The early 1980s were not good years for the United States. The decade started with the yet unresolved Iranian hostage crisis. For 444 days, American personnel of the US Embassy in Tehran were held hostage. The matter was resolved only after President Carter was out of office (the Iranians waited until President Reagan took the oath of office to allow the plane carrying the hostages to leave Tehran's Mehrabad Airport) and the Reagan administration agreed to unfreeze billions in Iranian assets. 1983 was a particularly hard year for American morale. In that year, a suicide bomber blew up the US embassy in Beirut. Of the almost 70 dead, 17 were were Americans. Later that year, an even bigger blow. Literally. The largest man-made, non-nuclear explosion in history destroyed the American Marine barracks in supposedly safe west Beirut. It was the largest single loss of life for the Marines since the Second World War. Needless to say, America could use a boost. It got one right before Halloween.
On October 25, 1983, American troops invaded the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. It took less than a week for American forces to subdue the country. One correspondent famously called the whole endeavor a lovely little war. So why exactly did the US invade a country the size of Philadelphia with a population the size of Dayton, Ohio? Well, it is a bit complicated. A little back story is in order. Grenada was a British colony until 1974. For most of the 1970s it was ruled by a rather violent president, Eric Gairy. His secret police, the Mongoose Gang, terrorized the population. Who supplied said Mongoose Gang? The American backed dictator of Chile, General Augusto Pinochet.
Fidel Castro and Maurice Bishop via corbisimages.com
In 1979, the London educated communist-leaning lawyer (I guess the fact that he was a lawyer should have been the first indication that he things were about to get dicey...I say this as a lawyer myself) Maurice Bishop staged a coup while Gairy was out of the country. The Reagan administration watched nervously as Grenada moved ever closer to the Soviet Union and Castro's Cuba. Indeed, Cuban doctors were creating a first rate medical system on the island. Soviet aid was helping build schools, hospitals, and roads. Importantly, both Cuba and the Soviets were helping finish a runway that would allow jumbo jets to land on Grenada (so more tourists could come to the island). Then, in 1983, a faction within Bishops government overthrew him and sectarian violence gripped the island.
President Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada, code named Urgent Fury, for three reasons. Grenada's new regime was even more anti-American than the previous one and supported by Cuba. How this little island could pose a threat to the United States is not the point. Secondly, he had a duty to protect the American students who were studying at the newly built medical school. Never mind, that the students were not actually under threat, they needed protection dammit. Thirdly, the governor general of Grenada (her majesty's official representation on the island) himself had asked for help. Never mind that the letter had been written in Washington, backdated and signed by the governor general after the invasion. A letter was sent at some point.
President Reagan in Grenada via nydailynews.com
The American victory was pretty much assured. The might of the US military would be no match for the tiny Grenada army and its Cuban advisors. The invasion, however, was actually very disorganized. Communication was so bad that one officer had to call his base in North Carolina from a pay phone to request air cover. On the third day of the invasion, an American air strike mistakenly hit American troops. Seventeen Army Rangers were wounded, one of whom died later. In all, 19 Americans died. Colin Powell, then assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger said of the whole thing, “the invasion of Grenada succeeded, but it was a sloppy success.”
Nor did it buy us any global goodwill. The United Nations voted, almost unanimously, to condemn the action. President Reagan's BFF, Margaret Thatcher, was pissed as well. Grenada was a Commonwealth country after all, one with strong links to Britain. British intelligence would later note that the coup was "a severe setback to the revolutionary cause in the Caribbean." It would be childish to say that the sole reason the Reagan administration mounted an invasion of the tiny country was for PR purposes. The timing, however, is very convenient. And really, what difference does it make that we probably violated international law? What is important is that then Representative Dick Cheney could say that America was once again "steady and reliable."
Featured photograph via history.com