The invasion of Grenada is often thought of as a trivial event, with some latter day leftists even condemning it as a waste of military resources. However, this ignores a factor which in the context of the Cold War cannot be dismissed because neither side dismissed its significance at the time: symbolism.
Symbolism as a human concept in management and elsewhere holds that the significance people assign to an event can carry more meaning than the event itself. This concept should not be dismissed and I have two examples as to why. First, I could point out that the Tet Offensive was a major military defeat for the Viet Cong, but that’s not how the folks back home saw it. They saw it as proof positive of a credibility gap between what the Johnson Administration was saying and the situation in Vietnam. It was a tremendous but costly propaganda victory for the VC, as it changed how Americans viewed the war and eventually led to a communist-ruled Vietnam. Second, I could also point out that over 80% of federal Republican officeholders voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but that fact is vastly overshadowed in the political mind by Barry Goldwater being the party’s nominee for president and Strom Thurmond switching party affiliation in 1964. The foremost information in the minds of black voters was Goldwater’s vote against the landmark law, not what most of the party federal officeholders did. The symbolism was clear: the “Party of Lincoln” mantle had transferred from the Republicans to the Democrats.
The invasion of Grenada was requested of the United States by the nation’s governor-general, Sir Paul Scoon as well as the nations of Barbados and Jamaica. Although a small victory in military terms, the invasion of Grenada, a nation that had experienced a communist revolt in which the former Prime Minister, his wife, and other officials were executed, constituted something unprecedented in world history. The official rationale of the Reagan Administration was to rescue 600 American medical students on the island. A congressional study group later found that there was a significant risk that these students could have been abducted and held for ransom, like U.S. diplomats in Iran. However, the greatest significance of the event was that it was the first time a nation that was communist stopped being communist. Until October 1983, the Cold War was defensive on the part of the free world as it was holding back the tide of communism, trying to limit losses. It was accepted wisdom until this time that nations that became communist stayed communist. Reagan’s action was also not widely praised in the world at the time: the UN overwhelmingly voted to condemn it as against international law in a resolution, and even British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (who backed the action in public) was privately opposed to it. Although popular overall in America, the action had some critics: the Congressional Black Caucus was staunchly opposed as well as ultra-liberal Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.), who even went as far as to call for Reagan’s impeachment over the matter (Magnuson, 1983). The invasion, however, sent a message loud and clear to the Soviets and communists: your gains can be lost. It was ultimately a prelude to their defeat in Afghanistan, the loss of Eastern Europe, and the loss of Russia. The invasion freed a nation with low casualties and put the communists on notice! Ultimately the long-term end result for Grenada was a happy one: they have been a democratic nation ever since and now celebrate the date of the US invasion, October 25th, as their Thanksgiving. The invasion of Grenada in the wider scheme of things was more of a symbolic event than anything else, but that should not lessen its significance as the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
Magnuson, E. (21 November 1983). Grenada. Getting Back to Normal. Time Magazine.
Martin, D. (9 September 2013). Paul Scoon, Who Invited Grenada Invaders, Dies at 78. The New York Times.