By the time you’ve read this article, we’ll have chosen the next leader of the free world — or, worst case scenario, the Supreme Court will have chosen for us. But rather than look ahead to potential mishandlings of the economy, foreign policy and other inevitable shortcomings, this month’s article will be one of reflection. October and November 2008 mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of America’s invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada; it was Ronald Reagan’s greatest military action and one of our recent history’s most overlooked. Amid political turmoil on the small island, as many as 7000 American troops were sent in to pacify a rogue government and its 1500 combatants. Not surprisingly, victory was swift and complete. Nineteen Americans lost their lives, as well as sixty-nine Grenadians and twenty-four Cubans. Whether these deaths were justified or necessary, however, is a matter of dispute.
Reagan’s public justification for the intervention in Grenada, a nation with a population comparable to Green Bay, could be defended as a legitimate rescue mission. The nation was, in fact, under undemocratic rule and being run by a violent military dictator, hardline Marxist-Leninist Hudson Austin, who had overthrown and exterminated another dictator, the popular socialist and London-educated lawyer Maurice Bishop. Bishop had been forced against a wall at Fort Rupert with his political associates and was executed by firing squad. The new government next threatened execution of anyone violating newly enacted curfew laws. A significant number of American medical students were present on the island at St. George’s University, and to claim they were at risk would be a reasonable assertion.
The American people, with the Iran hostage crisis still fresh in their minds, were overwhelmingly in favor of the intervention. Americans, generally speaking, favor military action so long as the conflict is relatively short and well orchestrated. Both Vietnam and Iraq, now both unpopular, had broad support at first. Congress formed a study group that found Grenada’s invasion justified, and even Speaker Tip O’Neill, one of Reagan’s biggest adversaries, eventually conceded the action was appropriate. The people of Grenada, at least initially, were in support of the American military, believing falsely that Reagan had decided to avenge Bishop’s murder.
Reagan’s intervention was highly unpopular worldwide, however. There was no “coalition of the willing” — both Canada and Britain were opposed to the invasion, and Poland was nowhere to be found. Margaret Thatcher was “deeply disturbed” when she found out about the invasion, particularly since Reagan had personally denied any such intention just days before. He later claimed, apparently forgetting his own actions, that he was “the last one in the world that would ever want to put American troops into Latin America”. The United Nations, seen by many as too forgiving of American foreign policy, voted 122 to 9 — with notable dissenters Israel, El Salvador and the United States — to declare the invasion “a flagrant violation of international law and of [Grenada’s] independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”. The resolution further stated that the United Nations was “gravely concerned” and “deplores the deaths of innocent civilians”, calling for an “immediate cessation” of the intervention. Affirming this was none other than Grenada itself. While the UN has the power to punish, America’s unilateral veto power made the option effectively stillborn.
Skeptics posit that Reagan had planned to invade Grenada for months prior to the overthrow of Bishop and was merely looking for an excuse, as he had been openly critical of the nation before most of the world even knew of its existence. As early as summer 1981, the CIA had formulated plans to disrupt the economy of Grenada in order to erode Maurice Bishop’s popular image. Reagan was doing covertly what he later condemned Austin for doing overtly.
The president pointed to an unfinished airstrip in March 1983 as evidence of collaboration with the Cuban and Soviet militaries, automatically considered a threat to American interests despite the island’s considerable distance, roughly 1500 miles, from the United States. He said the airport was evidence of a “rapid build-up of Grenada’s military potential” and “can only be seen as a power projection into the region.” Any tourism or defense explanations were quickly dismissed. Undermining Reagan’s claim, however, was the reality that the air field had been proposed by England, planned by Canada and constructed with help from Mexico, none of which can be considered our enemy. Even if Reagan’s claim that the airport would be used to assist in providing Central America with Russia arms was true, objectively this can be considered no more objectionable than America’s simultaneous laundering of guns and money to the same region, including the contras of Nicaragua. Perhaps ironically, the opposed airstrip was completed during American occupation with its intended use to be a military stopover, precisely the purpose we were allegedly against.
Reagan’s denouncement of Cuba’s bad influence was overstated, not unlike the words of American leaders before him and since. Cuban authorities were openly in alliance with Grenada but by no means supported the new leadership. Fidel Castro was greatly upset by Maurice Bishop’s murder, and ordered Cubans in Grenada — mostly construction workers — to not fight the Americans or interfere with their rescue of students and other non-Grenadians. While a few dozen Cuban soldiers were present on the island, they had been told in advance that no reinforcements would be sent in order to avoid any escalation of the American-Cuban conflict and were removed from the airport.
Congressman Louis Stokes claimed that no American “was in any way placed in danger or placed in a hostage situation prior to the invasion.” The evidence supports Stokes’ position. The US Embassy in nearby Barbados said most students were “unwilling to leave or be evacuated”. Grenada offered charter flights to those students who did wish to flee, and the school’s chancellor confirmed that a number of students did so safely. The Grenadian regime deduced that any American death, even accidental, would cause an outrage and be a threat to the island. Reagan, however, chose to believe the worst. Following the invasion, seven members of Congress even tried to impeach President Reagan based on his misleading justifications and military blunders, including the bombing of a mental institution and the use of Cuban contractors as human shields, a surprisingly high figure when compared to those calling for impeachment of the current president for even more obvious abuses of power.
The aftermath has its own questions and lack of answers. America’s ongoing tango with election controversy is neither new nor limited to Ohio and Florida. In the 1984 elections in Grenada, American strong-arming was greatly suspected. Rather than the left-leaning candidates that had been recently popular, the elected prime minister was the pro-Western authoritarian Herbert Blaize, whose center-right New National Party took fourteen of fifteen open seats. The minority United Labour Party leader was so disgusted by the alleged rigging that he declined to accept his seat. Here and now, America in 2008, the election process is considerably more fair and transparent, even if flaws and inconsistencies persist — an issue that ought to be addressed but rarely is until too late. Regardless of your political leanings, I hope you voted on November 4. So much of our nation and world’s future is riding on your one simple act — why deny yourself a voice?