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Urgent Fury: The Invasion of Grenada

Updated on September 20, 2011
Scottmonster profile image

Scott is a graduate student and historian who is interested in politics, social movements, education, and religion

An excerpt from my thesis


Grenada is a tiny country in the Southeastern Caribbean which had never played a role in politics until the 1980s. In 1979 the country’s Prime Minister was overthrown in a bloodless coup by a leftist group called New JEWEL (Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education and Liberation). The leaders of the group were protégés of Fidel Castro, and shortly after taking control of the country, Cuba began sending military aid to Grenada. The guns, armored cars, and anti-aircraft weaponry were of less concern to Washington then Cuba’s intention to build a major airfield on the island, which would be capable of servicing Cuba’s airlift operations to Africa.[1]

The New Jewel had initially taken over the country with the stated intention of creating a socialist democracy. That never became a reality, however, as no elections were allowed, and opposition groups were persecuted under the regime’s increasing power. At the same time, foreign advisors of the Eastern bloc, most notably Cubans and Soviets, poured into the country. Grenada even accepted a deal with the Soviets to allow the placement of long-range reconnaissance aircraft at the coming airfield. The United States viewed these developments with mild irritation. The State Department recognized the existence of a “red triangle” between Grenada, Nicaragua, and Cuba but did not perceive a serious threat. More hawkish members of the government, including C.I.A. Director William Casey and Secretary of State Elliot Abrams, wanted to implement a de-stabilization plan against Grenada, though the Senate Intelligence Committee refused to fund it.[2]

By 1983, Prime Minister Bishop had grown disenchanted with the extreme left leanings of his government. He sought to strengthen his more moderate government base by initiating ties with Washington. Shortly thereafter he was deposed by the more Marxian elements of the government, with some suspecting Fidel Castro to be responsible for the coup. Bishop was sentenced to house arrest. The following day, a group of advisors met with members of the National Security Council to discuss the safety of the some 1,000 Americans on the island. Participants in this discussion included Marine Corp officer Oliver North, and his associate Constantine Menges, a former C.I.A. worker and right-wing enthusiast. Menges put forth the idea of using a rescue mission as a pretext for toppling the ever more extreme Grenadan government.[3]

Later that night, Vice President Bush met with many of the chief officials in the defense apparatus for a discussion of possible contingency plans for evacuation. The majority of the Americans on the island were medical students and to this point there were no indications of any threats against them. Still, General Vessey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that any evacuation would require military control of the island. He advised a simple surgical strike could not be done. Others, such as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger argued that there was no legal justification for any attack at all, and that the students were in no harm. C.I.A. Director Casey is said to have been enthusiastically for the invasion, allegedly saying, “Hey, fuck it, let’s dump these bastards.”[4] The main obstacle the government had in invading Grenada was finding a legitimate reason to do so. Virtually no threats were occurring to Americans and violence in general was very low.

The Spark

Finally an opportunity to exploit came. On October 19, known as “Bloody Wednesday,” protestors swelled into the thousands and descended upon Bishop’s house. Bishop was freed, though only hours later executed along with several members of his staff. Bishop’s murder and the subsequent upheaval was the most critical event in the United States invasion.[5] Following the unrest a shoot-to-kill curfew was established making any pure evacuation operation significantly harder. The deterioration of stability increased the risk of violence against everyone, including Americans, yet a strong case can be made that the conflict was purely internal. Protesters had no qualms with the medical students, and the Grenadan police and military believed they could avoid provoking an intervention if they guaranteed the student’s safety. On more than one occasion the Grenadans even offered to evacuate the students, though the Reagan administration prudently doubted the value of that offer. Nonetheless, the Grenadan government was aware by this point that an American task force had been diverted from the Middle East and was headed to the Caribbean. If for no other reason, they were therefore unlikely to harm the students.[6]

Only a few days later the terrorist attack on the Marine Barracks in Beirut left 241 men dead. This attack was one of the worst in modern American history and created an awkward, though not ultimately consequential strain on the Grenada operation. Had there been more of a backlash over the Marines’ deaths, an invasion would have been unlikely, however as the public accepted President Reagan’s apology and assumption of responsibility, the Grenada operation, code named “Urgent Fury” continued to be planned. No one expected the Granadan military to put up much of a fight, enough to deter an attack that is. Ironically, one of the biggest problems confronting the military planners was lack of a single map of the island. The task force assigned to the operation was operating under a zero-emissions state, which meant most of the intelligence on the situation was gathered from the BBC. Ultimately a small map, updated in 1895, was dug up from a tourist book aboard one of the ship’s libraries.[7]

The Invasion

On October 25 Operation Urgent Fury began. The invasion itself was something of a debacle with the military’s plans for a purely military campaign having been poisoned with political purposes. Dozens of America’s most elite soldiers, including members of the Army Rangers, the Delta Force and Navy Seals, were killed due to poor planning and lack of inter-service cohesion. The Special Forces units fought valiantly, but were not equipped for sustained gunfights against large numbers of infantry and light armor vehicles. Several Navy helicopters were shot down as well, an embarrassing fact considering their level of sophistication, even in the face of the weaponry sold to the Grenadines by the Soviets. The only unit to execute a near ideal operation was the Marines, who despite representing only twenty percent of the invading forces, ended up controlling eighty percent of the island.[8]

Irony can be found in the fact that while the prevention of a Tehran like hostage situation was cited time and again as being the reason for the intervention, because of the way the operation was planned, it ultimately took over a day to reach a majority of the American students. Though the students were the official reason for the invasion, American rescue forces did not know that the students were spread across different campuses, and thus did not know where a majority of the students were until after the invasion started. Thus if the Grenadans ever had the intention of harming the students or using them as a bargaining chip, they would have had ample time, and more than enough reason to need hostages. None of the students were harmed, though many were understandably scarred and welcomed the rescue.[9]


The announcement of the invasion had been made to the public on the first day of fighting. Reagan stressed that the intervention was forced upon the United States by the Grenadines, and that America was acting as part of a multinational force. He reiterated that the invasion was intended to protect American lives, though he mentioned nothing of the Soviet or Cuban presence on the island, a fact which many critics saw as evidence that the hype against Grenada was overblown.[10] In the coming months the Reagan administration would proudly award over 8,600 medals to various servicemen despite the fact that not more 7,000 Americans ever set foot on the island.[11] Nonetheless, the American public responded overwhelmingly in favor of Reagan’s policies, believing him when he said of Grenada, “We got there just in time.”[12] A New York Times post-invasion poll showed that a moderate 55% of Americans favored the invasion,[13] while an ABC News poll put that number at 64% before Reagan’s speech on October 27, and at 86% afterwards.[14] The world was far less convinced of Reagan’s explanation, as seen by a United Nations vote of 108 to 9 condemning the United States invasion as an act in violation of International law. This vote margin was even wider than the tally against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.[15] In Congress, Democrats attacked Reagan for the misuse of American forces to promote democracy “at the point of a bayonet.”[16] Liberal congressman Ron Dellums (D-California) sarcastically quipped that Grenada was the only place in the world where you could “… liberate white middle class students, capture some ‘bad blacks,’ beat up some Cubans, humiliate some Soviets, rid the island of communism, and have a majority of black people on the island say, ‘Thank you, Uncle Sam.’”[17]

There were also complaints from many in Congress that Reagan had ignored the fundamental principle of the War Powers Resolution. Section three of the resolution required the President to “consult” with Congress before committing aggressive forces. Section four required the President, to provide within twenty-four hours, reports as to the legal justification, the purpose, and the duration of time that U.S.forces would be committed. Neither of these provisions were addressed by the administration leading to congressional speeches, lawsuits, press conferences, and even a call for impeachment.[18] Republicans felt differently obviously, and considered the invasion of Grenada to be an event which re-affirmed America’s place in the world and bolstered the policy of preemptive war using overwhelming force. Republicans were so proud of the invasion that in 1984 the war found its way into the Republican National Convention where it was used as a punch-line to coincide with the phrase, “freedom is worth fighting for.”[19]

[1] Musicant, The Banana Wars, 370-371.[2] Musicant, The Banana Wars, 371.[3] Musicant, The Banana Wars, 372.[4] Ben Bradlee Jr., author of Guts and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North, gives no citation for the Casey quote. Quoted in Ivan Musicant, The Banana Wars (New York: MacMillan, 1990), 373.[5] Crandall, Gunboat Democracy, 106. [6] Crandall, Gunboat Democracy, 136.[7] Musicant, The Banana Wars, 376-378.[8] Musicant, The Banana Wars, 384-387.[9] Crandall, Gunboat Democracy, 145.[10] Crandall, Gunboat Democracy, 150.[11] Musicant, The Banana Wars, 389.[12] Ronald Reagan, “America’s Commitment to Peace,” Address to the Nation, October 27, 1983; Department of State Bulletin 83, no. 2081 (December 1983): 1-5; quoted in Isaak I. Dore, “U.S. Invasion of Grenada: Resurrection of the ‘Johnson Doctrine’?,” Stanford Journal of International Law 20 (spring 1984): 176.[13] Burgin, “Congress, the War Powers Resolution and the Invasion of Panama,” 234.[14] Crandall, Gunboat Democracy, 152.[15] Crandall, Gunboat Democracy, 154. [16] Crandall, Gunboat Democracy, 156. [17] Crandall, Gunboat Democracy, 158.[18] Burgin, “Congress, the War Powers Resolution and the Invasion of Panama,” 220-22.[19] Crandall, Gunboat Democracy, 162.


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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 20 months ago from Auburn, WA

      The invasion of Grenada has become a forgotten military event because of the Marine Barracks bombing. I still see it as necessary. It had far-reaching implications throughout the last decade of the Cold War. Since I was too young for Vietnam, it was the first military event I remember watching on TV (nightly news in those days). CNN had some live coverage I think.

      The debate over the War Powers Act seems ridiculous now in this post 9/11 world, where resolutions have replaced any serious discussion over the issue.