In May 1801, Thomas Jefferson sent the Marines to Tripoli and Tunis to battle “Barbary pirates” who were menacing American merchants off the coast of North Africa, thereby launching the young United States’ first overseas military venture. Over the two centuries since, the list of foreign countries invaded by US forces has grown to include some 70 nations (not including the “first nations” on what became US territory itself). Some of these have become metonyms for their eras—Vietnam, Iraq. Most, though, dwell in Americans’ minds only as flickering features of news cycles from the past. One such is the small Caribbean nation of Grenada: an island that few Americans knew about before October 1983, when TV screens filled, for some days that fall, with images of paratroopers dropping between tropical palms.
Grenada is located at the base of the Windward Antilles, about one hundred miles off the coast of Venezuela, and is famed for its nutmeg. When Ronald Reagan ordered the 82nd Airborne there, he said the choppers bellowing over its beaches had come to safeguard several hundred American medical students from the civil unrest that had gripped the island after the apparent implosion, a few days before, of its government. Before 1983, Grenada was best known to West Indians for producing, along with its famous spice, the great calypso singer Mighty Sparrow. Afterward, it was known for the traumas left by this sad episode of the cold war whose legacy, for our current political era, is the subject of a welcome new documentary film, The House on Coco Road, directed by Damani Baker.
Reagan’s invasion, of course, had more to do with geopolitics than med students. Grenada had until that month been led by a charismatic and capable socialist, Maurice Bishop, whose admiration for Castro’s Cuba—and his acceptance of Cuba’s help to build a new airport for his island—bothered the US government. Reagan claimed that Bishop’s new airport—a project also backed by countries like Britain and Canada, and whose completion would enable jets carrying needed cargo and tourists to land there—was in fact meant to turn this tranquil island into “a Cuban-Soviet colony” and “a major military bastion to export terror and undermine democracy.”