Grenada 1983: Part 2, Invasion

by Joe Morby on November 6, 2013


The incident that sparked the US invasion was the death of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. A dispute over the leadership of the ruling New Jewel Movement party led to the popular Bishop being placed under house arrest and then, after being freed by a supportive crowd, being executed by firing squad along with several other members of the government in what amounted to a military coup. The new government, named the Revolutionary Military Council (RMC) and composed of army figures led by General Hudson Austin, announced a four-day curfew that threatened to shoot anyone venturing outside (although in practice it was not strictly observed, and there were no such shootings). A week later on October 25th 1983, over 6000 US troops, joined by security forces from the US’ partners in the region, began operation Urgent Fury, an invasion that would take three days to complete. They faced a force of less than 500 People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA) fighters and around 250 members of the militia, who put up an unexpectedly stiff resistance for the three days.1 The US forces also engaged with some of the over-700 Cuban construction and technical workers who were building the airport. By the end of it, 19 American servicemen would be dead, along with 25 Cubans and at least 45 Grenadians (including 24 civilians).

The interesting thing about the invasion is that both sides knew it was coming. After Reagan’s ‘aerial photos’ speech in March 1983, the PRG had mobilized its militias and warned the people that an attack was imminent. After Bishop’s death, the new ruling RMC tried desperately to dissuade the US from intervening, making unsuccessful attempts to contact the administration and making reassurances that the US citizens on the island would not be harmed; their pleas fell on deaf ears as the invasion machine, envisioned for years and in anticipation of such an opportunity, had already begun to rumble forward.

Use False Pretexts

A range of pretexts for the invasion were offered by the US. For four years the White House had built up a fantastic image of Grenada as a significant military threat, harbouring Soviet aircraft and Cuban weapons, but this alone hadn’t been enough to warrant invasion. When the crisis in the PRG began in mid-October 1983, the US sent word to its regional partners to prepare scenarios for invasion, using the rescue of Bishop himself from house arrest as the pretext. When Bishop was killed and the RMC took over, the US tweaked the pretext slightly so that it was now US citizens, particularly the 600-odd students at the St George’s University Medical School, that needed rescuing; this was despite reassurances from Austin and the RMC that the students’ safety was guaranteed, communications from the students themselves saying that they were not in danger, and pleas from their parents who feared that an invasion would imperil their children. Afterwards, the administration would admit that prior to the invasion, some of the students had merely boarded a plane and left the island themselves, unhindered, making the need for ‘rescue’ seem particularly thin.

The administration’s other claim, that the invasion would restore “order and democracy”, was deeply ironic given its unswaying support for the distinctly undemocratic and repressive military regimes devastating Central America, and the fact that the US was not averse to instigating the odd coup itself.

Manufacture Legitimacy

The US was well aware that its decision to invade would draw criticism, especially if it appeared to act unilaterally. To get round this America made a show of getting the neighbourhood’s blessing as, according to journalist Hugh O’Shaughnessy who witnessed the invasion, such an endorsement “would be of inestimable value in the diplomatic fallout that the State Department saw as inevitable after the US action”.2 Four days before the invasion, US officials met with the heads of many of the surrounding islands in a meeting on Barbados and agreed on cooperation and support for a US intervention. No attempt was made to negotiate with Grenada, whose own efforts at diplomacy were rebuffed, and the opinions of Caribbean community members who opposed invasion and instead favoured sanctions were ignored- the decision had already been made. Back in America, Reagan spent the weekend before the invasion playing golf, at the championship course in Augusta, Georgia.

When the invasion began, one of its highest priorities was to secure Sir Paul Scoon, who as Governor-General acted as a representative of the Queen, the titular head-of-state of Grenada, a Commonwealth country. Despite the fact he had no actual political powers, the US knew they could use Scoon not only as an interim governor in the post-invasion period, but also as another way of manufacturing legitimacy. As the invasion got under way, Scoon was whisked off to the nearby USS Guam, where he was given documents to sign: these were requests for intervention to the United States and neighbouring Caribbean countries, backdated to make it look as if he had made the requests before the invasion. He had no authority to make such a request, and had not been instructed to by Britain- no word had come from the Queen and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was against the invasion. But the purpose of the backdated letters was not to secure actual legitimacy, but merely to present the appearance of legitimacy, enough to fob off public criticism of what was a cavalier unilateral decision.

The invasion was thoroughly illegal.  It broke the charters of both the UN and the Organization of American States (OAS). Although the State Department insisted the intervention had a “firm legal backing”, neither Scoon nor the islands who supposedly requested it had the authority to do so (indeed, is any country authorised to request the invasion of a neighbour?). A group of US lawyers summed it up in an open letter published in the Guardian newspaper in November 1983: “US violation of international law sends a strong message to the entire international community that for the US government the traditional rules of restricting the use of force no longer apply in settling international disputes”.

Control the Media

Media coverage of the Vietnam War had been devastating to the US government and had helped turn public opinion against that deeply unpopular war. Grenada was to be different, with strict and unprecedented control over the media. As a kind of template, America used the example of the British government’s media control during the Falklands War, just the year before; this involved controlling media access, sanitising the images the world saw, censoring images and events that might upset people and blocking journalists who might write unfavourable stories.

From the beginning of the invasion the military imposed a ban on journalists entering or observing the scene. As a result, very few outside journalists were able to cover the story firsthand. With the military controlling access to the island and refusing to allow them passage on their vessels, some correspondents found their own means of getting to Grenada, only to then be warned off by the military. ABC correspondent Josh Mankiewicz hired a fishing boat, but had to turn back after a US destroyer cut across his bow; two other ABC reporters in a hired boat thought twice and returned after a US navy jet “came over and made a couple of runs at us… it opened the bomb doors, and the pilot dropped a buoy about thirty feet ahead of us just to show what else he could drop and how close he could drop it”.3 A CBS reporter in a chartered plane was also chased off by a US jet fighter. Vice-Admiral Joseph Metcalf, in charge of the invasion task force, summed it up during a press conference with typical military grace: “Any of you guys coming in on press boats? Well I know how to stop those press boats. We’ve been shooting at them”.2

Some did manage to make it to the island, and observed the conflict there. On meeting a group of marines, a group of four journalists from different publications asked if they could be airlifted to the command ship U.S.S. Guam to relay their stories to the outside world. But after being taken to the vessel, they were told they could not make any outside communications and were kept under constant supervision, “more or less captives of the US navy”, one said.3

The images that reached the American public were carefully chosen and edited: scenes of combat were limited, giving the image of “surgical precision” that Reagan described it as. The military had controlled this through the use of ‘pools’, specially vetted groups of journalists who were escorted around the island by troops to report specific sites the military wanted them to see and avoid the bits they didn’t. The limited footage they collected, after being edited and passed by the military censors, would then be made available to all the news outlets. As a result, news channels back in America had to make do with the same censored, sanitised images telling the official line only; with limited information and a pressure for commentary, they had no choice but to fall in with the Reagan line. CBS anchor Dan Rather told his audience that the footage had been “shot by the military and censored by the military”, while ABC correspondent Richard Threlkeld described it grimly as a “worm’s-eye view” of what was going on.3

Bomb the Wrong People

One sad common denominator in the US’ many interventions is its seemingly remarkable propensity for bombing the wrong people. Though often due in part to genuine communications blunders or occasional trigger-happy madness, the problem of ‘collateral damage’ is largely due to an over-reliance on air power and the US military’s insistence on targeting infrastructure as well as enemy positions in a kind of ‘bomb first, move in later’ method, a tactic that led to much damage to civilian property. But the worst consequence of this approach was when an A-7 Corsair light attack aircraft dropped a 500lb bomb on a mental hospital in the capital, St. George’s; 21 patients were killed and much of the hospital was reduced to rubble. It would take US officials six days to acknowledge the blunder.

In the fog of war, the US took casualties from ‘friendly fire’, including one incident when aircraft, called in to bomb a house where snipers were believed to be, mistakenly bombed  a building full of American troops, causing 17 casualties, including one death. Elsewhere, Anthony Jeremiah, a Grenadian student, was shot dead when soldiers mistook the guitar he was carrying for a weapon.

The most unnecessary part of the operation was the decision to attack the Cuban construction workers, who had been instructed by Castro to not engage with the Americans unless they were fired upon. Castro had been a close ally and friend of Bishop and had no wish to deal with the coup leaders who had replaced him; despite requests from Austin and the RMC, Cuba refused to send reinforcements or get involved militarily, save for those already on the island. With the invasion’s purported target being the evacuation of US citizens, and the lightly-armed Cubans indifferent to the RMC and under orders not to attack, one has to question the decision to engage them at all; they were, after all, mostly civilian workers who were there for a building project. But with the image of a militarised island covered with prowling communists being proffered as another reason for intervention, engagement with the Cubans was inevitable, if unnecessary.

Make Military Mistakes

It is often repeated that in many of its engagements the US army loses more people to accidents than hostility; this was certainly true during the Gulf War when accidental deaths outnumbered those from hostility, and was also the case in Grenada, in its own miniaturised way. Of the American fatalities, four drowned at the beginning during a helicopter drop, one died from friendly fire and three perished in a botched landing attempt that crashed three Black Hawk helicopters.

Although described as a flawless success by the administration, the invasion was characterised by blunder and efficiency, becoming almost an archetype of ‘what not to do’ for future US military engagements. Planning errors, confusion, communication problems, accidents, lack of intelligence and ground co-ordination inspired Major Mark Adkin, of the accompanying Barbados Defence Force, to describe it as being “within a hairsbreadth of a military disaster”.1 The invasion’s planners had hoped for a quick stealth attack, but setbacks and blunders lost them the element of surprise. The invading troops were woefully misinformed, with some having to rely on outdated tourist maps or local advice for navigation; some didn’t even know what the operation was called. The location of the students they were supposed to be rescuing wasn’t known. Adkin sums it up rather succinctly when he writes of how a US marine, on meeting some journalists on the island, asked “the age-old army question, “Can you please tell us what the fuck is going on?… Is the Grenadian army on our side or theirs?””1 All this, after years of apparent scrutiny of the island!

The bodies of Grenadian dead were (perhaps deliberately) mixed in with those of Cubans and flown to Cuba, from where they had to be returned for burial. Nothing was done to prevent looting, and there were instances (and later courts-martial) of US soldiers getting involved themselves. The troops were unequipped and untrained for the Grenadian climate, with many becoming casualties of heat exhaustion. Whoever said invading an island twelve miles by seven would be easy?

Coming up next…RESTORATION!


1: Urgent Fury: The Battle for Grenada by Mark Adkin, Lexington Books, 1989

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

3: Under Fire: US Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf, Jacqueline Sharkey, The Center for Public Integrity,  1991

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

William C Crain November 7, 2013 at 4:20 am

Thank you so much for this insightful news article. i had some idea it was more of the US Statagon imperial / hegemony ~ having been wounded in combat during the Tet Offensive i can say that i’m on the side of the RMC ~ ‘merikons are vicious and willfully ignorant


MontanaMan February 3, 2015 at 9:16 pm

What is this, Marxist propaganda? The mood of the country in those days, for crying out loud, was ‘kick the communists out of our hemisphere’ and ‘sock it to the lying, communist-loivng media.’ We were so sick of being told that communism was grand and America was evil, being lied to daily by Dan Rather, et al., and told that Reagan was a war mongerer while the Democrats led by Carter were allowing the Soviets ever closer to our shores and giving over American lives to whomever wanted to kill them or hold them hostage. We were glad that the Reagan-led government censored the media after what they did to us in Vietnam. Interesting that liberals today love it when Obama strangles the media. And they never question JFK’s botched attempt to invade Cuba. Hypocrites or just plain stupid.


Aaron Aarons February 11, 2015 at 1:46 pm

IMO, right-wing nut cases like this, who post both anonymously and without citations of fact, should be deleted. But if ‘MontanaMan’ himself can’t be ‘deleted’, at least his rant here should be.


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