The invasion of Grenada: What drove Reagan's decision?

The mission engaged Marines, Navy, and Air Force. Coordination and communication were sorely lacking. Intelligence preparation and military cooperation left much to be desired.

On the 13th of October 1983, a coup d'état unfolded on the tranquil Caribbean island of Grenada, situated within the Lesser Antilles, along with the smaller Grenadines, forming the sovereign state of Grenada. In this region, coups d'état, notably those of a military nature, were a commonplace occurrence. However, this particular coup bore significance due to its prompt follow-up – an armed intervention by the United States on the 25th of October.

This intervention, predictably, garnered widespread condemnation from the international community, spearheaded by the United Nations, with even allies like the United Kingdom expressing disapproval. Within the progressive forces' domain, which encompassed countries exhibiting varying degrees of dependence on the USSR, reactions were foreseeable.

Nevertheless, what stood out was the extensive coverage by US media and academic circles, continually highlighting the criminal nature of the intervention for many years. America's adversaries, needless to say, denounced the Reagan administration. This episode revealed the unwavering stance of a powerful nation safeguarding its interests and impeding a small nation's ability to determine its development trajectory.

Cuban-Soviet Threat

Grenada, positioned approximately 200 kilometers from Venezuela, a significant oil supplier to the US at the time, was a focal point. In close proximity lay Puerto Rico, an American territory, and notably, Cuba.

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During that period, Cuba was involved in numerous Marxist guerrilla movements across Africa (such as in Angola) and South America. Supporting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Cuba was directly linked to the events on Grenada, where Marines discovered 700 construction workers and engineers led – some might assert “directed” – by a Cuban army colonel. Over fifty of these construction workers had transported AK-47 carbines from Cuba for their mission. Additionally, Grenada's local armories alone possessed enough small arms to outfit a force ten times the size of the local army and militia, if needed.

Behind Cuba loomed the Soviet Union, a constant concern at the time. The fear of a Soviet military base and airfield for strategic bombers in Grenada, essentially at the United States' doorstep, was palpable. Although the Russians were already stationed in Cuba, proliferating such sites was perilous, especially in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962, during President John F. Kennedy's era. This crisis brought the world to the brink of a global nuclear conflict when the Soviets attempted to install missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba.

     President Ronald Reagan, elected in 1981, was a vocal challenger of the Soviet empire. In March 1983, he famously labelled the Soviet Union the “evil empire” and championed “Star Wars” as a means to defeat it. This reference to the popular film series aimed to elucidate the nature of strategic armament utilising space technology. Essentially, it conveyed that the USSR's potential nuclear attack on the United States would be intercepted en route, a technology no one else possessed at the time. In response to this challenge, despite its technological limitations, the USSR armed itself extensively.

The Reagan-era United States, in contrast to the Jimmy-Carter-era, responded resolutely to any communist domination threats. For instance, they deployed tactical nuclear weapons in Western Europe as a response to Soviet SS-20 missile installations and opposed martial law in Poland. Additionally, in South America, they engaged in conflicts against the Sandinistas and communist guerrillas, supporting – albeit dubiously – criminal dictatorships whose sole virtue was their anti-communist stance.

The political polarisation of South America left little choice for the future: it was either going to be a dictatorship or a communist dictatorship with the facade of freedom propaganda. Witnessing Cuba's example daily, the US anticipated a comparable scenario in the region between South America and Florida.

From one coup to another

Grenada achieved independence from Britain in 1974. Its first prime minister, Eric Gairy, hailed from a moderate left-wing faction and maintained amicable relations with both the United States and Britain. The country remained a part of the British Commonwealth, with Elizabeth II as its head of state. However, Gairy's reign soon revealed dictatorial and corrupt tendencies. On the international stage, he was known for advocating for UN investigations into UFOs and extraterrestrial activity, earning him titles like “certifiably mad”.
Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard (pictured with microphone) promising bases for Soviet bombers. Photo: Alex Webb / Magnum Photos / Forum
Under Gairy's leadership, the nation stagnated, ultimately resulting in a leftist coup in 1979. Gairy, who was out of the country at the time, was advised not to return. This coup transpired without bloodshed, suggesting a lack of public support for Gairy's return.

The newly appointed Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop, led the New JEWEL Movement (Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education, and Liberation). Initially promising reforms in a leftist spirit, democracy, and new elections to validate his authority, Bishop managed to garner widespread support, even from the Rastafarians present on the island. However, their support dwindled when he opposed dreadlocks in schools and the heavily impeded the marijuana trade.

Instead of holding the promised elections, Bishop outlawed all parties except his own, shut down newspapers, and acknowledged Cuba as his model. While global leftist voices perceived this as a drive towards universal education, healthcare, and nationalisation, internal factions within the JEWEL movement showcased different inclinations. Bernard Coard, deputy prime minister in Bishop's government, sought alliances in Moscow and promised bases for Soviet bombers. Meanwhile, Bishop explored economic aid talks in the US, albeit without significant success, likely due to Coard's influence.

Of concern to the United States was the expansion of the airport at Port Salinas, specifically the lengthening of the runway, ostensibly to boost tourist traffic. Indeed, extensive runways were necessary for both large passenger planes and strategic bombers. The airport's construction was orchestrated by Cubans.

When a military coup transpired on the 13th of October, orchestrated by Bernard Coard and General Howard Austin, an individual of Caribbean descent despite his Anglo-Saxon name, the White House resolved to initiate a military response. Coard, known for his more radical stance compared to Bishop, visited Moscow. The Cuban-Soviet threat was very much real. Venezuela's oil shipments could have been at risk, and the possibility of establishing a new base – outside Cuba – to spread the revolution in the Caribbean and South America loomed large.

The mission that lasted three days

Prompted by the Ronald Reagan administration, the casus belli was the fate of 800 American medical students at the university in the capital Grenada. Given the Carter administration's blunder in freeing the American hostages in Tehran, it was deemed prudent to take decisive action, even though the campuses with the students were merely surrounded by military patrols, and they faced no imminent harm. The US engaged in unsuccessful negotiations with Grenada's new government for the peaceful evacuation of Americans from the island.

Additionally, Elizabeth II's governor of the island, Sir Paul Scoon, was under house arrest. If someone lacks the ability to move, are they a hostage or not? Leftists, later assessing the invasion of Grenada were inclined to believe that they were not, and that the students and Scoon were pretexts for US imperialism.

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While Maurice Bishop's bloodless coup enjoyed popular support in Grenada, Coard's coup was met with a bloodily repressed resistance. Coard's men, the People's Revolutionary Army, placed Bishop under house arrest. The crowd recaptured him on the 19th of October and marched towards the government buildings. The People's Revolutionary Army dispersed the demonstration with rifle fire, resulting in up to a hundred casualties. Bishop himself and several of his ministers were executed.

The bloody revolt, the assassination of the Prime Minister, and the concern for the hostages are reasons enough to justify intervention. However, the most significant reason seems to be the communist geopolitical threat in the region, especially since the United States was no longer halting the march of communism around the world but actively fighting it.

On the morning of the 25th of October, ranger troops landed near the Port Salinas airport with the task of capturing the facility so that Marines could land there. It was after sunrise, and the rangers lost the element of surprise. It wasn't until around 5 pm that the airport was able to accommodate the Marines' planes. All of this was happening while the Cuban “builders” were firing stubbornly from armored cars. After three days, the invasion was concluded. The People's Revolutionary Army dispersed home fairly quickly, but isolated outbreaks of resistance in difficult, unfamiliar terrain had to be dealt with.

The US Rangers and Marines did not have military maps; they used tourist maps where the terrain was not marked. Three Ranger helicopters crashed on landing. A small detachment of Navy Seals had to return to sea on rafts after landing at one point on the coast because there was no communication with command. The Marines communicated with their command from a telephone at the residence of Paul Scoon, whom they, of course, relieved.

The operation involved commandos, Marines, Navy, and Air Force. There was a widespread lack of coordination and communication. When the Marines recaptured the campus with the students, they found out from the students that more students were on the other campus, which the military did not know. Intelligence preparation for the operation was poor, as was the cooperation among the military units.

After Grenada, the US Army underwent a profound reorganisation, which came in handy in later, much larger operations in the Middle East.
Relaxing after the battle for the airport at Port Salinas. Photo: A. Abbas / Magnum Photos / Forum
The US emerged victorious, largely because it could not afford to fail. The country deployed 7,300 US Army troops against an island defended by 1,500 not very motivated People's Revolutionary Army soldiers and 720 Cubans. The American forces were better equipped with heavy weapons, which were almost non-existent on the island. The number of rifles available could have armed several People's Revolutionary Armies, but the nation did not arm itself. The attitude of Grenadians towards the invasion was indifferent, even sympathetic.

Casualties were relatively low. The Americans lost 19 soldiers, including nine due to their own shelling. Dozens of Grenadian and Cuban soldiers were killed. More than 600 Cubans were taken prisoner. Bernard Coard and his closest associates spent more than 20 years in US prisons.

In 1985, the US military left the island. Before this happened, Crown Governor Paul Scoon assumed real power and prepared democratic elections. American financial assistance in the following years significantly boosted the infrastructure and, consequently, the standard of living on Grenada. However, this progress was tragically wiped out by the enormous hurricanes of 2003 and 2005, but that is another story.

For the US, the invasion of Grenada had enormous significance on domestic and external politics. It showed the Americans that it was necessary and possible to liberate themselves from the Vietnam complex, further reinforced by the impunity of the hostage holding in Tehran.

Externally, it demonstrated to the camp of peace and socialism, i.e. the USSR with its adjuncts, that the US, under Reagan, was a country that operated effectively and certain intentions just off its shores would not go unchallenged. Grenada was a dress rehearsal before the events in the great theatre of war – the Gulf and Afghanistan.

– Krzysztof Zwoliński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Roberto Galea
Main photo: US helicopters patrol Grenada a few days after the 1983 invasion. Photo: A. Abbas / Magnum Photos / Forum
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