A trove of US government cables from the immediate aftermath of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre has been published quietly, tucked away as part of the much larger Wikileaks Public Library of US Diplomacy. The cables seem to have been approved for release last year by the US State Department and form part of Wikileaks’ Carter Cables series, but I can’t find any record of them elsewhere online (apart from on this website, which is no longer active and features only broken links). So I’m posting a few links here.
Perhaps the most interesting cables are those sent by the US Embassy in Georgetown back to the State Department in Washington, as the very first reports start to come in of the shooting of Congressman Leo Ryan and others on a runway near the Jonestown site. Shortly after that incident, more than 900 residents of Jonestown under Rev Jim Jones would begin a mass suicide.
In this cable, US Ambassador John Burke files an initial memo following a meeting with the Guyanese Prime Minister and others. Although he is by then aware of the murder/suicide of four Temple members who had stayed behind in Georgetown, there are no reports yet of the start of the mass suicide at the remote Jonestown compound. That story unfolds in a series of Situation Reports sent over the coming days.
The earliest I can find in the archive is Situation Report 3, sent the following day, but still before any Guyanese soldiers have been able to reach Jonestown. The scale of the tragedy begins to become clear in Situation Report 5, with the widely-quoted figure of 400 dead (a significant under-estimated, for which the Guyanese and US governments would be widely criticised, as families of the dead were given false hope their relatives may have escaped into the jungle).
There is a wide range of other documents in the library, which is easily searchable. Probably the best online resource about Jonestown is this website maintained by San Diego State University. This 2006 documentary film about Jonestown, which prompted my own interest in the subject, is excellent.