“But it set an example for others. We’ve set one thousand people… [inaudible] take our life from us. We laid it down. We got tired. We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an angry, mean world.” – Jim Jones, final words recorded on November 18, 1978
Drink the Kool-Aid. That’s the phrase everyone knows as shorthand for people who have succumbed to cult brainwashing and followed a leader or a mass movement into destructive or suicidal end. We know this phrase thanks to the events that occurred in Jonestown, Guyana in November 1978, during which the Peoples Temple cult members were told it was time to die with dignity before the group was destroyed. The beverage brand now has such a negative connotation that I had assumed it must have been retired by its maker, but that turned out to be wrong. Kool-Aid survived Jonestown and is still on the market.
During the pandemic, I’ve noticed the term “drinking the Kool-Aid” being used often to insult people alleged to have credulously believed “fake news” about it. The term is used by all sides of the argument. This made me curious as to what Jonestown was really all about. I was nineteen years old at the time it happened, and I recall the intense media coverage of it for a few weeks, but I really never knew much about it. In recent years, I’ve got into the habit of looking back on such world events that I knew about at the time only superficially through the mass media. Such study has shown repeatedly that the “paper of record” version of history, produced on-the-fly by media corporations for a mass audience, always leaves the media consumer with a false understanding of what is really happening. The media is fed a narrative by public relations firms, NGOs and governments, then in a herd mentality, important questions are overlooked or deliberately ignored. The corrections are left to historians and other investigators to write in their books, but the attention of the mass media and the public moves on.
This was again proven true when I made the effort to learn a little more about what happened in Jonestown, what the Peoples Temple was, and who Jim Jones was. I turned to The Strongest Poison, a book written in 1980 by the famous author, lawyer and New York State legislator, Mark Lane (1927-2016), to learn more. This book caught my attention because I knew of Mark Lane for the research he did on the political assassinations of the 1960s and for the organizing he did for the creation of the United States House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) that lasted from 1977-79. It seemed odd that such a person came to be involved or concerned with the Peoples Temple and the bizarre events in Jonestown.
Based on my superficial understanding of what happened in Jonestown, and on the glib jokes that people make about it, I had always thought that Jonestown was about a typical American fundamentalist religious cult. It began as one, but it became something much more. Jones started off as a typical revivalist preacher, perpetrating fraudulent miraculous healing performances during his meetings. However, unlike most fundamentalist preachers, he turned away from right-wing politics and the Republican Party and became radically critical of all American institutions. He was a leftist revolutionary who had, with regrets expressed later, used the religious appeal, with healings and revivalist meetings, as a pathway to power. Before deciding to build a commune in Guyana, he had hoped to take his followers to the Soviet Union where their socialist ideology would be protected from attacks by the US media and government. Even as late as 1978 he was negotiating with the Soviet Embassy in Guyana for some way to have his followers live, individually, as refugees in the USSR.
It was Jones’ ideological tendencies that led him to hire Mark Lane for legal representation in 1978 at a time when his long-time lawyer, Charles Garry, required assistance with the mounting problems of the Peoples Temple. Mark Lane’s reputation as an investigator of the political assassinations of the 1960s and his work for the American Indian Movement made him a natural choice for Jim Jones to turn to.
Mark Lane accepted the job with an open mind and little knowledge of the Peoples Temple’s history and reputation. He did his job professionally, giving the best objective legal advice that he could, but he also assessed the situation very quickly and feared he wouldn’t be able to help Jim Jones. The Peoples Temple seemed persecuted and doomed just like many other radical movements of the 1960s and 70s.
Jones was in failing health, abusing various drugs, and unable to function as a leader. Lane described him as an authoritarian, with no true understanding of Marxism, and he had failed to correct many of the abuses that had been pointed out by critics and defectors.
The Strongest Poison includes a chapter of twelve testimonies of members of the Peoples Temple. These are descriptions of the traumatic, destitute lives of these people before they found refuge in the Peoples Temple and the commune they built in Jonestown. The testimonies let us know that Jones was not the typical hypocritical charlatan cult leader. He rejected ostentation and worked with followers in volunteer chores in the community. He did a share of the menial tasks required to maintain facilities. Even though by 1978 he was being persecuted by the government and sued by defecting members, and he was suffering the consequences of having built an unsustainable personality cult, it could not be denied that he really had done much for the poorest of the poor—people who had found no security or prosperity in the United States. They had escaped from the misery of American ghettos, and for the first time they had found peace, fellowship, and material security in their communal life in Jonestown. Many of them were elderly Black Americans who had decided to follow Jim Jones, a white man, because they were convinced that he was serious about building a revolutionary classless society free of racial discrimination. The minority of more propertied and privileged members had been required to turn over all their assets to the Temple, and they were often the ones who were first to defect and sue for damages. They had a life to go back to, but most followers did not.
The dream was unraveling fast by the summer of 1978. Perhaps the commune’s biggest problem was that its agricultural output wasn’t enough to make it a self-sustaining community. Cash from the US branches and from foreign bank accounts would always be necessary, and that would be gone or frozen if plaintiffs won their lawsuits or the government pursued lengthy investigations.
Because the Peoples Temple wasn’t just a fundamentalist cult but a revolutionary movement, it had drawn the attention of government agencies. The New York Times, the US government and Wikipedia dismiss this as conspiracy theory, and still dismiss Lane as a “conspiracy theorist,” but Lane insisted that Jones was not delusional when he spoke of government plots to destroy Jonestown. He wrote:
In view of the developing political power of the Peoples Temple, its effectiveness on the local political scene, together with the assertions of its leaders that it was a communist organization, it defies logic and a sense of recent history to believe that the intelligence agencies ignored the burgeoning movement. Certainly, it is likely the agencies ran one or more agents inside the Temple.
The Peoples Temple determined through its own investigations that it had been targeted by counter-intelligence infiltrations just like student groups, the civil rights movement, the American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers, and the Nation of Islam, as well as many radical right-wing groups. The US government has a robust immune response to any threat. Jim Jones was paranoid, but justifiably so. He learned too late that some of his most trusted people in the high echelon of his organization had been government agents or informers since the beginning.
The strangest of these was Tim Stoen, someone whom Mark Lane suspected was groomed for federal government work while he was a student. When he joined the Peoples Temple, he was Deputy District Attorney in Ukiah, Mendocino County (north of San Francisco), then later he became Assistant District Attorney in San Francisco. When he joined the group, he had a nineteen-year-old wife with whom he seemed to have had some trouble conceiving a child. To prove his devotion to Jones, he requested that Jones sire his child, and Jones obliged. A signed testimony attesting to Jones’ paternity later became the center of a custody dispute after Stoen defected (or was extracted, in spycraft terminology) from the Peoples Temple. The true motives for Stoen’s bizarre request can never be known, but it is valid to ask whether this was a double agent’s extreme method of proving his loyalty. An ordinary follower wouldn’t have to do such a thing. Only someone with something to prove would have to do it.
Over the following years, Stoen’s behavior became more suspicious. He was the most fervent advocate of acquiring an arsenal and engaging in illegal activities against opponents of the Temple. Other members became suspicious and rejected these provocations of an apparent agent provocateur. Furthermore, he often sheltered the Temple against prosecution through his work in the district attorney’s office, yet his obviously compromised position never led to him being reprimanded or fired. The toleration of his dual role suggested that he had a deep level of security clearance that the DA’s office covered for. He eventually quit the Peoples Temple and became embroiled in a three-way custody battle for his “son.” His ex-wife had left the group also, but the child was with his supposed biological father in Jonestown. By 1978, with a fervor he used to have for attacking the Temple’s enemies, Stoen was helping in the government investigations and representing other defectors in multi-million-dollar lawsuits against the Peoples Temple. Stoen’s aggressive actions were instrumental in provoking the tragic murder-suicide in Jonestown.
Another member, James Prokes, was a confessed rather than suspected double agent who had also worked at the highest level of the Peoples Temple. He was in the United States at the time of the massacre. He had been psychologically damaged by the role he played as government informant, but now he was destroyed by having to live in the aftermath of the massacre. He called a press conference to describe all he knew about the Peoples Temple. Lane included his last testimony in pages 229-241 of The Strongest Poison. Prokes stressed all the good that the Peoples Temple had achieved, the unnecessarily aggressive harassment of it, the tragedy of the commune’s lost potential, and he mourned the loss of people he loved in Jonestown. Shortly after the press conference he committed suicide.
Mark Lane accused the reporters present at Prokes’ press conference of failing to ask many obvious questions that this valuable source could have answered. They could have asked who his government contact was, where payments for his information were deposited, or what telephone numbers he contacted to speak to his handler. Answers to these questions could have provided definitive proof that the Peoples Temple had been a target of government espionage.
Lane found that the American media reported deliberate falsehoods about the massacre and otherwise failed to investigate whether the actions of US agencies provoked the tragedy and failed to diffuse it without bloodshed. Congressman Leo Ryan went on a fact-finding mission to Jonestown just before the massacre and was murdered by a Peoples Temple member, after his meeting in Jonestown, at the local airport in Port Kaituma. The State Department (in addition to other government agencies) was in the middle of investigations of the Peoples Temple, and Lane alleges that officials let Leo Ryan walk into the dangerous situation unprepared. He might have lived if he had been better informed, and he might have known how unwise it was to let members of the media join him. They were sure to be seen as hostile by the people in Jonestown.
Jones was not wrong to have concluded that Jonestown would soon be attacked or rendered financially unviable. He had plenty of evidence of increasing levels of harassment. Rather than lose in the coming assault, Jones had decided that mass suicide would be an honorable revolutionary act of protest. He had already done a dry-run rehearsal of it April 1978. Lane finished the chapter on the massacre by stating:
The jury [in Guyana] found that Jones had been killed by a “person or persons unknown” and that “James Warren Jones and others unknown are criminally responsible for the deaths of nine hundred ten persons.” An ominous report, largely ignored by the news media, came from Venezuelan authorities… The leadership at Jonestown had, on previous occasions, made plans for crossing the border into what was clearly Venezuelan land in the event of a crisis in Guyana. The Venezuelan border patrol revealed that its aircraft had observed thirty to forty people moving in a group toward Venezuela shortly after the massacre.
This is one of the many mysterious questions about Jonestown that were never pursued by government or media investigations. Who might this group have been? Rank-and-file survivors? A faction of Temple leaders who faked their deaths and disappeared into Venezuela? US military commandoes leaving after having aborted (or achieved) its mission to destroy Jonestown?
It is not difficult to imagine how a more patient attitude could have led to a peaceful resolution of all the problems revolving around Jonestown. After the massacre which led to 909 American bodies decaying in the Guyanese jungle, government and media had motivations to close down the investigation as soon as possible. Too many skeletons in too many closets. Too many high-level politicians in California and Washington had accepted Jones’ political support and praised him (among them Walter Mondale and First Lady Rosalynn Carter, California Governor Jerry Brown, Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally, and California Assemblyman Willie Brown.) Harvey Milk, speaking as an elected member of the San Francisco City Board of Supervisors, had just a few months before the massacre expressed support for Jones and denounced the people suing him. Harvey Milk was shot shortly after the Jonestown massacre on November 27, 1978 by a fellow member of the Board of Supervisors.
No proper forensic study of the crime scene was done. It happened in a foreign country after all, so the US government could back off, but in fact it didn’t have to. The US was powerful enough to insist on having an FBI investigation on foreign soil if it had wanted to do so. As it was, only a few autopsies were performed. No bodies were returned to families in the United States. A simple narrative took hold: Just another crazy American cult burning out at the end of the failed counter-culture revolution of the sixties and seventies. 1,000 hypnotized followers followed orders to drink the Kool-Aid. End of story. No worries because Reagan is coming and it will soon be “Morning in America.”
Lane was in Jonestown in the days just before and just after the massacre. His unlikely survival happened because, when the final assembly of followers was called, he and the other attorney for the Peoples Temple, Charles Garry, had been told to wait in a cabin at the opposite end of the compound. They knew something horrible was about to happen, but they were powerless to stop it. If they had gone to the assembly and tried to stop it, they would have failed and been killed themselves. Two armed members passed them outside their cabin and announced they were going off to die their glorious deaths. For a moment they didn’t know what to do with the two lawyers, but they decided they were neutral non-members and decent guys who should survive and tell the tale. They pointed out a trail by which they could leave the compound and hike back to the local airport.
Lane and Garry survived the overnight jungle trek. When they got to the airport the next day they learned of the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan and others in his group. They knew about the massacre in Jonestown because they had heard the gunfire and screams as they were leaving. Based on the screams and gunfire that they had heard, they believed that most of the followers resisted drinking the Kool-Aid. Subsequent investigation, limited as it was, determined that many of them were injected with poison or shot while refusing to drink the poison. The mass media reported it dishonestly as simply as a bizarre mass suicide. That account was eventually corrected, but it stuck in the popular consciousness and created the lasting “drank-the-Kool-Aid” meme.
Everything written here is based on Mark Lane’s book The Strongest Poison. There are other books and documentary films with different perspectives and wider coverage of the Peoples Temple. I chose to read Mark Lane’s book because of his record in covering the JFK assassination and the work he did in organizing and pressuring Congress to investigate the CIA, the assassinations of the 1960s, and various other covert activities of the US government. Afterwards, he reported on how the Congressional investigation fell short. The mainstream still likes to dismiss him as a “conspiracy theorist,” but I point out that even a staunch defender of the Congressional investigation eventually came around and admitted how it had been misled. In 2003, G. Robert Blakey, chief council to the 1977 House Select Committee on Assassinations, stated the following in an addendum he added to an interview he gave to PBS in 1993. It took him only forty years to understand what Mark Lane had understood within weeks of the JFK assassination:
I am no longer confident that the Central Intelligence Agency co-operated with the committee. My reasons follow: The committee focused, among other things, on (1) Oswald, (2) in New Orleans, (3) in the months before he went to Dallas, and, in particular, (4) his attempt to infiltrate an anti-Castro group, the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil or DRE. These were crucial issues in the Warren Commission’s investigation; they were crucial issues in the committee’s investigation. The Agency knew it full well in 1964; the Agency knew it full well in 1976-79. Outrageously, the Agency did not tell the Warren Commission or our committee that it had financial and other connections with the DRE, a group that Oswald had direct dealings with!… I now no longer believe anything the Agency told the committee… Significantly, the Warren Commission’s conclusion that the agencies of the government co-operated with it is, in retrospect, not the truth. We also now know that the Agency set up a process that could only have been designed to frustrate the ability of the committee in 1976-79 to obtain any information that might adversely affect the Agency. Many have told me that the culture of the Agency is one of prevarication and dissimulation and that you cannot trust it or its people. Period. End of story. I am now in that camp.
|Kurt Vonnegut, Fates Worse than Death, 1982: “Let us talk about fates worse than death. When the Reverend Jim Jones saw that his followers in Guyana were facing fates worse than death, he gave them Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. If our government sees that we are facing fates worse than death, it will shower our enemies with hydrogen bombs, and then we will be showered in turn. There will be plenty of Kool-Aid for everyone, in a manner of speaking, when the right time comes.”|
The interesting question to finish with is a general one about the nature of murder-suicide. If it can happen in families as well as in a large group of a thousand cult members, what is the limit? Could it happen to an entire civilization? The final words of Jim Jones seem eerily like the words spoken by the leaders of the global economic order these days. Capitalism leads to empire, and when empire is in crisis, it goes to war. That’s the historical record, but now there are no competing empires that can be conquered. The designated “adversary nations” all have their nuclear arsenals deterring the empire. Yet capitalism is still in crisis. It is backed into a corner like Jones in Guyana. Our leaders seem to be speaking words eerily similar to the final words Jim Jones recorded as he told his followers to step up and drink the potion. The messaging sounds something like this:
We’ve taken all the resources. We’ve squeezed all the labor out of you that we can. The economy is done. It’s just a massive abstraction, a mountain of unrepayable debt. The game is over. This is the Great Reset. It’s an angry, mean world, but we will build back better. Now you’re all so chronically sick that a cold virus threatens to take you down. So this is the last frontier. Your bodies are the last resource to be mined. There is no other way. It’s this or war. You lived in constant stress and trauma, and the food was junk. The Kool-Aid was laced with high fructose corn syrup. That is all regrettable, but it’s too late to cry over it. You took those pharmaceuticals for your clogged arteries, so now you need these vaccines. Next, you will need more pharmaceuticals for the side-effects of the vaccines. But offer up your arm now with dignity. Register your digital health pass. It’s like stepping over into another plane. It will not hurt if you’ll be quiet. Mothers, please. Come with your children. You’ve had as much of this world as you’re going to get. Let’s just be done with it. It’s not a self-destructive act. This is revolutionary therapy. It will take us beyond.
The passage above is a creative adaptation of parts of Jim Jones’ final speech to his followers, often referred to as “the death tape” among scholars of the Peoples Temple history. The transcript and recordings are at the link, or it can be found in The Strongest Poison, pages 207-215.
The important thing to note here is how many people in Jonestown—those people we scoff at as Kool-Aid drinkers—refused to drink. They were coerced to drink, forced against their will to take an injection, or filled with bullets. Even “brainwashed cult members” resisted.
For an alternative viewpoint on Jonestown, listen to Larry King’s 1980 radio interview with Joe Holsinger (1hour 24 minutes), friend of and former aide to Congressman Leo Ryan. Joe Holsinger did not support Mark Lane’s view of what happened in Jonestown. He suspected Jones was a government operative from his earliest days, and he states in this interview that there is evidence that Jonestown was a CIA mind-control experiment.
 Mark Lane, The Strongest Poison: How I Survived the Guyana Jonestown Massacre (The Lane Group, 1980, 2014).
 Mark Lane, 243.
 Mark Lane, 215.
 Deborah Layton, Seductive Poison (Anchor Books, 1998).
 “Interview: G. Robert Blakey,” Frontline, PBS, 1993. The addendum added to this interview should really be at the top rather than the bottom of the web page cited here. On that page, after the introduction of the 1993 interview, PBS has inserted this statement by G. Robert Blakey in 2003: “I now no longer feel comfortable with the conclusions I expressed here in 1993. I set out below the reasons for this judgment.”