Grenada Invasion: History and Significance

US Soldiers with Prisoners in Grenada
Two US soldiers hold three suspected members of the People's Revolutionary Army at gunpoint in St. George's, Grenada during the Grenada Invasion. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

On October 25, 1983, nearly 2,000 United States Marines led an invasion of the Caribbean island nation of Grenada. Given the codename "Operation Urgent Fury," the invasion was ordered by U.S. President Ronald Reagan to counter threats by Grenada’s Marxist governments to nearly 1,000 American nationals (including 600 medical students) living on the island at the time. The operation succeeded in less than a week. The American students were rescued and the Marxist regime was replaced by an appointed interim government. In 1984, Grenada conducted free democratic elections and remains a democratic nation today.

Fast Facts: Grenada Invasion

  • Overview: The U.S.-led invasion of Grenada prevented a communist takeover and restored a constitutional government to the Caribbean island nation.
  • Key Participants: U.S. Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force troops, along with troops of the Caribbean Defense Force, opposed by Grenadian and Cuban military troops.
  • Start Date: October 25, 1983
  • End Date: October 29, 1983
  • Other Significant Dates: October 25, 1983—Allied troops capture the two airports on Grenada and U.S. Army Rangers rescue 140 captive American students October 26, 1983—U.S. Army Rangers rescue another 223 captive American students December 3, 1984—Grenada holds free, democratic elections
  • Location: The Caribbean island of Grenada
  • Outcome: U.S. and allied victory, Marxist People’s Revolutionary Government deposed, Former constitutional, democratic government restored, Cuban military presence removed from the island
  • Other Information: The official U.S. military codename for the Grenada invasion was “Operation Urgent Fury.”

Background

In 1974, Grenada gained its independence from the United Kingdom. The newly-independent nation operated as a democracy until 1979, when the New Jewel Movement, a Marxist-Leninist faction led by Maurice Bishop overthrew the government in a violent coup. American officials became concerned when Bishop suspended the constitution, detained a number of political prisoners, and established close relationships with communist Cuba.

Shortly after taking power, the Bishop government, with the help of Cuba, Libya, and other countries, began building the Point Salines Airport. First proposed in 1954, while Grenada was still a British colony, the airport included a 9,000-foot-long runway, which U.S. officials noted would accommodate the largest Soviet military aircraft. While the Bishop government vowed the runway had been built to accommodate large commercial tourist aircraft, U.S. officials feared the airport would also be used to help the Soviet Union and Cuba transport arms to communist insurgents in Central America. On October 19, 1983, an internal political struggle boiled over when another Cuban-friendly Marxist, Bernard Coard, assassinated Bishop and took control of the Grenadian government.

Elsewhere, at the same time, the Cold War was heating up again. On November 4, 1979, a group of armed, radical students in Iran seized the American embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage. Two rescue attempts ordered by the administration of President Jimmy Carter failed, and the Iranians held the American diplomats hostage for 444 days, finally releasing them at the very moment Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President of the United States on January 20, 1981. The Iran hostage crisis, as it came to be known, further eroded the already tense relations between the United States and the Soviet Union that had never fully recovered from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

In March 1983, President Reagan revealed his so-called “Reagan Doctrine,” a policy dedicated to ending the Cold War by eradicating communism worldwide. In advocating his so-called “rollback” approach to communism, Reagan emphasized the rising influence of the Soviet-Cuban alliance in Latin America and the Caribbean. When protests against Bernard Coard’s Marxist government in Grenada became violent, Reagan cited “concerns over the 600 U.S. medical students on the island” and fears of another Iran hostage crisis as justification for launching the Grenada invasion.

Just two days before the invasion of Grenada began, the October 23, 1983, terrorist bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon had taken the lives of 220 US Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers. In a 2002 interview, Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger recalled, “We were planning that very weekend for the actions in Grenada to overcome the anarchy that was down there and the potential seizure of American students, and all the memories of the Iranian hostages.”

The Invasion

On the morning of October 25, 1983, the United States, supported by the Caribbean Defense Force, invaded Grenada. The U.S. contingent totaled 7,600 troops from the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force.

President Reagan's Remarks on the Grenada Rescue Mission followed by Remarks by Prime Minister Eugenia Charles of Dominica in the Press Room on October 25, 1983. Courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

The allied invading force was opposed by about 1,500 Grenadian troops and 700 armed Cuban military engineers working on the expansion of the Point Salines Airport. Despite having a clear advantage in manpower and equipment, the U.S.-led forces were hindered by a lack of intelligence on the capabilities of the Cuban troops and the geographical layout of the island, often forced to depend on outdated tourist maps.

The primary objectives of Operation Urgent Fury were to capture the island’s two airports, the disputed Point Salines Airport and the smaller Pearls Airport, and to rescue the American medical students trapped at St. George’s University.

By the end of the invasion’s first day, U.S. Army Rangers had secured both the Point Salines and Pearls airports, and rescued 140 American students from St. George’s University True Blue campus. The Rangers also learned that another 223 students were being held at the university’s Grand Anse campus. These students were rescued over the next two days.

By October 29, military resistance to the invasion had ended. The U.S. Army and Marines proceeded to scour the island, arresting officers of the Grenadian military and seizing or destroying its weapons and equipment.

The Outcome and Death Toll

As a result of the invasion, Grenada’s military People’s Revolutionary Government was deposed and replaced by an interim government under Governor Paul Scoon. Political prisoners, jailed since 1979 were released. With the free elections held on December 3, 1984, the New National Party won control of the once-again democratic Grenadian government. The island has functioned as a democracy ever since.

A total of almost 8,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, along with 353 troops of the Caribbean Peace Forces participated in Operation Urgent Fury. U.S. forces suffered 19 killed and 116 wounded. Combined Cuban and Grenadian military forces sustained 70 killed, 417 wounded, and 638 captured. In addition, at least 24 civilians were killed in the fighting. The Grenadian military suffered a crippling loss of weapons, vehicles, and equipment. 

Fallout and Legacy

While the invasion enjoyed broad support from the American public, mainly due to the successful and timely rescue of the medical students, it was not without its critics. On November 2, 1983, the United Nations General Assembly, by a vote of 108 to 9, declared the military action “a flagrant violation of international law.” In addition, several American politicians criticized the invasion as a rash and dangerous overreaction by President Reagan to the deadly bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon that had killed over 240 U.S. troops just two days earlier.

Despite the criticism, the Reagan administration hailed the invasion as the first successful “rollback” reversal of communist influence since the start of the Cold War in the 1950s, and evidence of the Reagan Doctrine’s potential for success.

The Grenadian people eventually grew to support the invasion. Today, the island observes October 25—the day of the invasion, as Thanksgiving, “a special day to remember how the U.S. military rescued them from a communist takeover and restored constitutional government.”

Sources and Further References