had been born before and after November 1978 had never heard of Jonestown. After writing those two articles, I too banished Jonestown from my thoughts not even remembering that this November 18, 2008 would be the thirtieth anniversary of the tragedy. However, about two weeks ago, I noticed a television advertisement for the airing of a CNN Special Report “Escape from Jonestown,” on Thursday November 13. I decided to ask my current batch of undergraduate students — more than fifty percent of them were born close to a decade after 1978 — if they had ever heard of Jonestown. I was pleasantly surprised when more than half the class indicated that they had and intended to watch the aforementioned special report. Unfortunately, their knowledge of what was described as “one of the blackest days in Guyana’s history,” is coming from international, mainly US, rather than national sources. As I said seven years ago, most if not all Guyanese would like to pretend Jonestown never happened. Unfortunately, it did and while we might want to forget, the rest of the world, specifically the US, the homeland of the majority of the victims, seems bent on making us remember.

It is in the interest of remembering, that I republish the second of the two articles which appeared in the Stabroek News, Thursday, December 13, 2003.

What exactly
happened on Saturday, November 18, 1978?
The day before, Leo Ryan, the Democratic Congressman from the precinct of California where the Peoples Temple was headquartered accompanied by a small party of journalists and “concerned relatives” visited the commune to investigate charges that the Peoples Temple was holding people there against their will. During the visit, most of the residents praised the settlement, expressing their satisfaction at being there and indicating their desire to remain. However, two families slipped messages to Ryan saying that they wanted to leave with him. According to two newsmen accompanying the Congressman, their party was on the airstrip when a scuffle broke out between those who had opted to leave with Ryan and those who opposed anyone leaving. The latter group told the few Guyanese in Ryan’s party to stand aside, and opened fire on Ryan’s party. Although Ryan hid behind the aircraft, he was found and shot in the head and body several times. Another gunman on board the aircraft carrying members of Ryan’s team, opened fire on the occupants as the plane tried to take off. According to one survivor, they knew exactly who to kill. As the shootings were taking place at the Port Kaituma airstrip, Jim Jones gathered the community together, informed them that the Congressman’s party would be killed and then initiated what was described as the final ritual – the “revolutionary suicide” the membership had rehearsed on prior occasions. The poison – a cocktail of more than seven types of tranquilisers and pain killers and two types of poisons mixed with Kool Aid was brought out and persons persuaded or forced to drink by the cupful. A few persons like Jim Jones himself, his nurse and a few others died from gunshot wounds.

Many Guyanese learnt of the tragedy for the first time, not from the local radio (we had no TV then) but when anxious relatives who had seen news bulletins phoned to enquire what exactly was going on. Our ignorance stemmed as much from the remoteness of Jonestown as from our muzzled press. From the BBC and Voice of America, we heard bulletins announcing the assassination of Congressman Ryan along with several members of his party. There were rumours of mass deaths at Jonestown then confirmation. When the local newspapers finally got into the act almost three days after the tragic events, the numbers of the dead were vastly underestimated. When the dust finally settled, 914 persons including scores of young children had perished.

Why did it happen?
Was it suicide? Was it murder? Were people forced at gunpoint to drink the brew? Or were people shot? These questions remain largely unanswered even though several theories abound. In his article “An Analysis of Jonestown” Neal Osherow supported the suicide theory and posited that “the deaths at Jonestown can be viewed as the product of obedience, of people complying with orders of a leader and reacting to the threat of force.” He continued that in the Peoples Temple whatever Jim Jones commanded, the people did. When he gathered the community at the pavilion and the poison was brought out, the populace was surrounded by armed guards who were trusted lieutenants of Jones.

Although there were isolated acts of resistance and suggestions of opposition to the suicides, excerpts from a tape, recorded as the final ritual was being enacted, revealed that such dissent was quickly dismissed or shouted down. In another article “Alternative considerations of Jonestown” the author who had a more sympathetic view of the Peoples Temple, also supported suicide. He sets out a three- point scenario. The mental preparation as well as physical re-enactment in which the members had practiced suicide drills for years as part of a loyalty test. Step two was the hostile visit of Congressman Leo Ryan. This visit was seen as an “attack” by Temple’s “enemies.” Step three was the defection of 16 persons which was seen as a betrayal. The attack on Ryan, the gathering at the pavilion and the suicide were the next logical steps. On the other hand, the Peoples Temple lawyer, Mark Layne, who was there that day, suggested that many persons found dead at Jonestown might not have committed suicide but rather might have been killed or forced to take their own lives. While he confirmed that there had been a lot of talk about committing suicide by members of the Peoples Temple, he contended that if the persons found dead at Jonestown could have been persuaded by Jim Jones to commit suicide there would not have been the need for all the weapons he saw.

Other groups also disputed the voluntary/forced suicide theory but suggest more sinister motives. William Shea in an article “The Real Cult” suggested that the idea of attributing the deaths to brain washing was dis-information promulgated by the media at the expense of the facts. He viewed Jonestown as an unsolved mass murder. He insisted that the neatly laid out bodies could not have occurred naturally in light of the spasms that mark cyanide poisoning. However, as earlier mentioned, the tranquilizers and pain killers would have eased those symptoms. In another article “Mass murder – Revisiting the Jonestown Tragedy” published by The Church of Scientology, one Colonel Fletcher Prouty who worked closely in key positions with the CIA and Joint Chiefs of Staff was interviewed. According to him, Leo Ryan had moved in too close to certain skeletons that could never be safely disturbed. The reason why such a high profile personality could be assassinated without a massive investigation was that by making the assassination part of an even larger catastrophe, the central drama of illegal, unconstitutional, government-sponsored psychiatric mind-control activities was obscured. He pointed to the unusual event of the Joint Chiefs of Staff providing body-bags, the airlift and all the rest on a timetable that suggested advanced knowledge.

What was the role of the government of Guyana?
Twenty-three (now thirty) years after Jonestown, the people of Guyana are still owed a definitive explanation for the many unresolved questions surrounding the tragedy. Mention has already been made of the news blackout and a hastily called press conference chaired by the Minister of Information who seemed to know little about Jonestown.  The silence was deafening from the senior government functionaries whom Jim Jones used to meet. The most vigorous statement came from government in their denial of an Associated Press report linking members of the government with the Peoples Temple. However, the opposition PPP was not silent. They attempted to have the matter discussed in Parliament but the Speaker of the House brushed their request aside as being “inappropriate” and a “cheek.”  Undaunted, they called for an enquiry into Jonestown stating that if it were not done, it would be a criminal act of cover-up. With an arrogance which characterised the lack of accountability of the 70s and 80s (sadly this is still the case) the government announced that there would be no enquiry.
A probe authorised by the US Committee on Foreign Affairs found evidence of collusion between officials of the Guyana government and leaders of the Peoples Temple and accused the Prime Minister, Forbes Burnham, of refusing to cooperate. In fact the government of the day faced condemnation from all sides but to date no satisfactory response has ever made to accusations of ambassadorial impropriety among a host of others.

Seven years ago, my articles had been published under the caption Jonestown: can we? do we? should we remember? Now since American television is almost all that we see, we are being forced to remember. As the Credits of the special report rolled, I noticed that there is a Jonestown Institute. We might not wish to go so far as creating a Jonestown Institute. However, if we decided that we and especially our young people should, from our perspective, learn about Jonestown and remember this tragic but important part of our social history, then the resources will have to be found to do so. Hopefully, with our new Walter Rodney Archives, the few documents on Jonestown will be better preserved. There was also some talk that Jonestown could be developed as a tourist attraction. If it is, then hopefully it would attract Guyanese. Additionally, it is hoped that the National Library which seven years ago had a comprehensive file on the subject has since added to that file and can still lead the way in the task of helping us to remember.

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