This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the day I was sent to Grenada in the wake of Operation Urgent Fury, a multinational military operation launched by then-President Ronald Reagan and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States designed to restore order to the Spice Island after a violent coup d’etat attempt by hard-line Communists.
The hard-liners, led by Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard, had killed Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and several of his cabinet ministers in an attempt to turn the island into a Cuban satellite. The governor general called for help, and we responded along with troops from several other neighboring islands.
Urgent Fury is a textbook example of a U.S. military operation that accomplished its objectives and left the country better off. I was serving as the public-affairs officer at the American embassy in Lima, Peru, in October 1983 when I was ordered to report to Grenada, where a multinational invasion was under way. “Why me?” I wondered as I went home to pack for a short but intense adventure on a tropical Caribbean island.
As it turned out, the U.S. military and media were at war. Several veteran correspondents, who I knew well from my years as an embassy press attache’ in Latin America, had been “captured” by the commanding officer of the Grenada invasion, Navy Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf, who seemed to be re-fighting the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, several hundred journalists who were confined to nearby Barbados tried to cover the story from there.
American journalists angrily accused our government of violating their First Amendment rights, and we — myself and two U.S. Information Agency colleagues — were directed to make peace between the military and the media in the most daunting assignment of my 28-year Foreign Service career. We received our marching orders from White House media adviser David Gergen, now a well-known TV “talking head.” When the three of us arrived at Grenada’s Point Salines International Airport, where well-armed Cuban construction workers were lengthening the runways, we were unable to continue into the quaint, red-roofed capital, St. George’s, because of sniper fire on the road to the city.
Once we made it to the capital, our first task was to establish a makeshift international press center at Marryshow House, a University of the West Indies cultural center. Our next challenge was to break the military’s media embargo and bring the journalistic hordes to Grenada.
We succeeded thanks to the exercise’s deputy commander, Gen. Edward Trobaugh, a friend who had been our embassy defense attache’ in Madrid, Spain, a couple of years earlier. Trobaugh, who took over from the feisty admiral, let our public-affairs team handle the media, and we were in business. I offered two-a-day press briefings for two weeks before returning to Lima. Eventually, press coverage turned around, most correspondents reported that the operation had achieved its objectives, and Grenadians wearing “Thank You, USA” T-shirts were grateful that we had put an end to the violence.
I’ve read a lot of revisionist history about the Grenada operation, but I know what really happened. Hundreds of American medical students on the island were in danger because of the violent coup attempt. We did the right thing, and our exit strategy was successful. I wish I could say the same thing about Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.