Playing Dead to Stay Alive at Jonestown

Jonestown, Guyana was the scene of one of the most harrowing tragedies in American history. On November 18, 1978, at the direction of charismatic cult leader Jim Jones, 909 members of the People's Temple died, all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning, in a “revolutionary suicide.” They included over 200 murdered children. The poisonings in Jonestown followed the murder of five others, including Congressman Leo Ryan, by Temple members at the nearby Port Kaituma airstrip. It was the largest mass suicide in modern history and resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until September 11, 2001. Richard Dwyer was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Guyana when the tragedy took place. In his oral history, he recounts the prelude to the massacre, how he pretended to be dead when shot at the airstrip, and the subsequent deaths at Jonestown. He was interviewed by ADST's Charles Stuart Kennedy starting in July 1990.


“The most difficult problem of a consular officer's life”


DWYER: Jonestown was up in the bush in the northwest portion of the country–150 miles by chartered airplane from Georgetown…. Shortly after I got there, Ambassador Burke suggested that one of the first things I ought to do was visit Jonestown along with the chief of the consular section, Dick McCoy. I went up there shortly after I got to Georgetown. There were, I suppose, 900 to 1,000 people there at the time….


Jonestown had…a half-hour or a forty-five minute program on the Georgetown radio at least once a week…. It was a publicity and propaganda type thing of what they were doing with forests, how many acres they had cleared, what they had grown, how they were establishing their big farm, their chicken ranch, cattle, how they were developing new crops, etc. It sounded very impressive on the radio. Indeed at first glance, Jonestown, itself, was very impressive. It reminded me of the early days in a kibbutz in Israel. There was still a great deal of that enthusiasm. What was weird was that as they were taking me around to look at these things, these things were being described in exactly the same words I had heard on the radio program just the week before. In other words, they were rote….


The Jonestown people, as far as we could see, were not physically abused. They were wiry and there was no question that they worked hard to accomplish what they did, but none maintained that they were forced to do so or leave. None of the people that McCoy interviewed privately expressed a desire to leave….


The people at Jonestown were a mix. The large proportion of them were urban black, many from the ghettos. There were many elderly people there that were called the seniors. These undoubtedly had an attraction for Jones because they had Social Security benefits that were sent to them in Guyana, which they would then endorse. The money went to the People's Temple….


Somewhere about then we were notified that a congressional delegation would be coming to see us. This would be a delegation of two or three congressmen led by Congressman Leo Ryan of California, whose district included a number of constituents both among the relatives and among the people in Jonestown itself. But looking back on it, it was amazing how little we knew about what had happened in California with the People's Temple or about Ryan or what he knew, or for that matter what Consular Affairs in the Department of State knew.

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