295. Memorandum From the Deputy Political Counselor of the Mission to the United Nations (Blacken) to the Director of the Office of Caribbean Affairs (Hewitt)1
- The People’s Temple in Guyana: My Involvement in the Stoen Case, A Visit to Jonestown, and Some General Observations
- Your Telephone Request of December 2, 19782
In this description of my contacts with members of the People’s Temple and official actions taken concerning the People’s Temple while I was Charge of the U.S. Embassy in Guyana, I will focus on clarifying the background upon which decisions and impressions were formed. The official record of what was done and precisely when is a matter of record in the Department. This account is being written from memory without recourse to notes or written records available in the Department. Consequently, some dates may be inaccurate.
My direct contacts with representatives of the People’s Temple were relatively few because the Consul handled most of the business with them. I met Jim Jones only once. I do have considerable knowledge, however, of the relationship between the People’s Temple and the [Page 720] Government of Guyana. These will be touched on herein to shed light on our perception of how the People’s Temple operated.
My tour of duty in Guyana spanned the period from July 3, 1976 to March 17, 1978, when I was transferred to USUN. I was absent from Guyana for three months—October 20, 1976 to January 26, 1977—when I was recalled as an expression of the United States’ displeasure over a speech Guyana’s Prime Minister gave on October 17 in which he implied U.S. complicity in the October 6 sabotage of a Cubana airliner.3 Prior to September 28, 1977, when Ambassador John Burke arrived at post, my duties were those of Charge d’Affaires. Thereafter, I was Deputy Chief of Mission.
During briefings after arrival at post I learned that a group of Americans, perhaps numbering 150–200, were living in a religious farming settlement called Jonestown in Guyana’s northwest region. They were affiliated with a religious group called The People’s Temple with headquarters in California. I was informed that the group appeared to have established a good working relationship with the Guyanese Government perhaps because they claimed to be socialists and they were dedicating themselves to agriculture in Guyana’s remote interior. The settlement of the interior was a goal of the Guyanese Government.
After I had been in Guyana about five or six weeks, I was called upon in my office by two representatives of the Georgetown Office of the People’s Temple. One of them was Debra Touchette. I do not recall who the second person was. They said they had known my predecessor who had visited Jonestown and they wanted to give me information about the People’s Temple and Bishop Jim Jones. They talked about Jones’ efforts in the U.S. to help the minority groups, drug addicts, and the poor. They referred constantly to Jones’ relationships with prominent U.S. politicians and community leaders. When asked about the religious faith of the People’s Temple, they mentioned its link to a church group in the U.S., but remained vague about the Temple’s teachings, except that it followed the teachings of Jesus Christ and socialism. They said that the People’s Temple welcomed people from all faiths into its fold.
Jones was still in the U.S. at this time. I do not recall having other meetings with People’s Temple representatives during 1976. I was [Page 721] absent from Guyana when Lt. Governor Dymally of California visited in November.
The Influx of People to Jonestown in 1977
Not long after my return on January 26, 1977 to Guyana to resume duties as Charge, the then Foreign Minister of Guyana, Fred Wills, told me that the People’s Temple had requested permission to significantly increase the number of people at Jonestown. (Specific numbers were reported to the Department by cable.)4 Wills let me read a copy of a memorandum of a meeting between high GOG officials and representatives of the People’s Temple concerning the request by the Temple. According to the memo, the People’s Temple representatives had alleged that Jones and the Temple were being persecuted by the FBI, the CIA and right wing forces in the U.S. They had alleged that racism was on the rise. Jones, therefore, wanted to move himself and a much larger number of people to Guyana.
Foreign Minister Requests Information on the People’s Temple
Wills told me that the Prime Minister had assigned him the responsibility for dealing with the People’s Temple representatives and he wanted to familiarize himself with them. Despite the enthusiasm for the People’s Temple expressed by Deputy Prime Minister Ptolemy Reid, Wills said that he sensed something “fishy” about the group. They had offered to deposit $2 million in the Bank of Guyana in return for permission to expand the settlement at Jonestown. Wills requested that I provide him with any information that I could concerning the group. Particularly, he wanted to know whether the People’s Temple or its leader, Jim Jones, was in trouble with the USG. After the severe strain in U.S.-Guyanese relations which followed the Cubana airliner disaster, he said, he did not want misunderstandings over a group like the People’s Temple to provide an irritant in our relations. I transmitted the request to the Department by cable.5
Upon receipt of an answer from the Department, I told Wills that to my knowledge neither Jones nor the People’s Temple appeared to have had any problems with the USG, nor could I provide details about Jones’ alleged difficulties in California. The USG could take no position—for or against—the Temple’s petition to bring large numbers of people to Guyana. Soon thereafter, the GOG gave permission for large number of people to be brought to Guyana.
In subsequent meetings with me, Wills recounted gossip about the People’s Temple and informally expressed some personal misgivings [Page 722] about the group and its maneuvers. We learned from Wills and other Guyanese officials that the People’s Temple representatives often expressed fears that the U.S. was headed toward fascism; however, as far as I know, the People’s Temple representatives in Georgetown did not express these thoughts directly to American officials. Occasionally I saw People’s Temple representatives attending official Guyanese events such as Republic and Independence Day ceremonies. Day to day problems such as those involved in handling passport matters and social security checks were handled by the Consular Section of the Embassy.
The Stoen Case: First Phase
With the arrival during August 1977 of Jeffrey Haas, the California attorney for ex-People’s Temple members Tim and Grace Stoen, I was drawn more deeply into the affairs of the People’s Temple. Haas had in his possession a California court order empowering him to take custody of John Stoen on behalf of the parents.6 His arrival had been preceded by a cable from the Department indicating that the Embassy should provide appropriate assistance to Haas. After receiving Haas in the Consular Section, U.S. Consul Richard McCoy brought Haas to my office for a discussion of the case and the People’s Temple. Haas showed us several press clippings from California newspapers highly critical of Jones and the People’s Temple. Some of these articles described techniques that Jones’ allegedly used to maintain discipline and control over Temple members.
Haas asked to see the highest possible Guyanese official. I arranged for him to see the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Justice, Fred Wills. At the latter’s request, I accompanied Haas to the meeting. This meeting took place on the day after Haas’ arrival in Georgetown. The meeting lasted over an hour. Wills listened to Haas’ description of the case and to his allegations against Jones. Wills explained that under Guyanese law, the California court order by itself was not binding. It could be presented as evidence (and judges usually gave considerable weight to such evidence), in a Guyanese court; however, Haas would have to obtain a Guyanese court order to get legal custody of the child in Guyana. Wills also explained that the matter would probably be facilitated if the mother were present at the time of the court hearing. Wills said that Guyanese courts usually always decided in favor of the mother receiving custody of young children. Haas insisted that he was in a hurry and hoped to leave Guyana with the child in less than a week. Wills said he would see what he could do to expedite matters. Before the meeting ended he phoned Guyana’s Attorney General to make an [Page 723] appointment for Haas and summoned the Solicitor General to the meeting. After introducing him to Haas, Wills requested that the Solicitor further familiarize Haas with Guyanese judicial procedure and law. Haas only reluctantly accepted the idea that he would have to wait to have a court hearing before obtaining custody of John Stoen.
After accepting the necessity of going to court, Haas engaged a prominent Guyanese lawyer, Clarence Hughes, to pursue the matter for him. During the next few days, Haas wanted the full weight of the Embassy thrown behind him in this case to induce the Guyanese authorities to take the Stoen child from the custody of the People’s Temple and give the child to him. We responded that while we would offer whatever assistance we believed appropriate, we could not be in the position of taking sides in a dispute between Americans. At times he talked of kidnapping John Stoen from the Jonestown community. He asked us whether we could issue a passport for John Stoen (in addition to the passport which was in the control of the People’s Temple) if he somehow obtained physical control of Stoen. After consulting with the Department by cable, a passport was prepared and held in the Consulate in order to have it immediately available should Haas suddenly obtain the child and have to leave immediately. Haas said that he was certain that if he did not depart immediately, Jones would use force to regain custody of the child.
Within about a week after Haas’ arrival in Georgetown, due apparently to Wills’ intervention, Justice Bishop of Guyana’s Supreme Court inserted the case on the court calendar ahead of many other pending cases and issued a writ of habeas corpus for John Stoen to be brought to the court for a hearing. Jim Jones was also subpoenaed to appear in the court. Haas accompanied a clerk of the court and a police constable to Jonestown to serve the papers. They were told that Jones would be gone for several days on a fishing trip up the river. Neither Jones nor the child, John Stoen, appeared in court on the designated date. Justice Bishop, reportedly angered over this turn of events, issued warrants for the arrest of the child and of Jones in order that they be brought to the court for the hearing.
In the meantime, representatives of the People’s Temple had also been busy. They circulated documents among Guyanese officials to show that Grace and Tim Stoen were unfit parents and that Jim Jones was the natural father of the child. They called on McCoy at the Consulate or had phone conversations with him. If I remember correctly, McCoy brought a group of them to my office for a discussion (I am not sure whether this meeting took place during this first visit of Haas or later when the Stoens personally came to Guyana). They had called upon Wills and told him that the people around Jones would fight and die to avoid giving up the child. The child had been with them for [Page 724] over three years during which the Stoens had shown no interest in regaining custody. They charged that the efforts to obtain the child were part of the conspiracy against Jones in California. Wills told me of the representations to him which had been made by the People’s Temple representatives. He said that he urged them to present their case in court and abide by the results.
The warrants for the arrest of Jones and the child were not acted upon. We learned confidentially from a clerk of the court that the Deputy Prime Minister, Ptolemy Reid, had requested that the police not act upon it. In the meantime, Foreign Minister Wills had left the country to attend an international conference, and was gone for more than a week. Upon his return, I requested a meeting with him to try to get the matter back on track. After making inquiries, he said that in his desire to be helpful in expediting the case, he may have gone too far. Justice Bishop was under criticism for having given the case precedence over others and for having issued the arrest warrant without taking certain other necessary legal steps first. Wills said that the matter had been taken out of his hands and he had been told to stay out of it. The People’s Temple representatives had convinced their patron, Ptolemy Reid, that this was an unjust effort to take the child and destroy Jonestown.
I explained to Wills that the U.S. Embassy’s interest was in seeing that due process of law was being followed. The Embassy had no vendetta against Jones or the People’s Temple. But at the moment, the orderly procedure under law appeared to have come to a dead halt. No action or indication of what should be done next was being made. I pointed out that Haas was threatening to join the press campaign against Jones in California and to attack the Guyanese Government as well as Jones. After several conversations with Wills over a period of a couple of days, I told him that I would have to send a diplomatic note expressing concern over the delay. He welcomed the idea, saying it would give him leverage in breaking the Stoen case out of the political realm and putting it back in the court. The note was sent.7 In addition, I believe that I spoke to Prime Minister Forbes Burnham about the case, urging that it be processed according to due process of law. A date for a court hearing was set for February 1978.
The Stoen Case: Phase Two
In January 1978, Tim and Grace Stoen came to Georgetown to follow-up on the court case for custody of John Stoen. I met with them, [Page 725] accompanied by Consul Richard McCoy. During the same week we received visits from People’s Temple representatives Sharon Amos, Tim Carter and another person whose name I do not recall. The People’s Temple delegation alleged that they were being harassed by organized forces from California. During one of these conversations, Sharon Amos broke into tears and emotionally asserted that the people of Jonestown would rather die than allow John Stoen to be taken from them.
During the encounters with the Stoens and with People’s Temple representatives, we explained repeatedly that it was not up to us as U.S. government officials to take sides in a dispute between Americans concerning custody of a child. We sympathized with the Stoen’s predicament and gave them our best advice concerning how to proceed. Consul McCoy kept in touch with the lawyers and court officials concerning the hearings. My intervention was required at one point when I was informed that the Stoens and their lawyer had been arrested for allegedly giving false statements at the time they had entered Guyana (the charges were that they had said they were members of the People’s Temple). We obtained the release of the Stoens and they were given one or two extra days.
A few days later we learned that the Stoens’ permits to stay in Guyana had not been renewed and they had been told to leave immediately. As the hearing of their case had not been completed, this clearly would have made it impossible for them to have pursued the case. We were informed that the order for the deportation had come from the Minister of Home Affairs, Vibert Mingo. I called Foreign Minister Wills, whom I located at a meeting at Prime Minister Burnham’s residence, explained the circumstances to him, and strongly urged that immediate action be taken to stop the deportation of the Stoens and their lawyer. Wills took the next necessary action and the deportation was stopped. Subsequently, the Stoens and their lawyer were given permits to stay in Guyana for the duration of the court proceedings.
Visit to Jonestown
In connection with a visit of the State Department’s Guyana Desk Officer, Frank Tumminia, to Guyana on an area familiarization trip, we contacted People’s Temple representative to arrange for a visit to Jonestown. They responded that they and Jones would welcome the visit. We chartered a small plane for the trip.
When we arrived in Port Kaituma, we called on the Regional Commissioner and met with him to discuss the People’s Temple. He said that he had had no serious problems with the People’s Temple. They were hard working and had done impressive work in agriculture. But they kept to themselves more than the Guyanese had originally anticipated. The Commissioner said that Guyanese officials had hoped [Page 726] that the Americans at Jonestown would be catalysts for development of nearby Guyanese communities, but this had not happened. He mentioned two things which were of some concern. First, he said that his customs officer was concerned over not being able to monitor adequately the goods being brought into Jonestown by the People’s Temple boat. Secondly, he was concerned that the Jonestown school was not operating in full compliance with Guyanese law concerning curriculum of schools. The Regional Commissioner provided a vehicle for our transportation and accompanied us to Jonestown.
When we reached the edge of the People’s Temple property, we encountered a gate and a small guard hut manned by two young men. We saw no arms, but both carried sheath knives in their belts. From the guard hut to the center of Jonestown the distance was about three miles.
Jones met us on arrival. Initially, he appeared tense, and as we walked toward the community center, his conversation seemed to be directed at people around him rather than at Tumminia and me. Gradually he relaxed and talked freely. As we walked to the community center we saw a children’s playground. The children there appeared healthy and normal. Although the roadways and paths throughout the settlement were of dirt, the overall appearance was tidy and neat. Having already heard allegations that people had been ill-fed and mistreated, I was alert for signs of malnutrition and for persons who might show signs of being abused. During the entire visit, which I believe lasted about three hours, I saw no evidence of malnutrition or beatings. I realized, however, that anyone recently beaten could have been kept out of sight.
At the community center, Jones and his people showed us handicrafts made by people at Jonestown. A large number of people were gathered together there, and a choral group performed. Another group put on a skit, and a woman who appeared to be in her mid-thirties sang solos, Jones said she had been a drug addict in San Francisco before joining the People’s Temple. After the cultural presentations, we sat at a table surrounded by an immediate circle of 20–30 people. Some of these appeared to be members of the People’s Temple leadership cadre, others were clearly ordinary members.
During a period of about 45 minutes, Jones and I discussed the allegations being made against him and the People’s Temple. Jones responded that the charges that people were beaten or held against their will were totally false. Frequently, we were interrupted by persons who would add an anecdote to illustrate some good works that Jones had done. Jones pointed out several young men who he said had been engaged with the Weather Underground before they had become associated with the People’s Temple and had changed from a violent to non-violent approach to achieving socialism.[Page 727]
Jones kept returning to the theme that a conspiracy existed in the U.S. to destroy him and the People’s Temple. I told him that I was absolutely positive that no agency of the United States Government had hostile intentions toward him. I said if the stories which were being spread were untrue, in time they would disappear. I urged him to allow the families of Temple members to visit them in Jonestown. He said that he had no objections to such visits, but sometimes the individuals themselves objected. Several people near us chimed in during this conversation, charging that some of the families who had become interested in their relatives at Jonestown had only done so in the past two or three months, and that they were being incited and bribed to join the campaign of defamation against Jones and the People’s Temple.
When we discussed the case of John Stoen, Jones became quite agitated. He said he had heard that I had intervened against him. I told him that my position and that of the U.S. Government were neutral as to the merits of the case. My responsibility was to ascertain that due process of law was followed and that once a court decision was made, to see that it was enforced. I told him that I had reason to believe that he had sought to influence Guyanese officials to drop the case. Jones denied this. I repeated that my duty was to ascertain that both sides got fair treatment in the courts. I was not taking sides. Jones calmed down, but someone near us asserted that they would die before allowing the child to leave them. There was much talk by members of the group and by Jones about the unsuitability of the Stoens as parents. Jones asserted to me that he was the natural father of the child.
Jones also talked at length of his background and ideology. He said that several years earlier he had been close to advocating violent revolution, but since then had moderated his views. He hated war and violence, he said, and he hoped that the two superpowers could work toward peace. We talked of religion and ideology. He told me he had become an agnostic, but he believed in the teachings of Christ. Christ, he said, was a great prophet. He commented that since coming to Guyana, his approach to socialism had become non-doctrinaire. His experience with his people at the Jonestown community had shown him that people needed incentives to work productively. It was hard to get people to work for a vague common good.
At times during our conversation, Jones exhibited signs of paranoia, but at other times he appeared normal.
I had the names of two people to whom I wanted to talk. I no longer remember the specific concern that their relatives in the U.S. had expressed, but I believe the allegation had been made that one of the persons had had her head shaved as punishment. The other had not been responding to family letters. We met both persons. Neither [Page 728] had short hair. Both acknowledged receiving letters from their families and in response to my urging, promised to write home more often.
After our meeting at the community center, Jones accompanied us on a walking tour of Jonestown. We visited houses where four people appeared to be living and some larger dormitory-style dwellings where double bunk beds were crowded into the available space. All residence houses were neat and clean. When entering such houses, people took off their shoes. We visited the dining hall where people were fed in shifts what appeared to be simple but wholesome food. We were shown the library containing in addition to books, movie films and cassettes for the closed circuit TV set which was located in the Pavilion. We also visited the food and medical supply centers. There were large stocks of dried and powdered foods. The supply of medicines and drugs we saw at the medical supply center appeared to be primarily of U.S. manufacture. The books in the library included a range of titles including works by well-known U.S. authors. There were works on Marxism and socialism. I saw books on Hitler and fascism. Overall, the literature appeared to focus heavily on social criticism.
We met the young American doctor, Dr. Schacht. He said he had graduated from medical school but had not completed his internship. When time allowed he had people who were seriously ill evacuated to Georgetown. On occasion, he would perform emergency operations by himself. He said that he sometimes sought and obtained help and advice from doctors in the U.S. by use of a short-wave radio. He showed us people in the dispensary. The few people there were elderly. The community had a quarantine house for persons afflicted with communicable diseases. The dispensary had an electrocardiogram.
If I remember correctly, we were told that Jonestown had about 600 inhabitants when we were there. We estimated that we saw fewer than that number.
At one point late in the day, someone reminded Jones that he was overdue for taking his “pill”. There upon he took a pill out of a container and swallowed it. No explanation of its nature or purpose was given us.
Once during the tour, I asked Jones whether anyone at Jonestown was an active drug addict. He replied negatively. In response to a question concerning the charges that he was keeping people under sedatives or tranquilizers, Jones said that a few of the older people with heart problems were sometimes given tranquilizers. He insisted, however, that usually those who required medication because of heart problems or tension had either stopped requiring medication or were able to decrease dosage in the calm atmosphere of Jonestown.
Shortly before departure, I stopped to talk alone with a group of elderly women who were sitting around a table shelling beans. One woman, the most talkative of the group, said she considered Jonestown [Page 729] to be a paradise for old people. The climate was good and they had useful jobs to do. They were treated with respect by the younger people and they had much interaction with the young generation.
One of the things that I found most notable about Jones was his manner of interaction with older people. Whereas one sensed a degree of fanaticism in many of the younger people, the older people seemed more relaxed and clearly enjoyed the respectful and affectionate manner in which Jones treated them.
One element of tension in the visit was when Regional Commissioner raised with Jones the issue of having the Jonestown school conform to the curriculum standards required by Guyanese law. Jones maintained that the requirements were being met. Others heatedly argued that the subjects and approach used in the Jonestown school could not be changed. On the way back to Port Kaituma, the Regional Commissioner said that compliance with Guyanese law would have to be enforced sooner or later.
Frank Tumminia told me he had the impression that people at Jonestown, particularly the choral group had appeared to move as automatons, as if they were drugged or under some form of mind control. We discussed this, but could reach no definite conclusions to substantiate these suspicions. I speculated that they might have been tired from doing field work.
Having visited Jonestown and having talked at some length with Jones, I could not draw firm conclusions that anyone was being held against their will. Nor could we be sure that people were free to leave, despite Jones’ assertions that they could and the claims of a number of the people that they were free to leave if they so wished. The neatness of the community and the hard work that had gone into the cultivation of the various crops being grown on over 600 acres in the jungle clearing was impressive. Jones showed paranoia, but did not appear totally irrational. Clearly he was the leader around whom the community revolved.
I would guess that over half of the people there were over 50 years of age. Many of the others were 25 years of age or less. Probably 80 percent of the people were black. The other 20 percent were mainly white, although I saw a few people of oriental and American Indian ancestry. The people who exercised leadership roles under Jones were both men and women. The women leaders appeared to be in their twenties, whereas the men ranged from 20 to 45 years of age. Perhaps three-fourths of the leadership cadre were white.
Government of Guyana and the People’s Temple
I believe that representatives of the People’s Temple approached the Government of Guyana sometime in 1973 to seek permission to [Page 730] establish in Guyana’s hinterlands a multiracial agricultural community organized on socialist concepts. Reportedly, the People’s Temple told the Guyanese that the Americans who were brought to Guyana would have technical and agricultural skills which would be useful in training Guyanese and in helping develop Guyana. Many middle-class Guyanese were leaving Guyana for what they perceived as greater economic opportunities in Toronto, London, and New York. The Guyanese Government welcomed the opportunity to point to the influx of Americans and argue that Guyanese should not emigrate, but should instead follow the Americans’ example and turn their energies to developing Guyana’s wild interior.
The decisive figure in the Guyanese Government connected with the agreement to allow the People’s Temple to lease the jungle land at the Jonestown site was Deputy Prime Minister Ptolemy Reid (who was also Minister for National Development). Reid, a graduate in veterinary medicine from Tuskegee College, is the oldest member of the Guyanese leadership. His life has been devoted to agriculture and agricultural development in Guyana. He also has a strong consciousness of race and has worked hard at inspiring black Guyanese to take leadership roles in politics and the development of Guyana. His experience in the U.S. south as a student in the 1930’s and 1940’s conditioned him to believe the allegations that People’s Temple representatives made about the racism they claimed to be fleeing from in the U.S. I have been told, but was never able to substantiate with evidence, that the Guyanese Government agreed to allow the People’s Temple to bring agricultural equipment and other supplies into Guyana duty free.
The Government of Guyana had a policy of trying to attract immigration of black people from other Caribbean countries. This included efforts aimed at encouraging Guyanese, Jamaicans and others who were living in the U.S., Canada or England to go to Guyana, take up land in the interior and farm it. The People’s Temple agricultural community fitted in well with this policy.
The perception held by Guyanese officials and (to the extent there was any public awareness), the Guyanese public in 1976, during the first months after my arrival in Guyana, was that Jonestown was a model agricultural community.
By late 1977 and early 1978, Guyanese officials as well as the Embassy were aware of the allegations coming from California about strange practices at the People’s Temple in San Francisco and Jonestown. Some of the allegations seemed to be so extreme and contradictive of the local image projected by the People’s Temple, that the Guyanese tended to doubt the allegations or to give more credence to the People’s Temple spokesmen who claimed these stories were part of a conspiracy directed against them.[Page 731]
By November 1977, however, some Guyanese officials were privately expressing misgivings about the rumors, but apparently had no firm evidence to back up their misgivings. Immigration officials expressed concern over the numbers of old people that the People’s Temple was bringing into Guyana.
People’s Temple representatives in Georgetown were active in providing positive information to the press and at maintaining communication with prominent Guyanese as well as government officials.
It became generally known that Dr. Reid was a sort of patron of the People’s Temple. His motivation appeared to be simply that he believed in the objectives of the People’s Temple as they had been described to him. He could see the exemplary progress they had made in creating a socialist farming community in Jonestown, and reportedly believed the People’s Temple’s allegations that they were the subject of slander and attack by “reactionary forces” in the U.S.8
- Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P800141–0757. Confidential.↩
- No record of the telephone request has been found.↩
- See footnote 3, Document 273.↩
- See Document 276.↩
- Not further identified.↩
- See Document 280.↩
- In telegram 2269 from Georgetown, September 19, 1977, the Embassy transmitted information about this diplomatic note. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770340–0536)↩
- Blacken wrote an addendum to this memorandum on December 6. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P800141–0754)↩