OPINION: Thanksgiving Day: A surprising lesson from Grenada about American power

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We Americans have much to be grateful for. Every year we gather together with friends and family to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. When we do, we should be grateful as well for the service of the American military in far-flung outposts.

Thousands of American servicemen and women stationed abroad will celebrate this Thanksgiving with turkey and televised football at bases around the world. America is a military superpower; and over the course of the past 200-plus years, we have been militarily involved with almost every country on earth.

There is a surprising connection between Thanksgiving and at least one American military invasion.

In 1983, the small Caribbean island of Grenada was the site of what was at the time America’s largest military intervention since the Vietnam War. Ronald Reagan had defeated Jimmy Carter in the election of 1980 to become our 40th president. Reagan took a more aggressive view about confronting communism than his Cold War predecessors. Political upheaval on the island of Grenada gave Reagan an opportunity to reverse militarily what he saw as a dangerous expansion of Cuban and Soviet influence.

In Grenada on Oct. 19, 1983, Bernard Coard, a hard-line communist deputy prime minister, led a coup against Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, a Marxist who had assumed power after a coup in 1979. A few days later, Bishop and two other members of his cabinet were assassinated.

Even before the coup, Reagan had been agonizing about what was happening on Grenada and what it meant for the United States. Intelligence reports indicated that Russia and Cuba had been building military infrastructure there, in particular a 10,000-foot airstrip. Earlier that summer, Reagan had told Vice President George H.W. Bush to make contingency plans, and now the president didn’t hesitate long in enacting them.

With the Organization of East Caribbean States calling for a military response from the United States, and despite being warned that there would be “a harsh political reaction” to a U.S. invasion, on Oct. 22, just a few days after the coup, Reagan ordered the invasion.

Operation Urgent Fury was launched on Oct. 25, 1983. The U.S. Army Rapid Deployment Force, which included Ranger battalions, the 82nd Airborne Division, marines, and Navy SEALs, was augmented by a few hundred troops from Jamaica and other countries. These forces engaged about 1,500 troops from the Grenadian Army and a few hundred Cuban Special Forces. The fighting was brief (three days) and sometimes sharp, costing 19 American lives and over 100 total fatalities, including some civilians.

The UN General Assembly condemned the U.S. invasion, calling it “a flagrant violation of international law” and voting 108 to 9 against it. The American intervention in Grenada was controversial at the time — Margaret Thatcher, for example, was upset about the invasion of a Commonwealth country.

However, there was also widespread American support for the invasion, particularly after a national news show featured an interview with American medical students from St. George’s University School of Medicine. The students expressed their gratitude for the invasion and toward the U.S. Army Rangers. At that time, so soon after the Iranian crisis of 1979, Americans were anxious about the potential for hostage taking in foreign countries. So anything that took Americans out of a potentially dangerous political situation was likely to be popular.

Soon after, American forces were withdrawn from the island and new elections were held.

Oct. 25, the day American forces arrived is still celebrated in Grenada as the island’s national holiday — Thanksgiving Day. As we sit around our dinner tables on Nov. 26, giving thanks for the freedom and safety we have been provided, it’s important to remember our courageous military service men and women have been and are doing the same for many nations around the world.

Kelly is the co-author of “America Invades: How We’ve Invaded or Been Militarily Involved with almost Every Country on Earth” and “Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World.”

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