Maurice Bishop with Fidel Castro
October 1983. The Grenada problem had been brewing for some time. In fact, during Reagan’s now famous SDI speech, he had shown photographs of Cuban military bases being built in Grenada and spoke about the gathering threat.
Things had gotten desperate enough that budding democratic nations in the Caribbean turned to each other out of concern over the developments in Grenada. George Shultz, Secretary of State during that time, reflects on events in his Reagan-era memoir, Turmoil and Triumph:
“Formally constituting the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), they requested urgently that the United States help them bring order to Grenada and restore democratic government there. They were genuinely frightened that the emergence of a Soviet-Cuban-dominated state, through literally murderous events, would threaten their own democratic governments.” (T&T, p. 323)
Grenada had been a British colony governed by Sir Eric Gairy since the 1950’s. In 1979, however, a major opposition movement – The New Jewel Movement led by Maurice Bishop – took power in a bloodless coup. The movement stressed nationalist and socialist ideals. The New Jewel Movement promised elections, respect for human rights, and more. But they never delivered on those promises.
“These promises were never honored. The Bishop regime suspended the country’s constitution, refused to call early elections, ridiculed English-style democracy as ‘Westminster hypocrisy,’ and turned instead to the Cuban model of ‘revolutionary democracy,’ which it tried to implement with Cuban aid. Human rights were violated regularly. Habeas corpus was abolished for political detainees, of whom there were almost a hundred by 1982. Freedom of the press and other political freedoms were abolished as well. Bishop established close ties with the Soviet Union and Cuba.” (Turmoil and Triumph, p. 324)
By October 1983, there serious conflicts within the Bishop regime were coming of a head. On October 12, Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard resigned amid rumors he had been planning to assassinate Prime Minister Bishop. But in a strange turn, Bishop was placed under house arrest. In the ensuing days, several cabinet members resigned and Coard, with support from Cuban trained supporters, was able to take control of Grenada’s government.
Then on October 19, thousands (led by a former cabinet member, Whiteman,) stormed Bishop’s house and freed him. The group, together with Bishop, marched towards the downtown harbor. There, troops loyal to Coard opened fire on the crowd—killing both members of Bishop’s group and bystanders. Through the chaos, Coard was able to separate Bishop and his cronies and had them executed by firing squad.
Radio Free Grenada, the only radio station in Grenada at the time, which was run by Coard’s wife, came on the air to announce the formation of a Revolutionary Military Council whose charge was to implement an around-the-clock curfew enforced by a ‘shoot on sight’ policy. The military council – who was really in charge – has been trained by Cubans.
To complicate an already difficult matter, about 1,000 American medical students were in Grenada at the time. Shultz wanted them out, but no planes were allowed to land, nor were boats allowed to dock.
Meanwhile, Caribbean leaders denounced Grenada’s new regime, calling it “unlawful” and “barbaric.”
The U.S and Britain entered into a shared diplomatic and intelligence-centered operation based in Barbados. Fearing that the U.S. medical students would be taken hostage, Shultz despaired of a peaceful evacuation.
“Conditions were ripe, as both Tony [Motley] and I saw it, for hostage taking….With as many as 1,000 students scattered between two campuses, the town, and the countryside, much blood would be shed if our forces had to go in to rescue students or other American citizens taken hostage or held in some sort of forcible detention. We had to avoid such a situation.” (T&T, p. 328)
On October 21, members of the OECS (plus Jamaica and Barbados) called an emergency meeting in Barbados:
“At this meeting, the assembled nations unanimously resolved to intervene by force in Grenada if the United States would assist them. … That same day, Grenada’s ambassador to the Organization of American States resigned, and Cuba issued a statement asserting its noninvolvement but reaffirming its support for the ‘revolutionary process’ in Grenada” (T&T, p. 328-329).
Shultz recalls the situation at the time as it presented itself to the Reagan administration:
“We were confronted with life-threatening danger to some 1,000 American students. We were also presented with an urgent and forthright request and with a stated willingness on the part of those states to make their request publicly.” (T&T, p. 329)
Reagan reacted decisively. “What kind of country would we be, he asked, if we refused to help small but steadfast democratic countries in our neighborhood to defend themselves against the threat of tyranny and lawlessness?” (T&T, p. 329)
With Americans in danger of being killed or taken hostage, the US had to respond positively and swiftly.
“So, in the early morning of Saturday, October 22, President Reagan with McFarlane and me at his side supporting him fully, made the decision to go ahead with a rescue operation, to be launched on Monday night or Tuesday….We knew that if this military operation was to be successful and if it was to take place before the Cubans on Grenada got around to thinking about hostages, it would have to be carried out quickly and secretly.” (T&T, p. 329-330)
October 23 came. Half a world away, in Lebanon, terrorists bombed Marine peacekeepers sleeping in their Barracks. Shultz recalls that day of two unfolding narratives.
“I went right to the Situation Room in the White House, where we dealt with both crises—in Beirut and Grenada—at once. President Reagan dispatched a message to President Mitterand about Beirut and one to Prime Minister Thatcher about Grenada….” (T&T, p. 330)
With Lebanon weighing heavily on their minds, the President and Secretary Shultz developed a plan for Grenada that went as follows:
“(1) Secure Point Salines and Pearls airports; (2) secure other key installations; (3) protect and rescue American citizens; (4) deter Cuban intervention. The Grenada operation would begin during the course of this night [Monday, October 24].” (T&T, p. 335)
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was not happy that the U.S. decided to take action. After the President briefed her on the situation, she had responded negatively to the idea, saying she preferred economic and political pressure to military action. Thatcher was afraid that any attempt to save American lives would endanger British subjects. So when Reagan signaled his decision to Thatcher to move forward anyway, she was angry.
Upon landing, American forces encountered more opposition than they anticipated. Cubans, some East Germans, and Soviets were all there. But the Americans outmatched these other forces and the U.S. sent word to Cuba that it was in their best interest to cease fighting in Grenada..
“I told Eagleburger to get a message through to John Ferch, the foreign service office at the U.S. interests section in Havana, to tell the Cubans that they would be better off to stop fighting. The Cubans were going to be overwhelmed; we didn’t want to see a slaughter. We would evacuate those who surrendered and return them to Cuba. The road to safety lay in surrender.” (T&T, p. 336-337)
Fast forward to Wednesday morning, October 26:
“By 9:00 AM, I was getting indications from Havana that the Cubans were looking for a way out. They had told Ferch that they wanted ’a dignified solution’ and asked for a cease-fire. We got in telephone contact with Cuban officials in Havana and began to put together a surrender-and-departure process for both Cubans and Soviets who were now in our hands.” (T&T, p. 337)
Later on that day, Shultz was in Paris to talk to the French and other European allies about Lebanon. Upon arrival he discovered both criticism and validation of the Grenada from many Stateside.
“While in Paris, I received reports on American media coverage and on congressional attitudes toward our Grenada operation: in general, it was snide, scathing, and condemnatory.” (T&T, p. 339)
What lay ahead, however, would only validate the operation in the mind of the Secretary of State. His recount of operation “Urgent Fury’s” conclusion is worth quoting at length:
“On Thursday afternoon, October 27, the nation watched the televised landing of the first aircraft at Charleston Air Force base bringing back the American students from Grenada. We were all aware that how those students behaved and what they said to the media would greatly affect how the intervention in Grenada would be perceived in the United States. We watched the large transport plane wheel up to the front of the Charleston terminal, where a crowd was gathered. The stairs were rolled over to the door, but there was a delay before anyone emerged. Finally, one student came out and went down the front stairs.
At the bottom of the stairway, he fell to his knees and kissed the tarmac: all this live, in color, on all three major networks. We flipped around the channels. The TV anchormen kept trying to push the students to say that they were never in danger; it didn’t work. Suddenly I could sense the country’s emotions turn around. Our effort in Grenada wasn’t an immoral imperialist intervention: it was an essential rescue and a job well done.
At that moment, I knew that we had won a clean sweep: on the ground in Grenada and in the hearts of America. People, still reeling from Lebanon, watched that spontaneous, grateful, emotional act that said ’Thank you, President Reagan.’”(T&T, p. 339-340)