Grenada 1983: A Microcosm of Classic US Foreign Policy (Part 1)

by Joe Morby on November 5, 2013

This month the diminutive Caribbean island of Grenada commemorates its most infamous anniversary: it has been thirty years since it was invaded by America, an event that put a decisive end to its four-year experiment with socialism. Between October 25th and 28th 1983 over 6000 US troops fought to take control of the island, in an action that would represent America’s return to Cold War dominance following its defeat in Vietnam. The action would confirm President Reagan’s neo-conservative credentials and would further complicate the ethics of intervention, contributing to an ambivalence over American overseas actions that still clouds its behaviour today. 

Following a popular Marxist revolution the US conducted a campaign of destabilization against Grenada’s new government, a process that would end in invasion; following the invasion it realigned the island along neo-liberal lines with disappointing results. At each stage we see the hallmarks of classic American foreign policy, the political and military methods that defined American imperialism in the 20th Century and into the 21st. But with Grenada being only twelve miles by seven, with a population smaller than most American cities, all the drama would be played out in a miniaturised form- small numbers of people, small amounts of money, a short period of time. By dissecting the events surrounding the invasion we are left with a kind of mini-archetype of American ideological conflict, a microcosm of the struggle between dependent capitalism and Marxist restructuring taking place in the third world. What follows is a tour of this microcosm, using the example of Grenada to describe a programme of events that, in places, will seem strangely familiar to those with memory of recent American conflicts.


An impoverished and distant corner of the Commonwealth, Grenada had spent much of its history languishing in obscurity. A typically under-developed agricultural economy and a thoroughly inequitable society structure identified it firmly as a product of British colonialism in the Caribbean. Its immediate pre-revolutionary history was dominated by the island’s long-time leader Eric Gairy, an eccentric and petty despot whose years in power were characterized by corruption, cronyism and violence, conducted by his personal gang of thugs the ‘Mongoose Gang’.

Spurred on by the radicalism of the 60s, a group of middle-class professionals led by the tall, charismatic lawyer Maurice Bishop formed the progressive New Jewel Party that campaigned for an end to the island’s oppressive stagnation under Gairy and the development of a self-realised, equitable society under Marxist lines. In March 1979, after a season of targeted oppression from Gairy’s thugs, the group took power during a coup and initiated the Grenadian revolution. They formed the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) with Bishop as the new Prime Minister. The next four years saw the PRG implement an experiment in socialism, with the state leading production and significantly improving education, housing and healthcare on the island. Wary of socialism in its backyard, the US was not slow to react.

Make Your Displeasure Known

As early as a month after the March 1979 revolution, the US showed it had its mind made up over Grenada when Frank Ortiz, US Ambassador to the East Caribbean, visited to tell the nascent left-wing government that the US would “view with displeasure any tendency on the part of Grenada to develop closer ties with Cuba”.1 When the PRG requested bilateral aid, Ortiz merely offered a paltry $5000 from the embassy’s discretionary fund.

Contrary to US hopes, Grenada went on to establish close links with Cuba and the Soviet Union and began a programme of moderate socialist reform. American imperialism became a frequent target for criticism in Prime Minister Maurice Bishop’s speeches, which were tinged with the energy of the black power movement and sixties leftist radicalism that had led to the creation of the New Jewel Movement in the early 70s. In response, the CIA drew up plans for a covert operation to destabilize Grenada’s economy and government; these were dismissed by the Senate Intelligence Committee as “harebrained” in 1981 (although at the same time, plans to destabilize Cuba and Nicaragua were being given the green light).

Things soured diplomatically. The Carter administration refused to recognise Dessima Williams, Grenada’s designated Ambassador to the US. During the PRG’s short life Bishop sent two official letters to Reagan, suggesting they foster better relations and asking for bilateral discussions, but the US’ reply was either silence or bureaucratic platitudes. Concerned that relations were at breaking point, Bishop visited America in June 1983; Reagan and other senior figures refused to meet him, although he did get to meet William Clarke, Reagan’s national security advisor, and reassured him “that any allegations that Grenada was a threat to the United States was nonsense”.2

A Tale of Two Airports

The catalyst the Reagan administration needed to boost its alarmist rhetoric came in the shape of an airport. With only one existing airport on the island, suitable only for light aircraft and daylight operation, the PRG pressed forward with plans to build a second airport at Point Salines, at the Westernmost tip of the island, that would be large enough to accept international aircraft. This was crucial if the island were to boost its economic development, not just in terms of freight but also numbers of visitors- unlike Cuba, Grenada was keen to promote tourism as a viable part of its new economy and sought to build new facilities in anticipation.

But where the island saw an airport necessary to its development, the US claimed to see a dangerous military airbase that would doubtlessly be used to spread communism and terrorism around the Caribbean basin; it would be a base for “every aircraft in the Soviet-Cuban inventory”, as Secretary-of-State Alexander Haig put it.3 It would provide Cuba with a launching point for sending planes to Africa, and would threaten the US’ oil supply routes around nearby Trinidad. The Soviets would have another missile site in the Caribbean; it was 1962 all over again.

The Reagan administration claimed justification for its suspicions from the fact that Grenada was receiving significant technical and material assistance for the airport from Cuba, including a contingent of Cuban workers and engineers. He failed to mention the fact that the airport was also receiving assistance from a number of countries of all political stripes, including financing from the EEC and work by companies from Britain, Finland, and even the US itself: Layne Dredging Ltd, a Floridian company, had completed a $2.9 million contract for dredging at the site. When the administration complained that at 9000 feet, the proposed runway was clearly being designed for Cuban military craft, commentators pointed out that fellow islands Antigua, Barbados and Curacao had even longer runways. With the position seeming more and more ludicrous, a report in Newsweek pointed out that despite Reagan’s rhetoric, “Tourists can walk right up to what looks more like a soon-to-be completed international airport and snap their own reconnaissance photos… with Kodak Instamatics”. A month after the invasion, the British firm Plessey released a statement in which they listed eleven facilities that a military airbase would need, including underground storage, perimeter security, a parallel taxiway, bomb-proof shelters and the like, none of which had been built at Point Salines.1

Man the Battle Stations

None of these facts dissuaded the US from proffering its airport conspiracy-theories. When he addressed the nation in a televised address in March 1983, Reagan used ominous-looking footage (“declassified aerial photographs”) of the airport-in-construction to bolster his assertion of a communist plot. Viewers would have been reminded of the scaremongering that accompanied the Kennedy administration’s similar use of grainy, aerial pictures in 1962, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Other fantastic plots included a plan to build a Soviet naval and submarine base on the island, and even talk of Soviet missiles, again. According to Reagan there was a “massive build-up… of military potential” on the island.

There were massive build-ups off it, too. Starting under Carter and then increasingly under Reagan, the Caribbean became significantly more militarised as the US strengthened military links with Grenada’s right-thinking neighbours. In October 1979, some six months after the success of the Grenada Revolution, Carter announced the formation of the Caribbean Joint Task Force, a new Florida-based military body charged with ensuring “the ability of troubled peoples to resist social turmoil and possible communist domination”.4 Military assistance increased to US-leaning governments such as the Edward Seaga government in Jamaica and the Tom Adams government in Barbados, where a US military liaison office was established; in 1981 St Lucia, St Vincent and Dominica all received US military funding for the first time (unsurprisingly, it would turn out to be these five islands that would ‘authorise’ the US’ invasion in October 1983).

Spread the Word: Propaganda

The official scaremongering was accompanied by a media blitz. While the liberal press, including the Washington Post, remained bemused by assertions of threat that were so obviously out of sorts with reality, the conservative press had a field day. The Washington Star spoke of “Russians, Jamaicans, PLO Palestinians and a sinister English-speaking group known as the machete terrorists”. According to Business Week, Soviet use of Grenada would “pose a far greater threat… than the deadly menace of German U-boats in the Caribbean during World War II”. In 1981 the American Security Council Federation released a propaganda film, “Attack of the Americas”, that warned of the “relentless expansion of Soviet power”; the film was distributed to schools, cinemas and civic groups. It was enough to scare children to sleep.

This process of using propaganda to normalise antipathy towards Grenada extended to regional Caribbean newspapers and media outlets. In 1980 the US set up a transmitter on Antigua to broadcast “Voice of America” to the Eastern Caribbean. In May 1981 the US International Communications Agency invited Caribbean editors to a three day seminar where Grenada was on the menu; afterwards, a number of their Caribbean newspapers subsequently published near-identical attacks on the PRG and its media policies in particular. Bishop and the PRG were wary of overly-critical newspapers, and with good reason: in Chile, the CIA had used the vehemently right-wing newspaper El Mercurio to devastating effect in denigrating the country’s leftist leader Salvador Allende, through a smear campaign of disinformation, sensationalism and psychological suggestion, while in Jamaica the Daily Gleaner had been used to destabilize the progressive Michael Manley government. Paranoid over CIA plots and sensitive to criticism, the PRG closed two local newspapers, thereby giving its critics the ‘Grenada attacks free speech’ headline they wanted.

Cut the Funding

Grenada, as an impoverished micro-economy in the process of revolution, was in desperate need of aid money: it was time to call the IMF. But when, in 1981, the PRG approached the IMF for a $6.3 million loan, the application was opposed by the US. The figure had been previously negotiated with the IMF and was destined for agricultural, housing and tourism development, but in the end Grenada was only able to secure $4 million after the US’ obstruction. American influence on the World Bank also prevented $3 million of concessionary funds from the International Development Agency from being disbursed, a move that affected the island’s ability to borrow from other institutions.

Later in 1981, the US magnanimously offered $4 million to the Caribbean Development Bank, for loans to the Caribbean economies for “human development”.5 There was only one hitch: the money was contingent on Grenada not getting any. Shocked at the blatant political bias, the bank’s directors rejected the grant.

In Grenada, it never rains, but it pours. After torrential rains caused flood damage to the island in January 1980, the US refused to give any emergency aid and attempted to block relief from the Organization of American States’ emergency fund. Later that year the wind did blow, and Grenada lost 40% of its banana crop to Hurricane Allen. The US offered aid to WINBAN, the regional banana export association, but again only on the condition that Grenada get none.

When the PRG needed funds for the new airport, it approached the EEC, among others. This prompted a delegation to leave the US for Brussels, where state officials tried their best to dissuade Europe from offering any cash. With nobody buying their ‘Soviet plot’ take on the project, the money went through anyway.

Economic Boycott

As with Cuba, the US knew that the simplest way to hurt a small, import-dependent country was to simply not do business with it. In Grenada’s case, this was difficult as the island, hitherto overlooked as a speck in the far East of the Caribbean, didn’t actually deal that much with the US, its main trading partners being local countries like Venezuela and the other islands. But the administration moved to reduce the flow of the one capital source the US did provide- people. American travel agencies were advised by the State Department to warn potential tourists from visiting the island, with one sample poll of travel agencies around New York showing some 90% having been given the advice that Grenada was off limits.3 Along with the travel scare older Americans were dissuaded from buying up retirement properties on the island.

As a way of bolstering free market capitalism in the Caribbean, the US announced a new development plan, the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) in 1982. US aid would be used to support economic growth and trade according to a free enterprise model, thereby showing the superiority of the capitalist ethic against the socialist experiments of the left-leaning Caribbean. Grenada, of course, was not to be included. Instead, money ended up being channelled to amenable governments only, such as the right-wing administrations of Seaga in Jamaica and ’Baby Doc’ Duvalier in Haiti (meanwhile, the bulk of the money went in the form of military assistance to the nightmare juntas in power in El Salvador and Guatemala, with an eye on containing the Sandinistas in Nicaragua).

Warning Shots: Amber and the Amberines

Perhaps the most blatant threat of belligerence came from the US’ decision to hold a series of openly-practiced military manoeuvres and training exercises in the Caribbean. Navies in particular have often played a role in intimidating other states; whenever a powerful military feels the need to make its strength known to a foreign party, they often send a destroyer or two to slowly steam past in full view of the target audience, to let them know what they are capable of. The sight of warships lingering on the horizon, aircraft flying in deadly formation overhead, platoons of men moving in unison in mock battle would have lent a distinctly unsettling air to the usually placid Caribbean, and its message would have been unmistakeable: this was the US’ backyard, and it was not averse to using its military might to keep it as such.

Operation ‘Solid Shield ‘80’ involved the navy and amphibious forces (along with 20,000 personnel), with Cuba as its ostensible intended scare-target. Reagan went one better in 1981, launching ‘Ocean Venture ‘81’, the largest US naval exercise in peacetime since the war. 120,000 troops, 250 ships and 1000 aircraft from 14 different countries participated, with the Caribbean phase focused on the island of Vieques, off Puerto Rico. The scenario was centred around a fictitious island group called ‘Amber and the Amberines’, clearly a thinly-veiled and tongue-in-cheek reference to Grenada and the Grenadines. In the war games ‘Amber’ was being supported by ‘Orange’ (supposedly Cuba), who in turn was being supported by ‘Red’ (clearly the Soviet Union). But the government of ‘Amber’ had become hostile, and taken American hostages; after negotiations had broken down, US forces would sweep in, taking the island, freeing the hostages and effecting a change in regime to one “favourable to the way of life we espouse”.5 Rear Admiral McKenzie, leading the operation, declared at a press conference that Grenada, Cuba and Nicaragua were “practically one country”, showing that Grenada was not to be spared the destabilization that the latter two countries had faced.

A few months later, the US launched ‘RedX183’, an exercise that again used thousands of troops and coincided with counter-revolutionary talks with the right-of-centre governments of Barbados and Jamaica. In June 1983, they were back on Vieques, this time for ‘Universal Trek’, an operation where 5000 troops and fighter planes were showing “how US forces could land in a small Caribbean nation where a civil war is taking place”,2 with US craft coming within six miles of Point Salines and the disputed airport. The parallels between these ‘exercises’ and what would inevitably occur in October 1983, are uncanny. It is also obvious that even by the early stages of the Reagan administration it was clear that Grenada was going to be the target of some kind of action in the near future.

Coming up next… INVASION!


1: Grenada: Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath by Hugh O’Shaughnessy, Sphere Books 1984

2:  Grenada: Background and Analyses, Data Center, October, 1983

3:  Grenada: Whose Freedom? Latin America Bureau, 1984

4: Under the Eagle: US Intervention in Central America and the Caribbean by Jenny Pearce, Latin America Bureau, 1981

5: Grenada: The Peaceful Revolution, EPICA Taskforce, 1982

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

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cheap product for sale December 4, 2014 at 8:07 am

Three words – knowledgeable, interesting and relaxing article. Keep up the good work.


Betty June 11, 2015 at 5:43 pm

Extremely knowledgeable and interesting read on a often overlooked event, thank you


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