Invade Grenada” implored an editorial headline in the Detroit News on October 24, 1983. To many who had previously read nothing about developments in the tiny, obscure, southern Caribbean island, dispatching American troops there must have seemed out-of-the-blue, if not reckless. But two days later, that’s exactly what President Ronald Reagan did.
It was the opening shot of the Reagan Doctrine, a policy that contributed mightily to the demise of the Soviet empire. We ought to celebrate it as a triumph of leadership and a milestone for liberty.
Alarm bells sounded early in the Reagan administration when the Marxist regime of Grenada’s prime minister Maurice Bishop nuzzled up to Moscow and Havana. The construction of a 10,000-foot runway that could accommodate the largest military transports, and the influx of hundreds of East-bloc advisers and military personnel, meant that Grenada was fast becoming another forward base for Soviet designs on the region. The Detroit News noted in its editorial that in his four years as ruler, Bishop “had censored the press, canceled elections, stifled opposition parties, and jailed numerous political detainees.”
As bad as Bishop was, he wasn’t bad enough for Bernard Coard, a hard-line Communist who staged a bloody coup on October 13. Bishop was quickly assassinated, and Coard’s supporters showed every sign of moving to install a virulently anti-Western regime. Amid growing violence, the lives of nearly 1,000 American medical students on Grenada hung in the balance.
It’s hard to imagine that, if Jimmy Carter had been president, there would have been any American response other than sweet talk, vacillation, and appeasement. Washington would not have considered military action unless the students had been rounded up and taken hostage. But Reagan was made of much sterner stuff. In his first year as president, he told an audience at Notre Dame University, “The West will not contain Communism, it will transcend Communism. We will not bother to denounce it; we’ll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” Ronald Reagan understood the enormous geopolitical significance of rolling back the Evil Empire.
Defeating the Communist thrust in Grenada would do nothing less than kill the Brezhnev Doctrine in its tracks. Advanced by Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev in August 1968 when he mounted an invasion of Czechoslovakia, the doctrine held that once a nation had become Communist, it would forever remain so. The Reagan Doctrine of undermining the Communist agenda by supporting anti-Communist insurgencies could score its first big victory if Grenada were liberated. Such a development would send a powerful message to the forces fighting Communism everywhere, from the Solidarity movement in Poland to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
Peter Schweizer, in his recent book Reagan’s War, recounts what happened in the White House on the same day the Detroit News urged action:
Six neighboring countries were now stepping forward and formally requesting U.S. assistance to deal with a mounting crisis. Aides came to Reagan with the outlines of an invasion plan.
One mentioned that there would be political fallout; the invasion would be controversial and probably not very popular.
“I understand that. I’m prepared for that,” Reagan said.
Another mentioned it might cause anxiety in Cuba, creating fears that that nation might be next.
“That’s fine,” he said. “They might be.”
Reagan then asked how soon the invasion could take place.
In forty-eight hours, he was told.
“Do it,” he ordered.
In the early-morning hours of October 25, 1983, armed forces of the United States of America invaded the island of Grenada. Fierce resistance met the initial assault by 1,200 troops. Cuban military units fought hard for several days, but as the invasion force grew to more than 7,000, they surrendered or melted into the countryside. Every one of the American medical students was rescued. Casualties were minimal: 19 American soldiers and 49 of the enemy were dead. 110,000 inhabitants of Grenada were freed of a murderous, expansionist regime. American combat forces were home before Christmas. Soon afterward, Grenada held free elections, and when President Reagan visited the island on the invasion’s first anniversary, throngs of grateful Grenadians welcomed him with what seemed like boundless enthusiasm.
Reagan biographer Dinesh D’Souza writes that “for the first time since the Vietnam War, the United States had committed ground troops abroad, sustained casualties, emerged victorious, and won the support of the American people.” The invasion “helped to exorcise the ghost of Vietnam from the American psyche.”
The doubting Thomases who dismissed the administration’s claim that the medical students needed to be rescued were forever silenced when those very students returned to the United States. The first one off the plane fell to his knees and kissed the tarmac. At the White House, the students expressed their profound appreciation for what American troops had done.
We now know that there were many others cheering the Grenada invasion from more distant front lines of the Cold War. Reagan, already seen behind the Iron Curtain as a hero for the cause of liberation, had employed decisive action to back up his tough words. Those risking their lives fighting the Evil Empire in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Central America were emboldened. Freedom’s friends knew he meant business. Communism was not the wave of the future. It could be transcended and eliminated. From that point forward, its demise was inevitable and swift. The Brezhnev Doctrine was as dead as its blowhard author, who had gone on to his “reward” the year before.
Always underestimated by opponents of far lesser note and character, Reagan proved by invading Grenada that leadership and firm resolve can make an enormous difference. On this 20th anniversary, let us be thankful that the man in the White House in October 1983 was not an indecisive accommodationist, but a giant of our age–Ronald Wilson Reagan.
–Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan.