In the early 1980s, the Cold War was heating up again after a period of detente from the mid-1960s to late 1979. The tiny Caribbean Island nation of Grenada had undergone a communist revolution in 1979 and four years later found itself facing a violent coup. The violent coup, the strategic geographic importance of Grenada, the presence of Cuban advisors, and hundreds of American medical students on the island created a political firestorm. Wanting to rescue the American students and prevent Grenada from becoming a more radical communist stronghold, the Reagan administration felt compelled to act. A decade after the United States’ rather demoralizing exit from ground combat in Vietnam, the US military roared back into action, instigating the invasion of Grenada.
Historical Background: Colonial Grenada
In the southern Caribbean, just north of South America, is a small island. It was discovered by the Spanish, ceded to the British, and later purchased by the French in the mid-1600s. Its tropical climate made it valuable for growing sugarcane and cocoa. Although relatively far from the United States, Grenada became embroiled in the American Revolutionary War in 1779 due to the French alliance with the newly founded United States of America.
Seventeen years before, Grenada had been given to Britain during the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War). Now at war with Britain, France took the opportunity to reclaim its former island. However, Britain was given the island back in 1783, at the formal conclusion of the American Revolutionary War. In 1795, a violent rebellion against British rule, allegedly inspired and encouraged by the French Revolution, broke out. Using a significant degree of force–sixteen regiments–the British were able to quell the rebellion by 1796.
February 1974: Grenada Gains Its Independence
The island of only 115,000 people was often in dire economic straits, once being dubbed the “slums of the Empire” by British prime minister Lloyd George. Due to slavery once having been prominent on the island, followed by imported labor for the East Indies, Grenada suffered from considerable racial and social class tensions. In 1967, as colonialism had largely collapsed throughout the world after World War II, Grenada was given self-governing autonomy over its internal affairs. However, it technically remained part of the British Empire. Seven years later, Grenada was finally granted the status of an independent nation and joined the Commonwealth of Nations, maintaining a connection to Britain. A new governor-general was appointed by Britain.
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As a member of the Commonwealth, Grenada’s governor-general served as the ceremonial Head of State and as the representative of the British monarch. The nation also continued to rely on Britain for economic support, raising questions about the stability of the newly independent government. The prime minister who gained full power in 1974 was the controversial Eric Gairy, who allegedly used a private police force known as the “Mongoose Gang” to oppress opponents.
March 17, 1979: Coup Introduces Communism
By 1979, many Grenadians were tired of Eric Gairy’s flamboyance and cronyism. A socialist group known as the New Jewel Movement, led by Maurice Bishop, ousted Gairy on March 13. Although a socialist revolution on Grenada, popularly known as the “Revo,” affected fewer than 100,000 people, it attracted widespread attention in the US and the English-speaking world. Many Grenadians were Black and spoke English, potentially allowing them to politically influence African Americans.
Bishop dissolved the parliamentary model of government carried over from British colonialism in favor of local committees. The new People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) sought assistance from Cuba and the Soviet Union, especially Cuba, due to its geographic closeness. This brought the PRG into swift political conflict with the United States, and the two governments exchanged harsh words. However, in June 1983, Bishop visited the United States to try and normalize diplomatic relations between the two countries.
October 12, 1983: A Second Coup Begins
Bishop’s June 1983 visit to the United States upset other socialist leaders in his government. In early October, Bishop and other Grenadian ministers were on an international trip to seek developmental aid. While he was abroad, deputy prime minister Bernard Coard organized a coup. This trap was sprung on October 12, 1983, placing Bishop under house arrest with the help of military leadership.
Coard was more of a socialist hard-liner than Bishop and considered his boss to be unacceptably moderate. He also considered existing committee leadership in the PRG to be “weak.” Coard assumed that widespread unrest would quickly fade during the house arrest of Bishop, as such turmoil had fizzled out before during events of the early 1970s. In the aftermath of Coard’s coup, many international leaders considered Coard’s move to be a mere “power grab” and not genuinely motivated by any adherence to Marxism/socialism.
October 19, 1983: The Coup Becomes Violent
After Bishop’s arrest, public outrage did not dissipate as Coard expected. A week into Bishop’s house arrest, a large throng of supporters forcibly freed him and marched across the island to Fort Rupert. Ironically, they marched right past the home of coup leader Bernard Coard, who was unprotected. However, instead of capturing Coard, the people continued on to Fort Rupert, where Bishop met with some advisors.
Having been unnoticed by the throng of Bishop’s supporters, Coard was able to get back in touch with his military allies. Using armored personnel carriers (APCs), they stormed Fort Rupert, running over and killing many innocent civilians. Coard’s soldiers quickly re-arrested and then executed Bishop and his advisors. A radio announcement declared that anyone who violated the peace would be shot on sight. The world scrambled to get news of what was happening, but foreign correspondents were banned from the island.
Why the US Became Involved
In political terms, Grenada had long been watched by the US due to its close alliance with Cuba, as well as with the more distant Soviet Union. Cubans were currently building an international airport on the island, which Cold War hawks (pro-defense) worried could help English-speaking Grenadians advertise a “friendly” socialism. There was also concern that, similar to Cuba some twenty years earlier, the Soviets could place missiles or other advanced weapons on the island that could target the operations of the US and its allies in the Caribbean.
The world feared more violence on the island after the APCs-plowing-into-the-crowd debacle, and there was the threat of Governor-General Paul Scoon, the representative of the British monarch on the island who was currently under house arrest, being executed. However, of greatest concern regarding Coard’s violent coup was the presence of hundreds of American medical students on the island. St. George’s University, founded in 1976 before the socialist “Revo,” was a popular medical school for English-speaking students. Could a Marxist hard-liner like Coard hold these students hostage to demand concessions from the West?
October 19-23, 1983: US Swiftly Plans to Intervene
Because Bernard Coard’s violent coup had happened so suddenly, the US was unprepared. No plans existed for intervening on the island, and many in the military had no idea where Grenada was or that it was an independent nation. Planning began for an evacuation operation for hundreds of American students on the island, potentially against both Grenadian and Cuban military resistance. Time was of the essence, as it was feared that a situation similar to the dreaded Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979-81 could develop if Coard had enough time to get news that foreign intervention was coming.
When the evacuation order came down on October 19, the military had less than four days to plan. In the scramble, it was discovered that no military-grade maps of Grenada existed, forcing planners to use a tourist map–available in Florida due to the island’s popularity as a vacation destination–overlaid with grid lines. Planners also used a recent copy of The Economist to learn about the island.
October 25, 1983: Invasion of Grenada
The first operations in the invasion of Grenada–officially called Operation Urgent Fury–began during the pre-dawn hours of October 25. US Army Rangers would land at the Point Salines airfield on the southern tip of the island. It would be the first use of the new Black Hawk attack helicopters and one of the first integrated operations using different groups of special forces: Army Rangers, Marines, and Navy SEALs. The SEALs were deployed first but struggled in the high surf in a water-borne amphibious landing for which they had never trained.
Eventually, the go-ahead was received to drop the Rangers by parachute without the SEALs having made it ashore. Unfortunately, this order was not anticipated, so Rangers had to rush to get ready while on the transport planes! By the time the transport planes and the Black Hawk helicopters were over their respective drop points, it was daylight, and the Grenadian and Cuban forces were firing at the aircraft. Fortunately, the resistance was localized to Coard’s Grenadians forces and the few Cuban soldiers on the island. After the execution of Maurice Bishop, Cuba refused to aid Coard, and the Soviet Union felt that Grenada was not strategically important enough to risk operating so close to the United States.
Seizing the Objectives
Although the Marine helicopters and Army paratroopers took fire during the initial landing, the US swiftly regained momentum once troops were on the ground. Army Rangers quickly secured the Salines Point airfield. With the airfield secured, the US was eventually able to bring in some five thousand troops. Airborne missions continued, helping special forces rescue Governor-General Paul Scoon and his wife and firing on enemy positions to clear the way for groups of Army Rangers heading out to rescue the medical students at St. George’s University.
A temporary obstacle emerged when it was discovered that there were actually two separate medical school campuses, not just one. A second obstacle involved a lack of communications ability. In one of the most famous stories about the invasion of Grenada, a Navy SEAL on the mission to rescue the Governor-General used a pay phone to call Fort Bragg and have airborne fire redirected to hold off approaching enemy forces. Each hour, additional arriving troops at Point Salines helped turn the tide of battle.
October 27, 1983: Final Success Achieved
While Army Rangers had quickly made it to the main medical school campus, the second campus was surrounded by waiting enemy forces. On October 26, a helicopter assault commenced to land troops at Grand Anse, the site of the second and smaller campus. Army Rangers then learned about a third group of medical students elsewhere! After this point, enemy resistance began to diminish considerably, though US forces were extremely thorough in moving slowly north across the island, expecting counterattacks during the invasion of Grenada.
On October 27, the final major mission occurred: capturing a Grenadian military barracks. Although some American helicopters crashed in the assault, there was no enemy fire. Ultimately, only a handful of enemy soldiers were found at the barracks. By this point, most Grenadian and Cuban soldiers had ceased resistance, and some even dressed in civilian clothes to try and avoid capture. Almost 700 American and foreign medical students were rescued without a single student casualty.
After the Invasion of Grenada: Ronald Reagan’s Victory
The successful rescue of all American and foreign medical students on the island of Grenada was a tremendous political victory for US President Ronald Reagan. Historically, it has been portrayed as an American victory over communism, though Grenada had been an official socialist state since 1979. With a swift victory and few US military casualties, Grenada was a major morale boost for the United States, which had suffered from the end of the Vietnam War, the Watergate Scandal, and the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Reagan, an ardent Cold War hawk, vowed to aggressively defend America’s interests with military force…and Grenada paid off for him big time.
However, the aftermath following the invasion of Grenada was not entirely positive. Coming on the heels of the 1982 Falklands War between Britain and Argentina, the lack of British involvement in the liberation of people in a former English colony was an embarrassment for the administration of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Having won a similar engagement against Argentina, Britain allegedly looked weak by not participating in Operation Urgent Fury. As expected, Cuba and the Soviet Union protested the invasion of Grenada. However, the Soviets’ diplomatic reaction was tempered by negative fallout from its September 1 shoot-down of a South Korean airliner, potentially leading the USSR to make a more muted protest of the Grenada crisis.