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The Johnson Cult

Since 1964, there have been reports of a bizarre cult on a remote Pacific Island that once tried to 'buy' former US President Lyndon Johnson as its chief. Robert Bartholomew and Dorothy Billings believe it's time we put this particular media-created myth to rest.

In 2004, the 'President Johnson Cult' saw its 40th anniversary. In early 1964, a group of natives on a tiny Pacific Island off Papua New Guinea were thrust into the world media spotlight after reports that they were refusing to pay their taxes. Instead, we were told, they were using the money to 'buy' then US President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the hope of luring the world's most powerful leader to serve as their 'Big Man' and lead the impoverished islanders into a new Golden Age. At the time, Johnson was a popular figure throughout Australia and the Pacific as a champion of civil rights and welfare. A cornerstone of his 'Great Society' was the establishment of various landmark social welfare programmes in the USA such as Medicare and Medicaid. The Western media had a field day, mercilessly poking fun at the 'wacky' New Hanover natives; they were seen as 'backward', 'primitive', 'irrational' or just 'crazy'. In a series of anonymously written articles, several major media outlets solidified the stereotype of the islanders as primitive cultists and allowed the story to flourish.

On 28 February 1964, under the title "Stone Age Election", Time (pictured right) made the natives sound like a cross between the Beverly Hillbillies and the Little Rascals: "Cultists believe that white men do not work, that they merely write secret symbols on scraps of paper, for which they receive planeloads of 'cargo' – boats, tractors, houses, cars and canned goods. After the election, cultists believe that they will inherit the white man's magic to make goods materialise without doing any work." This story was an obvious attempt to label the islanders as irrational 'cargo cultists.'

About a week later, the 9 March issue of Newsweek jumped on the bandwagon, jokingly proclaiming: "Don't Eat the Candidate" and reporting that "the murderous Kukukuku warriors and the wild Nembi people… promised not to eat any candidates." As if this image of the natives wasn't bad enough, the 22 June edition asked: "What price LBJ?" whilst implying that the natives were immoral for thinking that they could actually 'buy' Johnson's influence.

The New York Times joined in, publishing a series of articles that branded the natives as ignorant 'cargo cultists' 1. These press reports portrayed the islanders as intellectually confused and incapable of the most basic logic. The trouble is, it wasn't true. Even more troubling, these influential publications engaged in what we might term 'armchair journalism', not even bothering to send their own reporters into the field to see at first hand what was happening. The Time, Newsweek and Times accounts are conspicuous in that there are no bylines whatsoever – they appear to have been taken from wire reports. Later reports in other publications actually claimed that the islanders worshipped Johnson as a god 2.

What are Cargo Cults?

In the 19th century, Western observers in Melanesia and the South Pacific began to describe the creation and spread of 'strange' new religious movements that were eventually dubbed 'cargo cults'. Most formed around a charismatic prophet claiming to have visions of a dawning utopian age of native civilisation. These movements are thought to have started when the islanders saw cargo ships (and, later, planes) unloading European goods, whetting their appetite for Western wealth and technology. At the same time, their lack of familiarity with Western culture made it difficult for them to comprehend the process by which these goods were produced in far-off factories and shipped as cargo. Many 'cultists' use misguided logic in assuming that because Europeans use these cargo objects and are far wealthier than the natives, that they know the cargo 'secret'. As a result, 'cult' members often try to gain access to Western cargo through magical means, by mimicking European ways. Anthropologist Conrad Kottak notes that: "having observed Europeans' reverent treatment of flags and flagpoles, cult members began to worship flagpoles, believing them to be sacred towers capable of transmitting messages between living and dead. Natives constructed airstrips in order to entice planes bearing canned goods, portable radios, clothing, wristwatches, and motorcycles. Near the airstrip they built effigies of towers, airplanes, and tin-can radios. They talked into these cans in a magical attempt to establish radio contact with the gods". 3 In many 'cults', European goods are themselves worshipped as sacred objects. The number of cargo movements proliferated in response to World War II, when Allied forces used islands in the region as bases. The 'Johnson cult', though, was neither cult nor religious movement but an unusual political statement.

What Really Happened?

In 1964 Dorothy Billings was a graduate student teaching anthropology at The University of Sydney, Australia. Finding the accounts of the 'strange cult' too fascinating to pass up, Billings tried to go to New Hanover but was refused permission by the Australian authorities, visiting nearby New Ireland instead. Billings grew suspicious that something was amiss on New Hanover and made her way on to the island – just a stone's throw away from New Ireland – by boat. She did so with considerable trepidation, as Australian administrators of the island had warned her that the locals "may be dangerous and ready to riot." When she arrived, she was surprised to find a group of friendly, articulate, well-organised islanders expressing disdain for the Aussies. Initially blinded by the popular portrayal of the natives, it was impossible for Billings to see them as anything but cultists. Soon, though, she began to notice the oddities which began to emerge. For one thing, they didn't behave like any other 'cargo cult' she had ever studied. She later observed: "All cultists interviewed, with two possible exceptions, seemed to believe that cargo comes about through work of a practical sort rather than through ritual actions."

As the first anthropologist to ever live with the islanders, Billings eventually came to realise that the 'President Johnson cult' was no such thing; in fact, it was a tax protest movement that had no intention of ever 'buying' Johnson, and could not be described as a cult by any common definition of the term. As anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse notes of Billings's findings: "It had no rituals, no deities, no sacred objects, no elaborate doctrines, no epiphanic revelations, miracles, possessions, or visitations. It spawned no prophets, mediums, or messiahs, and had no need of gurus, priests, or other cult officials. Indeed, it is hard to imagine why such a movement should have been saddled with the 'cult' label, were it not for the fact that it occurred in Melanesia, well known for its many sensational(ised) cargo cults". 4

But if it wasn't a cult, what was it? What Billings discovered was an elaborate soap opera, a piece of political theatre and a game of high stakes. She found New Hanover to have a rich history of using play-acting and bluffing as a negotiation ploy that could be used in order to embarrass a foe. A similar behaviour, dubbed the 'wild man' by anthropologists, can be found throughout parts of nearby mainland New Guinea among individual natives .5 For example, among the Guramumba, a 'wild man' seems to go into a fit of rage, striking out at people and property. He often brandishes a weapon such as a stick or a knife. Curiously, no one ever seems to get hurt. The man is usually upset by what he feels to be excessive dowry requests by his fiancée's parents. Anthropologists remark that these are controlled 'performances' that allow for the parties involved to re-negotiate marriage terms. 6 Everyone knows what's going on. These outbursts have a theatrical quality, and locals actually go to the scene to watch in the same way that one might go to watch a play. Occasionally, 'audience' members become participants if a 'wild man' feigns an attack. Billings found that on New Hanover, the natives had based their entire culture on such 'games'. In 1964, the New Hanoverans were fed up with their Australian administrators. Angry with these unpopular rulers, their real purpose was to embarrass them into giving them more aid, as development of their tiny island had been neglected for years.

According to Billings, the Australian authorities responsible for overseeing the island had taken the 'cult' story at face value and were clueless as to what was motivating the islanders' 'strange' fixation on Lyndon Johnson. It was a cultural misunderstanding – the equivalent of a non-English speaker growing confused after hearing someone say that a friend has "kicked the bucket". The phrase has nothing to do with kicking or buckets, but is an idiomatic way of saying that someone has died, a bit of Western slang not intended to be taken literally. The Australian officials did know that there was a tax protest movement on the island that threatened to make them look bad, so they were more than happy to broadcast the tale about a strange 'cult' of irrational natives to the international press in hopes of making the islanders themselves look bad. And they succeeded.

For their part, the islanders had thought: "What better way to embarrass the Australians into fixing up our island than to publicly humiliate them by requesting that the Americans take over? What an insult! Surely that'll get their attention. Surely they'll have to give us more aid now." Ironically, the political gamesmanship of these so-called primitive, irrational islanders was so complex, subtle and unfamiliar that it went over the heads of both the Australian administrators and the world media.

At this time, the New Hanoverians had not been thoroughly studied and so outsiders simply didn't understand their unique culture of shaming. The Western media simply parroted the accounts given by Australian officials, gobbling up the story hook, line and sinker, and never bothering to verify it. After all, these people were just a bunch of 'wacky' natives on an insignificant island in the middle of the Pacific. The 'Johnson cult' was born.

Even now, the 'Johnson cult' is cited as an example of 'primitive' thought, and the islanders seen as childlike and credulous. A recent description of the 'cult' appeared on a web site for the prestigious US Public Television show The American Experience: "Lyndon Johnson was once worshipped as a god by followers of a 'cargo cult' in Papua, New Guinea. (Cargo cults are a religious phenomenon that developed when Europeans began arriving in the area, bringing with them huge amounts of material goods, which the confused native peoples thought must have been acquired from the spirit world.) The people of New Hanover… thought so much of Lyndon Johnson that during the first House of Assembly elections there, they voted for LBJ – the feeling being that if he could lead the US, he could lead them, too, and bring to them the prosperity enjoyed in America." 7

Perhaps one question needs asking, though: Why were Lyndon Johnson and the Americans dragged into the affair? The whole saga happened at a time when an independence movement was gaining momentum across New Guinea and natives were voicing their desire to be free of Australian rule. In the early days, a national House of Assembly was formed, and on New Hanover many locals cast ballots for Johnson. Billings believes that in this ad-libbed drama, the Americans were already 'backstage', being fondly remembered as liberators during WWII. The islanders' goal was not cargo, but independence in the spirit of America: "In the vote for Johnson, the people shamed the Australian administration for not having done a better job of developing New Hanover, while pretending that they were just following Australian orders to vote," Billings says. Such 'double plays' are a part of everyday life on New Hanover. For example, it's not uncommon for a native to throw a big public feast for someone who is thought to be stingy as a way of publicly shaming that person. Just as the islanders laughed when they told Billings of these acts of satiric generosity, "they laughed when they told me about the look on the faces of the Australian patrol officers when the Lavongais [natives] innocently voted for Johnson and then quickly disappeared into the bush". 8 New Hanover politics and gamesmanship is highly complex, and the Johnson cult seems to have been enjoyed as a test of wits. As difficult as it may be for outsiders to understand, Billings says that New Hanoverians love to watch and participate in dramatic public quarrels. Whether you win or lose is irrelevant, but the very act of playing the game "implies a kind of equality and intimacy between the parties… New Hanoverians seem to feel that you cannot trust a person until you have seen his anger – then you know him and are at ease. Provoking a quarrel is also a way of gaining attention.".9 If the Australian administrators were clueless, then the Western media were careless – unwilling to pursue a story about a seemingly strange group of politically insignificant islanders in the middle of 'nowhere', and following it, instead, from their armchairs.

The 'Johnson cult' saga highlights the remarkable spectrum of human cultural diversity and creativity, and the perils that can befall outsiders who render superficial judgments on other cultures. While it's impossible to be completely objective, journalists need to be thoroughly schooled in history and culture and mindful that deviance is always a relative matter. Perhaps Mark Twain said it best: "T'ain't what a man don't know that hurts him so. It's what he knows that just ain't so!" For 40 years the myth of the 'Johnson cult' has survived. We've all had a laugh at the expense of the islanders of New Hanover. Now it's time to put the myth to rest.

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Joseph Pukina
Joseph Pukina, an activist in the Johnson ‘Cult’ and the TIA, named his baby – born in 1964–John Kennedy. He told a meeting of Australian administrators: “You can hang me from the rafters, but I will not pay taxes to Australia!”. Image: Dorothy K Billings
The island of New Hanover
The island of New Hanover. Image: Dorothy K Billings
  The Johnson Cult
Dorothy Billings in 1988 with Walla Gukguk, President of Tutukuval Isukal Association (TIA) from 1967 to the present; this was the successor to the Johnson ‘Cult’ and continues to this day. Image: Dorothy K Billings
Author Biography
Dorothy Billings is an associate professor of anthropology at Wichita State University who has conducted fieldwork on New Hanover Island for over 35 years. She is the author of Cargo Cult as Theater: Performance in the Pacific (Lexington Books, 2002). Robert Bartholomew is a sociologist living in Darwin, Australia. He is the author of Panic Attacks: Media Manipulation and Mass Delusion (Sutton, 2004).
    Further reading:
  • Robert E Bartholomew and Hilary Evans, Panic Attacks: Media Manipulation and Mass Delusion, Sutton, 2004.
  • Dorothy K Billings, Cargo Cult as Theater: Performance in the Pacific, Lanham, Maryland, 2002.


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