"A lovely little war" was what one correspondent called the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada. Most saw Operation Urgent Fury, its official name, as a guaranteed victory. The Caribbean island, the smallest independent country in the Western Hemisphere, was no match for American military might. Reagan championed the invasion as another step toward ridding the world of Communism, but the big victory over the little island also served as a major public relations coup for the recently battered administration.
On October 13, 1983, Reagan was made aware of possible trouble in Grenada. Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard, a Communist hard-liner backed by the Grenadian Army, had deposed Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and established military rule. Six days later, Bishop was murdered. A socialist with ties to Cuba, Bishop had been taking his time making Grenada wholly socialist; he had encouraged private-sector development in an attempt to make the island a popular tourist destination. With the Communist Coard in power, Reagan grew more concerned.
Reagan was most concerned by the presence of Cuban construction workers and military personnel building a 10,000-foot airstrip on Grenada. Though Bishop had claimed the purpose of the airstrip was to allow commercial jets to land, Reagan believed its purpose was to allow military transport planes loaded with arms from Cuba to be transferred to Central American insurgents.
Also weighing on Reagan was the security of the 800 American medical students enrolled at St. George's School of Medicine in the former British commonwealth. After the coup, there was violence and anarchy, and with martial law and a shoot-on-sight curfew in effect in Grenada, Reagan was joined by many of his advisers, as well as much of the American public, in believing that the rescue of the American students was justification for an invasion.
Grenada had been something of a pet project for Reagan since his visit to Barbados in 1982, where Caribbean leaders echoed Reagan's own fear: that Grenada, with its socialist government and proximity to Cuba, could become a Communist beachhead in the Caribbean. While Reagan had been focused on Grenada for some time, he was unfairly accused of using the invasion to distract attention from other world events.
On October 23, a suicide bomber drove his truck into a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. According to the official report, "The force of the explosion ripped the building from its foundation.… Almost all the occupants were crushed or trapped inside the wreckage." Numbers told an even more devastating story. The bomb, which had produced the largest non-nuclear blast on record, exploded with the force of 12,000 pounds of TNT and killed 241 Marines. Reagan's placement of the Marines as peacekeepers of a tenuous cease-fire between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon had been divisive from the start. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger had repeatedly called for the withdrawal of forces, insisting that Lebanon was too unstable and of little strategic importance to the United States; Secretary of State George Shultz reflected Reagan's view that a U.S. presence was essential to maintaining peace.
Although the final decision to invade Grenada was made shortly after the Beirut bombings, by the time of the massacre in October 1983, Reagan had all but officially approved the invasion of Grenada. The accusation that the bombing in Lebanon motivated the invasion was, therefore, unfounded. If anything, one reporter argued, the destruction of the Marine barracks may have caused Reagan to hesitate.
On October 25, U.S. Marines invaded Grenada, where they encountered unexpectedly heavy antiaircraft fire and ground resistance by the Cuban soldiers and laborers building the controversial airstrip. In two days they subdued the air and ground forces.
Reagan's credibility was bolstered by what the 5,000-strong American invading force found on the island: a cache of weapons that could arm 10,000 men -- automatic rifles, machine guns, rocket launchers, antiaircraft guns, howitzers, cannon, armored vehicles and coastal patrol boats. In all, out of 800 Cubans, 59 were killed, 25 were wounded, and the rest were returned to Havana upon surrender. Forty-five Grenadians died, and 337 were wounded. America also suffered casualties: 19 dead and 119 wounded. The medical students came home unharmed.
For Reagan, Grenada was an unmitigated success: a defeat of Communism and Castro, and a warning to the Marxist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Fortunately for Reagan, by the time of the 1984 election, the Grenada success replaced the bitter memory of the massacre at Lebanon.
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