Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power - Rachel Maddow (2012)
Chapter 4. Isle of Spice
WHEN THE REAR RAMP OF THE LEAD C-130 AIR FORCE TRANSPORT plane fell open, somewhere over the Atlantic, the jumpmaster for Navy SEAL Team Six got his first surprise. He and his teammates had been well briefed on their top secret mission. They were to be the phantom vanguard, the crucial eyes and ears, of the United States’ first major combat mission since Vietnam, in and out before anyone ever knew they were there. The sixteen SEALs, along with two eighteen-foot Boston Whaler patrol boats, were to make a 1,200-foot parachute drop into deep water well away from commercial shipping lanes, forty miles northeast of the still-under-construction Point Salines airfield on the edge of a Caribbean island few of the men could have found on a map a few days earlier. Once in the water, the frogmen would swim to the boats, meet up with an Air Force Combat Control team from the nearby USS Sprague, and, after darkness fell, motor forty miles to shore. The SEALs would suss out the situation at the airfield and radio back what they found: Were the runways complete enough for landing a couple of battalions of Army Rangers? Were the runways clear? Was the airfield defended by local soldiers? How big was the Cuban construction and engineering crew, and how many of the Cubans were armed? Did they know we were coming?
Intelligence about the airfield was spotty at best, which was why the SEALs were infiltrating the island a day and a half before the invasion was to begin, even before President Reagan had made the final decision on whether or not to launch the overall operation.
SEAL Team Six had been given to understand that there was nothing complicated about its reconnaissance mission. In fact, the SEALs’ commander had taken himself off the offshore drop so he would be available to lead a different SEALs mission: the rescue of the island’s governor general thirty-six hours later.
The SEALs approached their drop site right on schedule. Weather reports promised clear skies, low winds, and calm seas. And then the ramp dropped, and, well, it seemed the planners had forgotten to take into account the daylight saving time change, and a one-hour miscalculation is no small thing twelve degrees north of the equator, where the sun drops in a hurry. As the jumpmaster remembered it years later, “It was pitch-black outside. We couldn’t see a thing. I grabbed a flashlight off the air crewman and tried to stick it on the boat.… We had no lights rigged anywhere. We were told it was going to be a daylight drop.”
Secrecy. That was the controlling force in the planning and execution of Operation Urgent Fury, the October 1983 invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada. When the SEALs commander had suggested, in the early planning stages, that it might be simplest to fly his men and their Boston Whalers directly to the Sprague, he had been waved off for reasons of “operational security.” The planning team, wrote the leader of the Air Force Combat Control team, “was afraid that word might leak of the pending operation.” Flying to the Sprague would let too many people in on the secret. In fact, the Air Force crews flying the SEALs south in the two cargo planes still thought this open-water drop was just another training exercise.
President Reagan’s national security team and his chief military advisers meant to keep this operation under wraps until the last possible moment. Reagan had stuck to his announced public schedule, making many of the crucial decisions about Urgent Fury from the Eisenhower Cottage at Augusta National during a presidential golf weekend. Less than twenty-four hours before the operation began, key planning officers gave up valuable hours to attend an annual military ball. Not going to the dance, commanders reckoned, would be a big red flag that something was up. At least one member of the Air Force planning team suspected that nobody had requested pre-invasion intelligence on Grenada from the National Security Agency, which monitored international phone calls and radio traffic (“probably the richest source of intelligence” on the island). Planners feared that operatives at the NSA, the most secretive agency in government, would leak. And apparently nobody in the chain of command had asked the Defense Mapping Agency for detailed tactical maps of Grenada, which is why planning teams were occasionally working with maps dating from 1895, and commanders on the ground ended up depending on fold-out tourist maps like “Grenada: The Isle of Spice.”
President Reagan did not even risk alerting British prime minister Margaret Thatcher of the operation until after Urgent Fury was under way, despite the compelling fact that Grenada was a member of the British Commonwealth. And the American press corps? They were getting nowhere near Operation Urgent Fury. No provisions were made to attach pool reporters to the mission, a remarkable break from traditional US policy. And Reagan officials did more than simply evade the press. On the eve of the invasion, when asked point-blank to confirm an NBC reporter’s question about an impending military action in Grenada, Deputy National Security Adviser John Poindexter flat-out lied. “Preposterous,” he said.
Team Reagan also made the executive decision that it would be imprudent to bring Congress into the loop too early. Somebody on the intelligence committee was sure to leak if informed, the president and his closest advisers believed, and that would jeopardize the entire mission. As far as the White House was concerned, there was simply too much at stake. Secrecy!
As soon as the Boston Whalers went out the rear door of the lead C-130, eight SEALs followed into the unexpected darkness … and into a squall. Clear skies forecast notwithstanding, windswept rain pelted the jumpers, and they hit the water a lot faster than they had expected. A few later estimated that instead of their planned 1,200-foot drop, they’d gone out of the planes at a dangerously low height of about six hundred feet. The first eight SEALs hit the water so hard that fins and equipment pouches sheared off. The swells were as high as ten feet, and the wind on the water so stiff that the parachutes would not deflate.
“It … started dragging me through the water, almost from wave to wave, dragging me facedown, swallowing water rapidly,” one SEAL said later. “I reached up and grabbed the lines of the parachute and started dragging them in, trying to collapse the parachute.… I had a lot of lines all around me.… But I had time to get to my knife and start cutting lines and got enough of them cut so it didn’t start dragging me again.”
The second team of eight had been flung out of its C-130 well away from the assigned drop point, and the scattered men had trouble finding the Boston Whalers on the dark and stormy seas. After a long scramble through the dangerous waters, a few managed to get into one of the boats, but the other SEALs finally gave up and swam toward the lights of the Sprague. Twelve of the sixteen men were fished out of the Atlantic that night; they could hear one of their teammates shouting and firing off shots in hopes of bringing help. After hours of frantic searching for their lost teammates, the SEALs ceded the rescue operations to the crew of the Sprague and, along with the Air Force team, cobbled together enough men to attempt the shore landing near the airfield. But by the time they finally neared the coastline, Grenadian patrol boats were panning searchlights across the open water, forcing the SEALs to give up the mission and return to the Sprague.
When they got back early the next morning, the four missing comrades were still lost at sea. The men never would be found, and were likely pulled underwater by their parachutes. The death of four friends did not deter Team Six. They called back to base to request the drop of another Boston Whaler. They’d try again when the sun fell later that evening.
When word reached the Pentagon planners that the SEALs failed to reach land as scheduled—and that they were determined to try again later that evening—the Joint Chiefs suggested a prudent twenty-four-hour delay in the operation, but a State Department liaison surprised the military brass by shooting down that idea. The coalition of Caribbean states that had agreed to back the US overthrow of the Grenadian government, he admitted, was already coming apart at the seams. It might not hold together for another twenty-four hours. If the US military was going to effect this coup, they had to go at the appointed hour. “Besides,” the State Department aide told the military chieftains, “how could the world’s strongest military power need any more time against what is probably the world’s weakest?”
The avowed reason for the urgency of Urgent Fury—planned from scratch in about seventy-two hours—was that American citizens were in grave danger on the island of Grenada. And they had to be rescued in a flash. An intramural scrap inside the island’s Marxist-Leninist government had left the prime minister and a number of his supporters dead and sent his number two and rival into hiding. Power had devolved to a military council and a somewhat rattled general who announced a four-day curfew enforced by armed soldiers. “No one is to leave their house,” the general said. “Anyone violating this curfew will be shot on sight.”
The Reagan administration’s diplomat in the region, the ambassador to Barbados, was a former Nebraska highway commissioner with no experience in foreign affairs. He’d been so offended by the Communists in Grenada that he forbade anybody from his diplomatic team from visiting the island or having contact with its leaders. The advantage of this strategy: it sure looked tough. The disadvantage: it ensured that America had no active Grenadian contacts, no one in-country, no way to make real-time observations on this island we were so concerned with. As best the Reagan national security team could determine (lacking actual on-the-ground information), law and order had completely broken down, leaving more than five hundred US students attending the American-owned and -operated St. George’s University School of Medicine cowering in their rooms, potential hostages. The administration’s draft decision memorandum, written in the main by a Marine lieutenant colonel named Oliver North, called first and foremost for “ensuring the safety of American citizens on Grenada,” but also for standing up a new democratic (aka pro-American) government in Grenada and ridding the island of the biggest Bolsheviks in the baño, the Cubans and their Soviet friends. When Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush questioned the (probably illegal) objective of a regime change by force, Reagan barely blinked: “Well, if we’ve got to go there, we might as well do everything that needs to be done.” Those med students had just become an important hook for a grand American scheme.
By October 1983, the time of the invasion, Reagan had been beating the presidential tom-toms about the Central America peril for more than two years, and he was growing ever more frustrated that he had been unable to get Congress to fall in step. When the House Intelligence Committee chairman learned from press reports in November 1982 that Reagan’s ambassador in Honduras was secretly training rebels to overthrow the popular but Marxist-leaning government in Nicaragua, he pointedly introduced legislation (which passed) that specifically prohibited the Department of Defense or the CIA from allocating any of their approved budgets to assist and foment a coup in Nicaragua. The usually unflappable Reagan was visibly angered by what he thought was congressional interference. “The Sandinistas have openly proclaimed Communism in their country and their support of Marxist revolutions throughout Central America,” he blurted in evident exasperation in a meeting with Democratic Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill. “They’re killing and torturing people! Now, what the hell does Congress expect me to do about that?”
Reagan went on one of his signature public relations offensives. In a speech to the nation from the Oval Office in March 1983, wherein the president warned that his record-breaking defense budget had been “trimmed to the limits of safety” by the soft-on-Communism Congress, Reagan revealed some hazy satellite photos of an airfield under construction. “On the small island of Grenada, at the southern end of the Caribbean chain,” he’d said, “the Cubans, with Soviet financing and backing, are in the process of building an airfield with a ten-thousand-foot runway. Grenada doesn’t even have an air force. Who is it intended for?”
Reagan meant this as an ominous rhetorical question, but it did have rather less ominous empirical answers. To wit: there were airfields of similar size and capacity already dotting the Caribbean; the Grenadian government wanted to build a new modern airport to increase tourism, which was their only source of income outside nutmeg, bananas, and servicing those medical students at St. George’s University. The Grenadian government had asked the United States for money to help build it so they could bring in big jetfuls of tourists directly from Miami and New York and Dallas; the tourists wouldn’t have to wait around Bridgetown, Barbados, to catch a puddle-jumper connection. The United States had said no to the aid request, but Great Britain and Canada had been happy to help. The main contractor for construction of the Point Salines airfield was a British company underwritten by a grant from the British government. None of this was secret. But according to Reagan there was a much more nefarious plot afoot. The president said he wanted to reveal more to the American people on TV that night, but, alas, he claimed, the stakes were too high. “These pictures only tell a small part of the story. I wish I could show you more without compromising our most sensitive intelligence sources and methods.”
Here’s what he could say: “The Soviet-Cuban militarization of Grenada, in short, can only be seen as power projection into the region. And it is in this important economic and strategic area that we’re trying to help the governments of El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, and others in their struggles for democracy against guerrillas supported through Cuba and Nicaragua.
“This is why I’m speaking to you tonight—to urge you to tell your senators and congressmen that you know we must continue to restore our military strength. If we stop in midstream, we will send a signal of decline, of lessened will, to friends and adversaries alike.”
Reagan’s national plea did not shake loose the cash he’d desired from the legislature, so a month later he called a rare and dramatic joint session of Congress to ask members to stop resisting his budget requests for fighting the Commies in Central America. “The national security of all the Americas is at stake in Central America. If we cannot defend ourselves there, we cannot expect to prevail elsewhere. Our credibility would collapse, our alliances would crumble, and the safety of the homeland would be put in jeopardy.”
But Congress kept whittling away at funding for El Salvador, and for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. The Senate blocked a specific request to have the CIA actively undermine the Communist-friendly runway-happy Grenadian government—effectively a slow-motion coup. But when Congress said no on Grenada, Reagan simply prepared an end run. On October 4, 1983, the president signed National Security Decision Directive 105, which ordered his own national security team to draw up plans for destabilizing the economy and the institutions of Grenada (among other Central American countries), to overthrow its Socialist government, and to rid the island once and for all of Cuban and Soviet influence. Senate be damned.
When the news hit that something was afoot in Grenada (just nine days after the secret presidential directive was issued), Reagan’s national security adviser for Latin American Affairs immediately brought up the possible perils to the Americans living on the island. “In crises there is opportunity,” he said later, “and I believed that this emergency just might present an excellent chance to restore democracy to Grenada while assuring the safety of our citizens.” What better way to do all that—and to prove that America was back—than military action. Military action in Grenada was a first resort for the Reagan team, not a last resort. It’s not like they tried much else. They didn’t even bother to get good information about what was actually happening on the island, or to verify what little they did get. They were under the spell of their old Team B Soviet-military hype. The Russians were running a takeover in Grenada.
And frankly, this was an administration eager to use the military in a way that would let the president say things like “America is back.” He had been using the idea of military strength to political effect for years; now he could use actual military strength. The purported justification sold to the American people about Grenada—the rescue of these American medical students—was so far from the operational point of Urgent Fury that the White House would send the president out to make his victory speech even before all the students were secure.
As the Grenadian government tore itself apart over the next week, Reagan’s administration made plans for the “rescue” of the British queen’s representative in Grenada, Governor-General Paul Scoon, a ceremonial figurehead who governed nothing and didn’t know we were coming. The military rescue team for Scoon would also include a US State Department representative who made sure that the governor-general went up on the island’s radio network and said all the right things about how the Americans had been officially invited in to restore order and good government. There was considerably less diplomatic push to ensure the actual safety of the American students living on the island. Little or no effort was made to contact anybody in student housing or to talk to the faculty and staff of St. George’s University, whose bursar had been receiving personal assurances from Grenadian government officials that the students were safe and would be assured a safe departure if they wished to leave. (The retired chief actuary of the US Social Security system flew out of the small airport on the northeast part of the island the day that SEAL Team Six made its second attempt to infiltrate the island.)
No, the real energy inside the Reagan administration was expended on preparing a full-out combat operation, and preparing to justify it after the fact. Every branch of the military was anxious to get a piece of the action: the SEAL teams, an Army Ranger battalion, a second Army Ranger battalion, the Air Force for transport, the Navy for air and gun support. Everybody had a piece of the little spice island. The Marines didn’t get much, but they did get a little real estate to take up north.
But then, less than thirty hours before the invasion was to commence, events on the other side of the world changed the plans in a big way. On the morning of October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck containing six tons of explosives and a variety of highly flammable gases into the US Marine barracks at the airport in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 soldiers there on a don’t-shoot peacekeeping mission. Fourteen months into the deployment, and after an earlier suicide bombing at the US embassy in Beirut, Reagan was still unable to make clear to the American people exactly why US Marines were there. Were we keeping the peace in the civil war there, or were we taking sides with the Christians against the Muslims? The Reagan administration was still mixed on that message in the wake of the bombing, but the president was damned sure not going to let anybody question American resolve. Reagan dispatched Vice President Bush to Beirut to make sure the world knew we were going to be staying the course in Lebanon, that we weren’t going to be frightened off by terrorists.
That afternoon the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggested that perhaps the Grenada operation was a dangerous exercise, at least where the president’s political standing was involved. Reagan was headed into reelection season, the chairman reminded him, and he didn’t need a double whammy of military complications. It might be less fraught to let the diplomats work out a deal to extricate the American students from Grenada. But Reagan was not about to back down. Not now. This was not the time to show weakness.
Word of a change in plans for Operation Urgent Fury started to filter through the chain of command within eight hours of the Lebanon bombing. “Now that the Marines had been bloodied in Beirut, they wanted an active role,” SEALs commander Robert Gormly wrote later. “Politics took over and the island was divided down the middle, with the Joint Headquarters retaining the southwest part and the Marines given the go-ahead to make an amphibious landing at the smaller airfield in the northeast.” The next day, as Gormly mourned his four dead SEAL colleagues and continued planning for the rescue of the governor-general, he found himself in a meeting with the State Department official who was going to go along on the operation. “[He] offered me some interesting information: that the Cuban ‘engineers’ on the island wouldn’t be a problem, because their government had informally agreed to keep its people in their barracks during our incursion. In other words, the Cubans knew we were coming.”
Funny thing, that secrecy business. Our putative enemy, Fidel Castro, knew about the invasion well before the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. In fact, when President Reagan finally had a group of congressional leaders to the White House residence on the night of October 24, 1983, secretly, to explain the plans for Grenada, the Army Rangers were already collecting their ammo and loading into their transport planes. The secretary of state briefed the three Democratic leaders and two Republicans on the situation on the ground in Grenada, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs laid out plans for a military operation involving two thousand American soldiers, sailors, and Marines. Only House Republican leader Bob Michel offered unquestioning support. The majority leader in the Senate, Tennessee Republican Howard Baker, wondered if Reagan was making a serious political mistake, and perhaps a military one. House Democratic majority leader Jim Wright thought the situation called for a stronger diplomatic effort, not military force. Senate Minority Leader Robert Byrd said point-blank he was against the invasion, and he’d say so in public.
Tip O’Neill, the venerable old big-city liberal and the Democratic Speaker of the House, was torn. He was sympathetic to Reagan’s worry that American hostages would be taken in Grenada; the 444-day hostage crisis in Iran just a few years earlier had been a grim national nightmare, and Jimmy Carter’s inability to free them had torpedoed his presidency. But O’Neill, like the other Democrats at the meeting, thought diplomacy was the wiser course to take in Grenada. There were no reports of Americans being menaced on the island, let alone being taken hostage. He saw no compelling reason for the United States military to execute a full-scale regime change; and he knew of no compelling constitutional argument that permitted Reagan to launch the operation simply on presidential say-so. Even if Operation Urgent Fury wrapped up within the sixty-day window that compelled Reagan, under the War Powers Resolution, to consult Congress and secure specific statutory authority for the war, it was hard to make the case that Grenada represented a “national emergency created by an attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” At the very least, the president should have begun the process of seeking approval from Congress before hitting the Go button. “You are informing us,” O’Neill pointedly told the president at the end of the administration’s presentation, “not asking us.”
Reagan reminded the congressional leaders that the rush of events had simply overtaken constitutional prerogatives. The safety of the American students was paramount; there was no time to lose. And then, prompted by something his national security adviser said, Reagan told the congressional leaders a story about how the Filipino people had cheered American soldiers after their liberation in World War II. “I can see the day, not too many weeks from now,” Reagan told the group, “when the Lebanese people will be standing at the shore, waving and cheering our Marines when they depart.”
O’Neill grew increasingly uncomfortable as Reagan kept going on about Lebanon in the middle of a meeting about Grenada. The Speaker began to suspect that part of the rationale for the invasion of Grenada was to use a quick-and-easy triumph as a distraction from the hideousness of the Beirut bombing.
Tip O’Neill was old-school. He worked hard to find common ground with the president, no matter how divergent their political philosophies. He’d always given the president the benefit of the doubt when White House factotums grabbed for a little extra on every deal the two men made—give a little, get a little was how O’Neill’s politics worked. Just three weeks earlier the Speaker had gone to bat for the president on the mission in Beirut, convincing skeptical House Democrats to vote for an eighteen-month extension of the 1,200-Marine US presence in the multinational peacekeeping force there. Reagan’s team had assured the Speaker that things were improving; that they could get Israeli and Syrian military units out of Lebanon, stand up a viable coalition government in Beirut, and train and equip a Lebanese Army capable of defending the country without an American presence. They just needed a little time.
Grenada was a tougher mission to back, but Tip O’Neill was also convinced that partisanship ended at the water’s edge in wartime. Even in a war against a tiny, poorly armed island military, he was not going to criticize the president while American troops were in a fight, and he would implore the House Democratic Caucus to do the same. On the way out of the meeting, O’Neill wished Reagan good luck, sincerely. He wasn’t interested in seeing American boys die. But he privately worried that Reagan’s insistence on making war in Grenada would start our own country down a dangerous new road.
The United States military might have been facing one of the weakest foes on the planet, but Operation Urgent Fury was no cakewalk. The Grenadian soldiers put up more of a fight than intelligence had suggested they would, but still, resistance melted away pretty quickly. Most of the damage the United States suffered in the invasion was self-inflicted. The lack of intelligence and basic tactical maps along with the inability of the various services to communicate with one another led to results ranging from comic to mortal. The SEALs sent to rescue Governor-General Scoon had to be rescued themselves. They had to use the house phone to call Fort Bragg to request fire from the US naval ships off the coast. The radio station selected to be used for Scoon’s address to the people of Grenada turned out to be nothing more than a remote transmission tower. Navy Corsair pilots accidentally blew up a mental hospital, killing eighteen patients. A US Marine liaison team mistakenly called in a naval air raid on a nearby US Army command post, wounding seventeen American soldiers and killing one. Helicopters were lost to small-arms fire, to the rotors from another chopper, and to a confrontation with a palm tree.
When word of the invasion began to reach home that first day, the early results were a cold slap in the face for Team Reagan. Members of the United Nations Security Council immediately began debating a resolution “deeply deploring” the US invasion of Grenada as a “flagrant violation of international law.” (The vote would go 11-1, with the United States exercising its veto power.) Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called to register her anger with Reagan. Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress were not happy about being kept in the dark about this multimillion-dollar military adventure. “I was the designated person on the day of the beginning of the action when it became public to go to the Congress,” Secretary of State George Shultz told an audience a few years ago. “I spent all day long and there was hardly a good word said.” Sen. Lawton Chiles told reporters: “One day we’ve got the numbers of Marines’ deaths, which shocked us all, the next day we find we’re invading Grenada. Are we looking for a war we can win?”
The press corps, meanwhile, was apoplectic that they had not been brought along on the combat mission, and that a White House official had flat-out lied (“Preposterous!”) when asked in advance about the operation. The executive vice president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association called for a full-on congressional investigation into Reagan’s “policy of secret wars hidden from the American people.” Four years later, the conservative columnist and Republican defender William Safire was still pitching into Reagan’s national security team. “The United States Government may on rare occasion fall silent for a time, but it must not deliberately lie; only the presence of reporters pledged to temporary secrecy can help justify a news blackout. By breaching the democratic precedent, and by issuing a lie, the Reagan Administration engaged in self-corruption far more important than one victory in the Caribbean.”
Meanwhile, on Grenada, the way operations were unfolding did not exactly bolster the administration’s case that the point of Urgent Fury was saving the St. George’s University medical students. The plan to pluck the students from what was called the True Blue campus just a short hop north from the Point Salines airfield was executed to perfection. The Army Rangers swept in and secured all the students living on the campus without a serious hitch on the first day. But the Rangers found fewer than a third of the six hundred American students they’d been expecting on the campus. That’s because, the students explained, most of the students lived at the Grand Anse campus a few miles north.
Oops. In the full week after the crisis came to a head, nobody in the Pentagon or the White House made an effort to contact the school to see where everybody lived. Nobody picked up the telephone and called the dorms. Nobody checked the student-loan records to get actual addresses for the Americans studying at St. George’s. There was no plan to rescue students at the Grand Anse campus because nobody in the United States government knew there was a Grand Anse campus. Now the Army Rangers picked up the phone and called Grand Anse, and the students told them they thought a small group of Grenadian and Cuban soldiers had dug in around the campus. Whether they were to protect the American students or to hold them was anybody’s guess. But it must be noted that those Grenadians and Cubans had more than thirty-six hours after the first American troops landed to do as they pleased with the students. And they did them no harm.
While the Ranger commandos made plans for a new assault/rescue on the Grand Anse campus, the military kept reporters at bay, in Barbados. The last thing they needed now was reporters crawling around, which meant the media missed the most seamless operation of Urgent Fury. Firepower from the USS Independence took out a couple of hotels near the campus (part deux), and then three waves of helicopters came roaring in over the Atlantic, blasting their .50-caliber guns into the smoke and haze and off-loading dozens of Army Rangers. In a matter of half an hour, another 224 American students had been freed from their beachside apartments and shipped off to safety in military helicopters.
The triumph would have been complete, except for one sour note. The Grand Anse students inquired about the condition of their classmates who lived across the island at Prickly Bay; must be another two hundred or so people over there. Prickly Bay? What’s Prickly Bay?
The rationale of Operation Urgent Fury—this $135 million, 8,000-strong expedition—may have been to save these Americans from being kidnapped by ruthless Caribbean Commie thugs, but that wasn’t much of an operational focus for what happened on the ground in Grenada.
Once some of the students had been “rescued,” the administration wasn’t sure what to expect from them. The chancellor of the medical school had already been telling reporters that their students hadn’t needed rescuing. And frankly, the students’ scariest moments may have been when US Army Rangers came in with guns blazing. Oliver North later said the State Department had failed to get its operative on board the plane home to work on convincing the students of the danger they had been in. So when the plane full of students touched down in Charleston, South Carolina, Reagan and George Shultz were watching the live television feed with some trepidation until one of the first kids off the plane knelt down and kissed the tarmac. “Mr. President,” Shultz claims to have said, “the fat lady just sang.” By the time Reagan went on the air to address Congress, that tarmac-kissing scene had been seared into the American brainpan. Nearly two-thirds of the country professed approval for Operation Urgent Fury. And that was before the speech!
Reagan led his Urgent Fury speech to the nation not with Grenada but with an explanation of the bombing at the Marine barracks in Beirut. Although just fifteen weeks later, in February, Reagan would order a full US withdrawal from Lebanon, that night in prime-time in October 1983, he promised to stand strong:
Let me ask those who say we should get out of Lebanon: If we were to leave Lebanon now, what message would that send to those who foment instability and terrorism?… Brave young men have been taken from us. Many others have been grievously wounded. Are we to tell them their sacrifice was wasted? They gave their lives in defense of our national security every bit as much as any man who ever died fighting in a war. We must not strip every ounce of meaning and purpose from their courageous sacrifice.
Only at the end did the president turn to the daring liberation of all those young Americans in the Caribbean:
The events in Lebanon and Grenada, though oceans apart, are closely related. Not only has Moscow assisted and encouraged the violence in both countries, but it provides direct support through a network of surrogates and terrorists. It is no coincidence that when the thugs tried to wrest control over Grenada, there were thirty Soviet advisers and hundreds of Cuban military and paramilitary forces on the island.…
In these last few days, I’ve been more sure than I’ve ever been that we Americans of today will keep freedom and maintain peace. I’ve been made to feel that by the magnificent spirit of our young men and women in uniform and by something here in our nation’s capital. In this city, where political strife is so much a part of our lives, I’ve seen Democratic leaders in the Congress join their Republican colleagues, send a message to the world that we’re all Americans before we’re anything else, and when our country is threatened, we stand shoulder to shoulder in support of our men and women in the Armed Forces.
President Reagan may have “believed in peace … as much as any man,” but in Washington a war like this one sure felt good.
After that speech, approval for the American peacekeeping mission in Beirut jumped more than ten points; approval for Operation Urgent Fury spiked even higher. Of course, at the time the president spoke, there were still two hundred or so Americans as yet unrescued at Prickly Bay in Grenada—probably wondering if they needed to stick around home in case the Army was coming to rescue them, too, or if they could maybe get in an afternoon at the beach.
The toll in the end was this: 19 American servicemen killed (17 from friendly fire or accidents), 120 Americans wounded, 300 Grenadians killed or wounded, including those 18 mental patients killed in their beds. And also, precedent: operational secrecy justifying flat-out lying to the press corps and therein to the public. Secrecy, again, and the blunt assertion of executive prerogative justifying a cursory dismissal of the constitutional role of Congress in declaring war, and even of the need to consult them.
Whatever the costs, the Reagan White House reaped the benefits: in the American mind, the toll and humiliation and political inexplicability of Lebanon was now “closely related” to this much more satisfying rescue mission. And for a president who had traded on the emotional potential of American military strength and glory for his political aims, it was a chance to put taxpayer money where his mouth had long been, to let the US Armed Forces flex their arguably atrophied muscles.
“For all of its shortcomings, for all of the derisive commentary about the pathetic stature of the enemy against which American power was hurled, the invasion of Grenada was a victory,” Marine Corps chronicler Rick Atkinson wrote in The Long Gray Line. “Armies fight with morale and esprit as much as they fight with tanks and bullets; after Grenada, soldiers walked a little taller, not because of their battlefield exploits but because of the huzzahs from the rescued students and an appreciative citizenry at home. The United States Army, its self-esteem battered in Southeast Asia, needed to win a war, any war. That slender campaign streamer from Grenada buried beneath it the seventeen preceding ribbons from Vietnam.”
And it wasn’t just the military that was walking taller. Reagan was enveloped by the glorious success of the first war of his presidency—even this small one. In terms of public approval ratings, it turned out to be better than getting shot. The founders had been right about the politics of war: the benefits of military victory really do accrue to the Executive.
Not that there weren’t a few thorns in the laurels. Republican senator Lowell Weicker accused his president of “flouting the law.” Congress took a little time away from raising the debt ceiling to vote through a resolution invoking the War Powers Act, forcing the Reagan administration to pull the troops out of Grenada within sixty days or face begging explicit permission from Congress to prolong the mission. And Tip O’Neill—now that the fighting was done in Grenada—laid down a spray of verbal fire on the president: “You can’t justify any government, whether it’s Russia or the United States, trampling on another nation,” O’Neill confided to the equally venerable New York Timesreporter Scotty Reston. “I’m worried about the effects of this. Where do you go from here?… This is Machiavelli: If they can’t love ya, make ’em feel ya. He is wrong in his policy. He’s caused us continuous harm.” And that was just on policy; then O’Neill got personal: “He only works three and a half hours a day. He doesn’t do his homework. He doesn’t read his briefing papers. It’s sinful that this man is President of the United States. He lacks the knowledge that he should have, on every sphere, whether it’s the domestic or whether it’s the international sphere.” It was time for Reagan to pack it in and take Nancy back home where she could be the “Queen of Beverly Hills,” he told Reston. Damn.
O’Neill’s opposite number in the House rushed to the president’s defense: “I am willing to concede that any leader of the majority party knows more about sin than we Republicans do.” Gerald Ford’s onetime White House chief of staff, now a congressman from Wyoming, jumped in too: “A lot of folks around the world,” said Dick Cheney, “feel we are more steady and reliable than heretofore.”
The White House floated mostly above the fray. When asked what he thought of a hundred nations at the UN voting for the resolution deploring the US invasion of Grenada, Reagan waved it off, saying, “It didn’t upset my breakfast at all.” Team Reagan had the footage of the rescued medical student kissing the Carolina tarmac to rely on. They had unnamed “senior administration” sources out leaking to reporters that US soldiers had found smoking-gun evidence that the Grenadians and their Cuban advisers had been planning to grab Americans. The senior officials wished they could release the details and specifics of this plan, but of course all enemy correspondence had to be translated and analyzed first. They were happy, however, to characterize what they’d found. “It is clear from these documents and other information we now have that serious consideration was being given to seizing Americans as hostages and holding them for reasons that are not entirely clear, but seem to involve an effort to embarrass the United States and, more immediately, to forestall American military action in Grenada,” one senior official said.
Reagan himself remained adamant about the size of the danger averted: “Grenada, we were told, was a friendly island paradise for tourism. Well, it wasn’t. It was a Soviet-Cuban colony, being readied as a major military bastion to export terror and undermine democracy. We got there just in time.” This statement became a Spice Island touchstone for other White House officials: “It appears we got there just in time to prevent a tragedy.”
After about ten days of postgame back-and-forth, O’Neill and the other skeptics on both sides of the congressional aisle were beating what one of them admitted was “a strategic retreat.” Reagan had bested them. He knew he still had that old Fum-Poo flair, and that if he could get the American public behind him, he could roll Tip O’Neill and Congress on just about any issue he wished. The night of his Grenada speech, Reagan had noted in his diary, with obvious pleasure, that he’d “hit a few nerves.… ABC News polled 250 people before the speech, the majority were against us. They polled the same right after the speech & there had been a complete turnaround. 1000s of phone calls & wires from all over the country flooded us, more than on any speech or issue since we’ve been here—10 to 1 in our favor.” Not for nothing was Ronald Reagan known as the Great Communicator. The country’s overall approval ratings for the Grenada invasion soared to nearly 90 percent. And however much Congress disagreed, they knew that there wasn’t much margin in arguing the merits of the case against the invasion when more than eight in ten Americans were for it. “Public opinion is what’s behind things,” Democratic congressman Robert Torricelli told reporters. “I hardly get a call in my office about Grenada where people don’t mention the Iranian hostage situation. So people feel their frustration relieved and members of Congress sense that.”
What was the connection between the Iranian hostage situation and Grenada? None, exactly. But if the people were erasing a bad memory and replacing it with a better one, who was to argue? The point was, as Ronald Reagan would say at his next State of the Union address: “America is back—standing tall.”