“Some of those so quick to criticize our operation in Grenada, I invite them to read the letters I’ve received from those students and their families. They know this was no invasion; they know it was a rescue mission.”
With a sitting US President who merely needs to ‘tweet’ to grab worldwide attention, the role of Presidential rhetoric in shaping public discourse is clear. Although Trump’s use of social media has brought a new level of immediacy to his public interaction, a similar dynamic has been part of America’s political culture for decades. When Ronald Reagan deployed 7,000 American soldiers to the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada in October 1983, he told the world that it was “to protect innocent lives, including up to a thousand Americans”.
The week before, the Prime Minister of Grenada had been assassinated in a coup d’état, and the population of Grenada, including approximately 1,000 American civilians, was placed under house arrest. Concerns over the safety of these US citizens swiftly dominated public and private discussions, with Reagan repeatedly claiming that they were the most important reason for the invasion.
Skilful rhetoric allowed Reagan’s administration to build popular support for what was, after all, the nation’s first armed conflict since their defeat in Vietnam. By maintaining that the invasion was truly a ‘rescue mission’, Reagan wrote history as he wanted it to be seen. This event demonstrates the phenomenal rhetorical power that the president wields, a power that we should be wary of today. Once a controversial figure, Reagan’s popularity has surged among people of all political backgrounds since he left office. During the presidential race the Trump campaign was keen to lay claim to Reagan’s legacy, emphasising their shared status as Washington ‘outsiders’. In fact, a photo of a young Mr Trump with President Reagan was unearthed and used by the Trump campaign, to connect the presidential hopeful to his predecessor. Given the current trend where Republicans and Democrats alike are seeking to lay claim to America’s ‘Great Communicator’, a re-examination of the Reagan role in shaping public memory of his ‘legacy’ is timelier than ever.
‘A clear and present danger’?
At best, it’s unclear whether US civilians living in Grenada were in any genuine danger when Reagan invaded. There had been no direct threat made against foreign nationals during the coup, and despite Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and other members of the administration referring to a “clear and present danger”, there was a lack of ‘concrete’ evidence to suggest American nationals required evacuation at all. As a document from the files of the then-White House Counsel put it:
“we thus far have no hard evidence that they have been abused or specifically threatened […] the extent to which we will be able to assert actual danger to our citizens will depend on what we find on the ground”.
The author also conceded that the ‘theory’ that US citizens were in danger could not be used to justify continued US presence on the island after the evacuation, which was their ultimate objective.
More damningly, once the evacuation was underway over 600 of the 1,000 US citizens in Grenada decided to stay on the island. The head of St George’s Medical School, where most of the American civilians were based, also deemed the invasion “unnecessary”. Under questioning from Congressman John Sarbanes, Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth Dam stated that US forces were in Grenada to evacuate students who wanted to leave, and to make it “safe for Americans to continue to live there”. But, as Sarbanes pointed out, occupying the island to evacuate civilians or to stabilise a part of the world on behalf of American expatriates were two very different justifications.
Congressional opposition also recognised the administration’s lack of compelling evidence. Congressman Robert W. Edgar pointed out on October 26 that no appeal for aid had been received from St. George’s Medical School. Another, Richard H. Lehman, questioned the lack of evidence of danger on the island, and noted that creating a state of war potentially resulted in more danger for the American civilians. Indeed, even in the private ‘background on Grenada’ paper circulated to members of the Reagan administration on October 26, the author conceded that concern over the safety of US civilians stemmed from “difficulty getting accurate information on their well-being” rather than evidence that they were in any real danger.
Nonetheless, proving that Americans were in danger formed a vital part of Reagan’s constitutional right to engage the US military in a conflict in the East Caribbean. As Commander in Chief, Reagan had the authority to use the armed forces to rescue civilians facing a threat abroad. Since the UN Charter allows for the “inherent right […] of self defense”, Reagan’s best chance to legitimise his actions under international law hinged upon his ability to demonstrate that American civilians were in danger.
Public memory and the Grenada intervention
So how did the administration convince the public that use of military force was necessary? Here, Reagan’s role was instrumental. When he announced on October 25 that US forces had been deployed to the region he stated explicitly that “American lives are at stake”, and maintained this stance throughout the course of the invasion.
The President was fond of evoking past displays of military patriotism in his speeches, in an attempt to situate the Grenada episode within America’s longer military tradition. When addressing troops at Cherry Point, a US Marine Corps air field, two weeks after the invasion, his remarks demonstrated this tendency well:
“Since 1775, marines, just like many of you, have shaped the strength and resolve of the United States. […] John Stuart Mill said ‘War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The ugliest is that man who thinks nothing is worth fighting or dying for and lets men better and braver than himself protect him.’ You are doing that for all of us”.
Referencing the bravery of American troops during the American Revolution and the Civil War invoked the longstanding expectation that US marines would fight to protect American civilians. Tying Grenada to America’s tradition of valour made perfect sense, considering Reagan was addressing military personnel at the Marine Corps regarding casualties sustained during the mission.
Similarly, addressing the joint meeting of civilians rescued from Grenada and the marines who were deployed there, he observed that “A few years ago […] America forgot what an admirable and essential need there is for a nation to have men and women who would give their lives to protect their fellow citizens”. The patriotism and bravery of the troops who selflessly intervened in Grenada, Reagan implied, would remind the nation of the importance of the military. Situating Grenada within a history of ‘rescue missions’ ultimately helped to legitimise this invasion as an act of bravery on behalf of vulnerable US civilians in need of assistance — setting a precedent for future military operations.
Crucially, images of the fifty-two Americans held hostage for 444 days in the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981 were still fresh in the minds of the American public. This debacle shaped how people viewed the Grenada crisis, and ultimately aided Reagan’s attempts to present the situation in the Caribbean as a legitimate threat to US civilians. On October 27, Reagan told the world:
“I believe our government has a responsibility to go to the aid of its citizens if their right to life and liberty is threatened. The nightmare of our hostages in Iran must never be repeated”.
Reagan echoed his rhetoric about Iran in his address to the military personnel gathered at Cherry Point shortly after the invasion, telling them: “we weren’t about to wait for the Iran crisis to repeat itself, only this time, in our own neighbourhood”. Highlighting the geographical proximity of Grenada to the United States created a heightened sense of danger and immediacy. Reminding the nation of the previous administration’s shortcomings also allowed the president to garner support for his ‘decisive’ actions in the face of critics who thought his decision reckless. Subsequently, his approval ratings spiked dramatically, with an ABC poll showing that 86% of participants approved of Reagan’s handling of the Grenadian crisis, compared to 64% who approved prior to watching his address. While a spike in presidential approval ratings after authorising use of the military is fairly common, what is interesting here is that support for Reagan surged two days after the invasion began, when he addressed the nation personally.
Reagan was not the only one to use the ‘ghost of Iran’ in public discussions. The episode was also invoked by the American representative on the UN Security Council, Ambassador Kirkpatrick, who told the Council that the US “could not be expected to sit idly by while the lives of our citizens were again threatened”. And, speaking to the Associated Press Managing Editors’ Conference on November 4, Kenneth Dam claimed that “inaction would have made a hostage situation more likely”, before reminding his audience that “today is the fourth anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran”. Considering Dam was addressing a gathering of news reporters, invoking the fear of hostages may have been an attempt to generate media attention for this aspect of the invasion’s justification.
During the first forty-eight hours of the invasion, no journalists were permitted to enter Grenada. Those who travelled to the region were held in Barbados, meaning the only images of the invasion that emerged in these crucial early hours came from the US Army. The press argued that this infringed upon their First Amendment rights. While the impact that this decision had on public discourse surrounding the invasion is difficult to quantify, the apparent ease with which the press was banned from the island is troubling. Had Grenada been a ‘failed’ invasion, would the public have been so quick to forget Reagan’s mistreatment of the media?
Presenting Grenada as a ‘rescue mission’ helped to suppress some criticism of the invasion in Congress, which contributed to the administration emphasising this aspect of the invasion in public discussions. In the aftermath of Grenada, Speaker of the US House of Representatives Tip O’Neill retracted his initial opposition, claiming that he now believed US lives had been in genuine danger. His fellow Democrat Robert G. Torricelli described the Democrats as making a “strategic retreat”, before adding that: “Public opinion is what’s behind things […] 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”. The role of Iran in quelling at least some of the congressional opposition to the invasion is apparent.
Reagan’s response to his critics was to maintain that American lives were endangered — this had been a rescue mission, not an invasion. The administration organised a reception for the students who were rescued from the island, giving them a chance to meet with a group of marines representing the armed forces who served in Grenada. Images of this meeting reinforced the Grenada intervention as a recovery operation, by bringing the ‘survivors’ into the public eye. During his speech on this occasion Reagan observed: “Some of those so quick to criticize our operation in Grenada, I invite them to read the letters I’ve received from those students and their families. They know this was no invasion; they know it was a rescue mission”. Reluctant to refer to his use of military force as an ‘invasion’, Reagan tended towards more neutral terms like ‘mission’. He directly addressed his critics at the White House reception for the rescued students, when he jokingly questioned whether any of those who condemned the invasion would have willingly traded places with the students in Grenada.
The American civilians in Grenada, especially the students, featured prominently in the justifications for the invasion offered to the public, and in US press coverage of the incident. They helped to provide constitutional legitimacy for deploying troops. But, more importantly, they made it easier for the administration to speculate about what situations could have arisen. Constructing a ‘rescue’ narrative, and evoking the then relatively recent hostage crisis in Iran, provided a justification for invasion that was both constitutional and emotive, tempering criticism from Reagan’s opponents. Despite its relatively small scale, the Grenada intervention is arguably most noteworthy for its reflection on the role of the president and his administration in shaping public discourse surrounding current affairs. Reagan’s skilful presentation of the episode turned the Grenada invasion from a ‘reckless’ use of the American military to a ‘valiant’ display of patriotism in the eyes of the American people.
In 2017, the President’s platform is even greater. With the advent of social media, there is no need to wait for the next major speech or interview for the President to broadcast his thoughts to the rest of the world. His opinions are no longer filtered through various speechwriters; instead he shares his ideas unhindered in the heat of the moment. While Reagan certainly wasn’t infallible to faux pas, even by his standard the range and frequency of Trump’s many controversial and seemingly spontaneous remarks to the nation is impressive With the world no longer polarised into ‘capitalism’ versus ‘communism’ as it was during the Reagan era, the nature of America’s foreign policy is ever more complex. In this age of increasingly diverse and unpredictable threats to national security, we should be particularly wary of a Commander in Chief so quick to abuse this ability to influence contemporary political culture.
All images from Wikimedia Commons.
Sarah Thomson recently graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History. She will be starting a Masters in American Studies at Glasgow University in September, generously supported by the Janet S. Christie Bequest. Her main research interests lie in late twentieth century American political and cultural history.