In 1979, the small Caribbean nation of Grenada underwent a communist revolution that peacefully installed a socialist government in the former British colony. Four years later, the US intervened militarily to depose a new communist leader and impose a capitalist government. The intervention was controversial, with competing explanations as to why the United States invaded the island. Although the administration of US President Ronald Reagan argued that the intervention was to protect American students at the island’s medical school, critics argued that it was a Cold War power play intended to deprive Cuba and the Soviet Union of an additional base of operations in the Western Hemisphere.
Setting the Stage: Colonial Grenada
The island of Grenada was first discovered by Europeans in 1498 when Christopher Columbus sighted the island. Twenty-five years later, its current name was adopted by the Spanish, later shifting from Granada to Grenada after the island was ceded to France from England in the late 1620s. In the 1760s, Grenada was returned to England after France’s defeat in the French and Indian War. During the American Revolutionary War, in 1779, France retook the island, though it returned to English control after the war concluded. In 1795, a formerly enslaved person named Julien Fedon sparked a rebellion on the island against the English, influenced by the ongoing French Revolution.
The British regained control of the island the following June and retained control permanently. Slavery was abolished in the 1830s, as it was throughout the British Empire. In 1877, Grenada became a Crown Colony and was highly valued due to its production of spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. After World War II, the anti-colonial movement steadily reduced British control of the island, and in 1967, Grenada gained control of its internal affairs. However, Grenada’s foreign affairs and military were still controlled by Britain as part of the Commonwealth.
1974: Grenadian Independence & Rule of Eric Gairy
After seven years as a member of the Commonwealth, Grenada gained complete independence from Britain. In November 1974, formal diplomatic relations were established between Grenada and the United States. The island’s premier under its Commonwealth status, Sir Eric Gairy, became its first prime minister as an independent country. Outspoken and aggressive, Gairy had a controversial reputation. Although he was the country’s first independent leader, he was accused of being authoritarian and corrupt, enriching himself and his allies with government contracts. Gairy was popular with working-class citizens and had been a proponent of populist freedom since the early 1950s.
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Despite Gairy’s initial popularity with the working class, his “Mongoose Gang” of secret police led many to view him as a violent radical. Gairy also provoked ridicule with his staunch belief in UFOs, including his addressing the United Nations regarding his insistence that he had seen them personally. Allegedly, Gairy was also highly focused on black magic and the occult. Within five years, many on the island were eager to see a change in leadership.
1979: Peaceful Communist Revolution in Grenada
In March 1979, a nearly-bloodless coup was launched against Gairy’s government while the prime minister was abroad. Members of the New Jewel movement (an abbreviation for Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education, and Liberation) stormed government facilities and arrested Gairy’s ministers and soldiers. The movement’s leader, a 34-year-old lawyer named Maurice Bishop, became Grenada’s new ruler. In the United States, the deposed Gairy requested American and British assistance to return him as leader of the island, but this was ignored.
Although Bishop was a Marxist, he was far more popular than Gairy domestically due to his focus on equity and economic development. Internationally, however, Bishop’s praise for Cuban leaders Fidel Castro and Che Guevara led to rapidly eroding relations with the United States. Most controversially to the US, Bishop actively utilized Cuban aid to develop Grenada’s health care system and infrastructure. Other communist bloc nations also supplied advisors, including North Korea, East Germany, Bulgaria, and the Soviet Union. In 1986, North Korean premier Kim Il-Sung defended his sending advisors to developing nations as a way to foster socialist friendship without forcing these nations to rely on pro-colonial powers for aid.
1983: Crisis in Grenada
In June 1983, Maurice Bishop visited the United States. Speaking at Hunter College in New York City, Bishop alleged that the US hostility toward his socialist movement was related to demographics and linguistics. Grenada, as a nation that was 95 percent Black and English-speaking, could allegedly easily popularize Marxist ideals among the Black population of the United States. Although Cuba was geographically closer to the United States and could host many more communist agents from the USSR and its allies, Grenada’s ability to popularize socialism to visiting Western tourists made it a concern for presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
As Bishop worked to improve his international presence, second-in-command New Jewel Movement leader Bernard Coard was planning a coup. Coard, who had resigned from Grenada’s Central Committee in 1982, wanted joint leadership with Bishop, whom he thought had grown complacent in his support for Marxism. Despite warnings from Fidel Castro about Coard’s alleged plans, Bishop returned to Grenada from the United States as planned and rejected any power-sharing agreement. Coard enacted a coup and had Bishop placed under house arrest. Days later, violence erupted when citizens freed Bishop from house arrest, and Coard responded with force, killing civilians and executing Bishop and other deposed ministers.
October 25, 1983: US Invades Grenada
The violence on the Caribbean island shocked the world. Quickly, the United States and the Organization of American States (OAS) responded with military force. Some 7,000 US troops stormed the island within days, spearheaded by special forces units and air assaults. The American intervention was a military success and faced little organized resistance from Coard’s soldiers or Cuban military advisors. Operation Urgent Fury was noteworthy in creating the modern approach to joint service operations (sea-based, airborne, land-based, etc.) and the use of special forces.
Militarily, the prime objective of the invasion of Grenada was to secure St. George’s University, a medical school hosting hundreds of American and other Western students. Allegedly, the Reagan administration feared that Coard would use American hostages as bargaining chips in the aftermath of his execution of Marice Bishop and Bishop’s allies. Suffering relatively few casualties, US forces were able to rescue all students and governor-general Paul Scoon, the Commonwealth representative on the island. Geopolitically, the success of Urgent Fury was promoted as a show of American military resurgence after the relative malaise since the end of the Vietnam War in 1973 and the humiliation of the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979-81.
Controversies of US Intervention
Was the Reagan administration’s goal primarily to rescue American medical students at St. George’s University and governor-general Paul Scoon…or was it to crush communism and put on a show of military might to erase the post-Vietnam doldrums? The early 1980s had seen a resurgence of the Cold War, beginning with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. In response, the US boycotted the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow. However, coming on the heels of the Iran Hostage Crisis, which began less than two months earlier, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led many critics to proclaim the Carter administration weak on foreign policy and national defense.
Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election by campaigning to boost America’s military strength. Reagan’s New Right coalition of conservative supporters included defense hawks, who wanted increased military spending and aggressive responses to foreign crises. As a result, many critics of the Reagan administration argued that the intervention in Grenada had more to do with appeasing defense hawks and signaling military strength to the communist bloc than rescuing American students. Indeed, the intervention, coming less than a year after the death of longtime Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, may have been considered an ideal opportunity to rattle a new Soviet administration that was under-prepared to respond.
International Criticism of US Intervention
Of course, the communist bloc criticized the US military intervention in Grenada as politically motivated rather than a genuine rescue mission. Some evidence supports the belief that the Reagan administration’s fear of Grenada becoming a “Soviet-Cuban” base was false – the invasion found that only a handful of the 784 Cubans on Grenada had military affiliations and that there were fewer citizens from other communist states than there were Americans on the island. Additionally, unlike in Cuba prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was no discovery of advanced heavy weaponry like jet fighters or missiles on Grenada. The communist bloc did not appear to be trying to turn Grenada into a military base.
Criticism was not limited to communist countries; Britain also took issue with the surprise invasion. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared that Western nations did not “walk into other people’s countries,” criticizing America’s use of force as violating an independent nation’s sovereignty. Canada also criticized the invasion, disputing the Reagan administration’s insistence that the invasion was necessary to protest Western students. It argued that, since many students remained on the island in the weeks after the invasion, it was clear that evacuating students was not the primary concern of the intervention.
Intervention in Grenada Part of Cold War Rearmament
The invasion of Grenada coincided with a resurgence of American anti-communist aggression under US President Ronald Reagan. 1983 was a banner year for Cold War amplification, and March 8 saw Ronald Reagan give his famous and controversial speech where he referred to the USSR as the “evil empire.” Fifteen days later, Reagan gave another speech announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). This was to be a space-based anti-missile system that could shoot down Soviet nuclear missiles on their way to the United States. Although noble in design, the announcement allegedly reinvigorated an expensive arms race between the two superpowers.
By 1983, the US had already been intervening against communism in Latin America for two years. In Nicaragua, the socialist Sandinista government became a target of the Reagan administration for allegedly promoting communist expansion against El Salvador. A joint session of Congress was told that the Sandinista movement presented a threat to Central America and US national security in April 1983. Thus, the October 1983 invasion of Grenada can be seen in the wider context of anti-communism in the region. Concurrently, the US was also intervening in the Middle East in 1983 after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, further reinforcing the desire to flex American military muscle.
The Aftermath of US Intervention in Grenada
In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, many American medical students at St. George’s University did not wish to leave. The airport on Grenada, which was being built with the assistance of Cuba, was completed by the United States. However, it was revealed that the airport was not simply a communist base – it was designed by a Canadian firm and financially guaranteed by Britain. The US swiftly reinstated the pre-1979 constitution of Grenada, reverting the island to a capitalist system instead of a socialist one. An interim government, led by Nicholas Brathwaite, was set up by the United States.
Eric Gairy, who had been deposed in 1979, returned to the island and attempted to win his seat in the 1984 general election. However, he was defeated by old political rival Herbert Blaize, who had the support of the Reagan administration (and was a personal admirer of Reagan himself). Blaize was a conservative who had been a British government appointee on Grenada as far back as 1960 and supported tax cuts during his 1980s administration. Controversially, although credited with boosting economic growth, the tax cuts also caused unemployment on the island to rise by 1987.
US-Grenadian Relations Today
Today, the United States has normalized diplomatic relations with Grenada, and St. George’s University remains a popular medical school for American students to attend. The island has returned to being a common vacation spot for Western tourists. However, disagreements among Grenadians remain regarding the invasion, especially since US investment on the island did not match what was anticipated. When the US intervenes in other nations today, analysts often compare it to the rapid success of Urgent Fury.
In recent years, prior to the Covid pandemic, US tourism to the island increased substantially, and Grenada remains a major exporter of spices. However, in a twist of irony, China has become a significant investor on the island. In 2007, Grenada co-hosted the Cricket World Cup in a stadium financed by the Chinese. A shift to strong ties between China and Grenada came after Hurricane Ivan in 2005 when China was willing to offer substantial aid. This led to an eventual legal dispute between Grenada and Taiwan, which involved an attempt by Taiwan to seize Grenadian assets held in the United States. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court, but highlighted continuing tensions regarding Grenada, the United States, and a communist third party.