On October 25–28, 1983, the United States—under President Ronald Reagan—invaded the small Caribbean island-nation of Grenada, deposed its leftist government, and installed a government more in keeping with the Reagan administration’s perception of U.S. geostrategic interests in the Western Hemisphere.
A clear violation of international law, the action garnered widespread domestic popular and bipartisan support, while being roundly condemned by much of the international community. The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned the invasion; in the Security Council the United States cast the sole dissenting vote on a resolution condemning it. The invasion boosted Reagan’s popularity at home; intimidated leftist movements and parties throughout the circum-Caribbean; and resulted in a corrupt and elite-dominated post-invasion government characteristic of the region. Undertaken by some 7,000 U.S. troops, the invasion caused 118 deaths (19 U.S.; 69 Grenadan; 25 Cuban) and 533 were wounded, while U.S. forces detained 638 Cubans as prisoners of war. U.S. forces withdrew from the island in December.
The invasion’s antecedents have been traced to the intensification of the cold war under Reagan; the 1979 triumph of the leftist Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua; ongoing leftist revolutionary movements and civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and elsewhere in the circumCaribbean; and the March 13, 1979, coup d’état in Grenada by the leftist New Jewel Movement, led by the charismatic Marxist-influenced attorney Maurice Bishop.
Independent from Great Britain since 1974, Grenada was ruled from 1974 to 1979 by Prime Minister Sir Eric Gairy, widely considered despotic and notorious for his preoccupations with the occult, whose “Mongoose Squad” kept his opponents in check and himself in power. Most of the island’s 110,000 inhabitants welcomed the New Jewel coup. From 1979 to 1983, the economy grew at an average of 9 percent (very high for the Caribbean during this period, which included a global recession in 1981–82); unemployment declined from 45 to 14 percent; literacy rates increased from 85 to 98 percent; and the nation’s health, education, and welfare systems were reformed and expanded.
Bishop, as much a nationalist as socialist and influenced as much by Jamaican musician Bob Marley as by Marx, articulated a socialist, anti-imperialist vision at odds with express U.S. economic, strategic, and security interests in the region. The Bishop government did not hold elections as promised, imposed press censorship, jailed political opponents, and lent rhetorical support to the Soviet Union and Cuba. On October 19, 1983, New Jewel hard-liner Bernard Coard ousted Bishop, precipitating islandwide protests and a general strike. After crowds forced Bishop’s release, Coard’s forces killed several dozen protesters and executed Bishop and two cabinet members. The main U.S. rationale for its invasion was to protect the lives of more than 800 U.S. medical students at the St. George’s School of Medicine, whom the Reagan administration claimed were in imminent danger and prevented from departing. The Grenada invasion comprises a minor but revealing episode in the late cold war in the Western Hemisphere.