Grenada is Nobody's Backyard : Throughline A Marxist revolution, a Cold War proxy battle, and a dream of a Black utopia. In 1983, Ronald Reagan ordered the U.S. military to invade the island of Grenada. Almost four decades later, many Americans don't remember why — or that it even happened. This week, Martine Powers, from Post Reports, brings us a story of revolution, invasion, and the aftermath of unresolved history.

Grenada: Nobody's Backyard

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1021236625/1021949811" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: United States foreign paratroopers have invaded Grenada with helicopter gunships.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: United States paratroopers have invaded Grenada with helicopter gunships. Our armed forces are engaging them in fierce battle.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This is Alpha Company 2nd Ranger Battalion of Fort Lewis. They were the first company on the ground last night.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All doctors, nurses and medics report to the hospital immediately. The Grenadian people are asked to block all roads and obstruct the enemy's progress.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Smoke-blackened skies mark the locations where the strongest resistance have been coming from.

Can you tell me what you've been through since it started on Tuesday?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Hell.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Hell.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Tonight, we report from the island in the sun and in the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISLAND IN THE SUN")

HARRY BELAFONTE: (Singing) This is my island in the sun...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: For the first time, the Americans, who allowed only their own news teams in, showed how their heavy artillery was trying to pound the opposition forces into an early submission.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: The president intends to keep the troops there about five to seven days. He wants to get in, accomplish the mission and get out quickly.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The words of one American officer, they were using whatever it takes to free the island.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISLAND IN THE SUN")

BELAFONTE: (Singing) This is my island in the sun...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Russian and Cuban ammunition was found, as well as communications equipment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISLAND IN THE SUN")

BELAFONTE: (Singing) ...Where my people have toiled since time begun.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: These are the weapons which Mr. Reagan says turned a friendly island paradise into a Soviet-Cuban colony, being readied to export terror and undermine democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISLAND IN THE SUN")

BELAFONTE: (Singing) I may sail on many a seas. Her shores will always be home to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING, BIRDS CHIRPING)

DESSIMA WILLIAMS: You know, it's - I take it very personally. I take it very, very personally. I feel an affront against me as a Grenadian, what happened. I take it personally. Don't take anything personally. It's not against you. Yes, it is against me. It was my country. It was my process. I was giving my life for that. I believed in that, you know? And I still feel hurt, wounded and betrayed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD REAGAN: Grenada, we were told, was a friendly island paradise for tourism. Well, it wasn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINE POWERS: It's October 27, 1983, and President Ronald Reagan is sitting at his desk in the Oval Office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: It was a Soviet-Cuban colony being readied as a major military bastion to export terror and undermine democracy.

POWERS: He's wearing the stark blue suit. He's rustling the papers in his hands, and he's looking right into the camera as he gives this speech about the U.S. invasion in Grenada.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: We got there just in time.

POWERS: What many people did not know at the time was that a mile north of the White House at the embassy of Grenada, the lights were out, the doors were locked, the mail was unopened on the doorstep. And the ambassador of Grenada, Dessima Williams, was in hiding.

WILLIAMS: I take it very personally.

POWERS: The embassy had received threats over the phone. The ambassador's private office was broken into. Dessima believed that somebody wanted her dead, but she didn't know who - maybe traitors inside of Grenada's government, maybe American spies, the CIA. That was the question that hung over Dessima's head the whole time that she was in hiding. And it's the question that still makes her mad today, that she didn't know who to trust, that people both on the outside and the inside were trying to implode this nation that she represented.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

So earlier this year, we got an email from Martine Powers, who's the host of Post Reports, the daily news podcast from The Washington Post.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "POST REPORTS")

POWERS: This is Post Reports. I'm Martine Powers.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

ARABLOUEI: In the email, she recounted the story of the 1983 invasion of Grenada, something that many of us had heard about but realized none of us knew much about. It's not something people really talk about. And as we read further down the page, we realized this story was way more complicated than any of us imagined.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: So, Martine, what is it about the 1983 invasion of Grenada that's so important? Why does it matter now?

POWERS: Well, I feel like it's just amazing that this is a history that we don't talk about as a country and that I think many or even most Americans don't really remember that this happened. I would say probably many Americans don't even know where Grenada is. It's this small island nation kind of off the coast of Venezuela. It's a former British colony, English speaking. But when the U.S. invaded Grenada, it was the most significant military action that the U.S. had done since the Vietnam War.

ARABLOUEI: Wow.

POWERS: And so this was a big deal at the time. And I think there's also a tension between the stories that we tell about what happened in Grenada in 1983. Because there's this one story that's about President Ronald Reagan and about the Cold War and about what led the U.S. to get to this point of invading this island that many Americans hadn't even heard of.

But then there's this other story that we talk about even less, which was what was happening in Grenada. And that story is a story of revolution and of resistance and Black power and dreams that were held by Black people in the Caribbean and in the U.S. and around the world. And so I wanted to tell both of those stories.

ARABLOUEI: And what got you interested in this? What's your connection to Grenada?

POWERS: So my mom is from the Caribbean. She's from Trinidad and Tobago. And my parents actually just moved to Grenada a few years ago. So they live there now. I go and visit them as often as I can. And what I found really fascinating is that they have met so many people there who were around for the invasion and have very strong memories of what it was like to be on the receiving end of that. And many of those people have feelings and emotions about what happened that are still very strong.

One of the people that I got to meet through my parents is Dessima Williams, the former ambassador, who was really kind of at the center of what happened, knew all the people who were major players in this big moment in history. And through talking to her, I got a real sense of how unresolved this is for so many Grenadians.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

POWERS: And I'm Martine Powers from "Post Reports."

ARABLOUEI: Martine will be guest hosting this episode of THROUGHLINE. And when we come back, we meet Dessima Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SARAH PAYNE: Hi. This is Sarah Payne (ph) in Houston, Texas. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. Love ya.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7, BYLINE: Part 1 - utopia.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS PASSING)

POWERS: Hi, how are you?

WILLIAMS: Happy to see you.

POWERS: Good to see you.

WILLIAMS: Thank you for coming out.

POWERS: Thank you for letting me come bother you with all my questions.

A few months ago, I went over to the house of Dessima Williams. She is Grenada's former ambassador to the U.S. We met her at the top. She lives on the eastern coast of Grenada. And in addition to being the former ambassador, she's also a family friend.

By the way, my dad had made biscuits.

WILLIAMS: Oh.

POWERS: And so he wanted me to bring some for you. So I can just put them right here.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

POWERS: They're pretty good...

WILLIAMS: Yeah?

POWERS: ...If I do say so - I mean, I didn't make them. But anyway...

Dessima is in her 60s, and she has perfect posture. She has these long, thin hands, and she moves very gracefully. Her dresses are always very well pressed. She goes to church every Sunday, and she has this big, beautiful organic garden.

Mangos (laughter).

The thing that you don't realize when you see Dessima is that she is also a revolutionary. And she has been that way ever since she was a little kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: I had grown up in the countryside. And at the age of 7, I became a volunteer in the health clinic in my community. So these were children, you know, who had colds or other health issues. And my volunteer job was to write down the weight of the child once the nurse had weighed the child, write it on the card and assist in measuring out a certain amount of food supplements. And I remember seeing ill and poor children and their parents, especially the mothers. And it jolted me. It shocked me, and it hurt me. And I vowed that I would do something to end that.

POWERS: Because you felt like if there was a better government in place, that you could have a country where you weren't worried about malnutrition among people who lived in it.

WILLIAMS: Correct. I associated it with slavery, with colonization, with poverty, with what was then called underdevelopment. And I was committed to end that.

POWERS: Those things that Dessima just mentioned - slavery, colonization, poverty, underdevelopment - they were all problems embodied in this guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC GAIRY: Now is the time for goodwill. Now is the time for unity. Now is the time for reconstruction.

POWERS: That is Grenada's first prime minister, Eric Gairy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAIRY: And to build a Grenada for ourselves and for posterity.

POWERS: Eric Gairy had been the leader of Grenada since 1967, from back when it was still a British colony. He had even been knighted by the Queen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Gairy had an unshakable belief in his own leadership and authority.

POWERS: But by the late 1970s, there was resistance. People called him power-hungry. They complained that life for regular Grenadians was getting worse and not better. And they protested.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Strikes, riots and street demonstrations disfigured the island. Food and fuel were scarce. Essential services were paralyzed. Demonstrations were a daily event, as hundreds of Grenadians called for the resignation of the government.

POWERS: And at the same time, Gairy was developing this reputation for brutality. There were secret police, disappearances, accusations of rigged elections. People compared him to brutal dictators like Uganda's Idi Amin. This was from a press conference that Gairy gave in 1974.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAIRY: People have tried to get rid of me, and I don't think they can make it. Lots of them who have tried are lying in the cemetery.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: How did they die, Prime Minister?

GAIRY: How are they doing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: How did they die?

GAIRY: (Laughter) Natural causes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: Many Grenadians believed that something needed to change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAURICE BISHOP: The more desperate that imperialism gets, the more it comes up with the most vulgar and hostile measures to try to keep the poor, oppressed people of the world, who are trying to win their national liberation and to build their own future, down.

WENDY GRENADE: Maurice Bishop emerged because he was a larger-than-life figure. And his movement came at a time when Grenadians needed alternatives to Eric Gairy.

POWERS: That is Wendy Grenade. She's a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies. She also grew up in Grenada, and she remembers watching Bishop speak.

GRENADE: He was highly intellectual. He had studied in the United Kingdom. He was a lawyer.

WILLIAMS: I saw him as somebody who had a deep conviction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: Unemployment, hunger...

WILLIAMS: He came from the upper-middle class. And he would take on poor people's cases pro bono in the courts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: ...Malnutrition, disease, illiteracy...

WILLIAMS: And so it was a bit novel, in a sense, for the Caribbean, that someone from that class would take on the issues of the poor with such sincerity as he did.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: These are crimes and sins that have visited upon the poor developing countries of the third world, while the industrialized countries continue to exploit our resources and to keep the profits.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: Maurice Bishop had also experienced the worst of Eric Gairy. His father had been shot and killed by Gairy's secret police.

GRENADE: So in Grenadian society, he brought something that people were yearning for in terms of representation, in terms of his charisma. And by the 1970s, a new intellectual class had emerged.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: The New Jewel Movement, led by well educated radicals who seek Mr. Gairy's removal by any means.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: The Jewel in the New Jewel Party stood for Joint Endeavour for Welfare, Education and Liberation. Basically, they were Marxists. And they promised to change things in a radical way, to redistribute wealth, to prioritize health care and education for poor people, and to end the brutality of Eric Gairy's regime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: Mr. Gairy came to office, came to power, in 1951 precisely by the use of violence. He has, throughout his period in office, consolidated and maintained his position in office by the use of violence. And today it is precisely the question of violence, again, which is maintaining his stay in office.

POWERS: On the morning of March 13, 1979, Eric Gairy was in New York for talks at the U.N. And that is when Maurice Bishop and dozens of members of the New Jewel Movement made their move. They seized control of the army barracks, and then they seized the radio station and started broadcasting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: Government of the criminal dictator Eric M. Gairy has been overthrown. The entire army has surrendered, and all of their arms have been captured.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRENADE: I remember there was an announcement on the radio actually saying that the Gairy's government has been overthrown and asking police officers and soldiers to surrender, put up white flags.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: A revolutionary government has been formed. All religious rights and freedoms are now restored. The people's rights to life and private property are herby restored.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: When the whole thing was done, almost nobody had died. It was called a bloodless coup. It was a sign of this new era of progressive government. And the new prime minister was Maurice Bishop.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: Words from the leadership are totally unnecessary. Our people are fighting. Our people are ready. Imperialism will learn a lesson if imperialism comes to our country.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING, SINGING)

GRENADE: There was a lot of liberation songs being played on the radio and rejoicing, really, that a new day had dawn.

WILLIAMS: For us, it was pure jubilation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORWARD MARCH")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) Forward march, forward march, forward march against imperialism. Forward.

POWERS: At the time of the revolution, Dessima was in D.C. getting her master's degree. But she was supporting Maurice Bishop from afar. In her free time, she fundraised for his New Jewel Movement. And after he became the new prime minister, she got a phone call. She was told to head to the Grenadian embassy.

WILLIAMS: I actually was a graduate student at American University. And I went from that to being ambassador in one day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: It was certainly unexpected to give this job to a grad student. But Dessima had been involved in the revolution, and now she had the chance to really change her country, to represent this new revolutionary government to the U.S. and to the rest of the world.

WILLIAMS: We felt that the things that we wanted for ourselves, we could actually pursue them now, which was development.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: March 13, 1979, comrades, was a bright new dawn for the people of Grenada and the working people of the Caribbean. That dawn marked the end of the long, dark nights of terror and the beginning of a new day for our people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing in non-English language).

GRENADE: I mean, the whole goal of the revolution was about transformation - transformation politically, economically and socially. And there was some tangible evidence of that transformation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: There were new laws that raised how much women on plantations were paid.

WILLIAMS: Equal pay for equal work.

POWERS: Paid maternity leave, scholarship programs, adult literacy programs.

GRENADE: Free secondary education, which was very important.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: A new effort to produce vegetables for self-sufficiency.

GRENADE: Back then, it was eat what you grow, grow what you eat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: What you see happening now is the production of all goods put to the benefit of our people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Education and production. We are hard-working people, as everyone knows. So let us produce a little bit more. Long live free Grenada, forward ever, backward never.

GRENADE: The milk feeding program, house repair, school meals.

WILLIAMS: Construction of roads.

POWERS: And then there was this big plan to build a new airport with a longer runway to accommodate bigger planes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: A boost in tourism is also hoped for when the new airport is operational. Officials have spoken in terms of a tripling of tourists.

POWERS: And that airport was made possible with aid from Cuba.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: It's the single biggest project any government in Grenada has ever undertaken.

POWERS: Unemployment dropped. Literacy rose.

WILLIAMS: It might seem trite, but the country was plastered with big, affirmative, colorful, energizing billboards. Not a day without the struggle. Women, step forward.

GRENADE: Each one, teach one.

WILLIAMS: Messages that were psychologically, politically and emotionally very moving and affirming.

POWERS: And then there was the power of having this new prime minister who was young and radical and could connect with ordinary people.

GRENADE: Well, I only saw him up close once in my community. He was there with a T-shirt and what we call in Grenada water boots. It's like a boot that you would wear if you were doing agricultural work, and so - and, you know, we were children. And he was, like, almost playing with us, in a way. And you felt that this is somebody that, oh, yes, your prime minister. But he's right here. He showed up, and ordinary people felt this is somebody that they could identify with. Because he was saying to them things that they needed to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: Looking at it in more material terms, I would say the greatest achievements have been in the area of social benefits in terms of improvements in health, education. But in terms of foreign policy, also, there have been important gains made.

POWERS: The U.S. government was wary of Maurice Bishop from the very beginning. He had suspended the Constitution. He didn't have any immediate plans to hold elections. And while he wasn't a communist per se, he was friends with Fidel Castro. He named his youngest son Vladimir Lenin. Grenadian officials at the time accused the U.S. State Department of putting out information about the risks of traveling to Grenada.

But at the same time, there were many Americans living on the island, including hundreds of aspiring American doctors. They were attending this new for-profit medical school near the capital. So it did seem like there was this live and let live attitude between Grenada and the U.S., at least until 1981.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will.

GRENADE: Grenada became caught up in Cold War politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: When action is required to preserve our national security, we will act.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESTON FOSTER: This is Preston Foster (ph) from Rochester, N.Y., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. I'm not sure if this will make the cut, but thank you, team THROUGHLINE, for your fact-based reporting and the interesting historical context that helps make sense of what's happening around us today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Part 2 - escalation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: If we have 95% of predominantly African origin, our country...

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

BISHOP: ...Then we can have a dangerous appeal to 30 million Black people in the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

POWERS: In the summer of 1983, Maurice Bishop came to the U.S., and he gave a speech at Hunter College in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: And I will certainly report your warmth, your enthusiasm and your revolutionary support for our process when I return.

(APPLAUSE)

POWERS: There were hundreds of people in the crowd - Caribbean people, Africans, Black Americans, students, diplomats, women in church hats. And of course, as the ambassador, Dessima was there.

WILLIAMS: I was seated on the platform (laughter). It was a piece of history not to be missed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: Grenada is different to Cuba and Nicaragua. And the Grenada revolution is, in one sense, even worse - I'm using their language - than the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions because the people of Grenada and the leadership of Grenada speaks English, and therefore can communicate directly to the people of the united states.

(APPLAUSE)

POWERS: Maurice Bishop was saying that the American government was scared of Grenada, and not just because they thought that Grenada was spreading radicalism to the Caribbean and Latin America, but because that radicalism was spreading to Americans, specifically Black Americans. And that made him and Grenada stand out as a threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: They can choose their South African and their Haitian and Chilean and South Korean and every dictator friend they wish. That is OK. But we cannot choose our friends because we are too small and poor to have the right to choose. They like to talk a lot about backyard and frontyard and lake. Grenada is nobody's backyard, and ain't part of nobody's lake.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

WILLIAMS: We all understood the power of it. And we all understood that perhaps Washington would not be so happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: Bishop was having this huge impact on Black Americans. His vision was their vision. And he was not the first West Indian to shake things up in the U.S.

WILLIAMS: I mean, if you just take, for example, all the Caribbean people who've made contributions to Black movements in the United States - Marcus Garvey from Jamaica.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARCUS GARVEY: The Negro is a man. We represent the new Negro.

WILLIAMS: Stokely Carmichael came from Trinidad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STOKELY CARMICHAEL: We're talking about our survival and nothing else.

WILLIAMS: Malcolm X...

POWERS: His mom was from Grenada.

WILLIAMS: ...You know, with his good, radical self.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MALCOLM X: Everybody who is Black and interested in Black people, let us sit down and find out how we can get together...

WILLIAMS: His mother came from up the road next to me, up here in this village of La Digue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHIRLEY CHISHOLM: I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud.

(APPLAUSE)

WILLIAMS: Shirley Chisholm...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHISHOLM: I am the candidate of the people of America.

(APPLAUSE)

WILLIAMS: ...As a Black woman running for president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHISHOLM: Those early years of my life on the island of Barbados gave me the spirit that was necessary to challenge all of these age-old traditions.

POWERS: But after the revolution in 1979, suddenly Caribbean people were not just going off to the United States to do big things somewhere else. Black Americans heard about what was going on in Grenada, and they were inspired.

WILLIAMS: And so they came. They came many, many times at different festivals and events. The festival of the revolution, which was held every March for four years, was an occasion for African Americans to come and see what was happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUMAN RIGHTS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Look at the Son of Sam. He's got too much human rights while the Wilmington Ten ain't got no human rights. I will go into Dominica...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The Grenada experiment has certainly generated a lot of interest in left-wing Afro American circles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUMAN RIGHTS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Clean your own backyard first.

WILLIAMS: What was happening in Grenada was an affirmation where Black people could govern themselves and take charge and go in a different direction that suited them.

GRENADE: We felt as if we were part of something that was happening. We didn't feel as if somehow the world was out there to be conquered.

POWERS: Black Americans heard about this place, this radical country with a Black prime minister that was a kind of utopia, and they wanted to see it for themselves.

GRENADE: We had a lot of international figures visiting Grenada, showing solidarity, coming to rallies.

WILLIAMS: People like Harry Belafonte.

POWERS: Congressman John Conyers, future Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

WILLIAMS: Angela Davis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANGELA DAVIS: The experiences that I've had here in Grenada have confirmed in a very powerful way where we are headed, what the future of the entire planet ought to look like - this beautiful, powerful militant revolution.

WILLIAMS: As has been said to me by Black Americans, you know, this was a Black country with people making their own success and failure. We didn't have white people over us. And I think that itself was revolutionary at the psychic level.

GRENADE: We felt that we mattered - a very small country with a very large story connected to the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

REAGAN: One of the heads of state that I met with on this visit told me the story about the two fellows in the Soviet Union who were walking down the street, and then one of them says, have we really achieved full communism? Is this it? Is this now full communism? And the other one said, oh, hell no. Things are going to get a lot worse.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The voice of Radio Free Grenada is often a lonely one, and the new Reagan administration in Washington could make it lonelier still.

GRENADE: President Reagan came in, and, of course, the Republican forces in the United States felt that President Carter was too soft and America needed to reclaim its preeminence in the world. We were in the Cold War, in a bipolar world where it was the U.S.S.R. and the United States. And countries in the developing world became satellites of either the United States or the U.S.S.R.

WILLIAMS: Everybody was wondering the politics of it, you see, because Reagan and Grenada were going to clash.

POWERS: For months, Dessima had been working behind the scenes to try to improve the relationship between her country and the U.S. government. Things had not been great under Jimmy Carter, but under Ronald Reagan's administration, they got way worse. They didn't like her government. They didn't even think that she was a real diplomat.

WILLIAMS: It did not escape me that I was, not only young, but I was Black and female. And if I were to forget, I was reminded sometimes in pretty nasty ways.

POWERS: In fact, the American government never officially recognized Dessima as a diplomat. They refused to accept her credentials, and that made it even harder for her when things escalated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: How should we deal with the Soviet Union in the years ahead?

POWERS: By 1982, Reagan started ramping up his rhetoric about the Soviet Union.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: We have the strength to moderate Soviet behavior. We've done so in the past, and we can do so again.

POWERS: In March of 1983, Reagan gives his Evil Empire speech, talking about the existential threat posed by the Soviets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: They are the focus of evil in the modern world.

POWERS: And then, just a couple weeks later, Reagan delivers a speech from the Oval Office to talk about the defense of the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: The Soviets have built up a massive arsenal of new strategic nuclear weapons, weapons that can strike directly at the United States.

POWERS: Reagan wants Congress to invest a huge amount of money in its new nuclear defense system. And he brings up all these reasons why it's necessary - because of things happening in the Soviet Union, because of things happening in Cuba, but also because of things happening in this tiny country at the bottom of the Caribbean.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: On the small island of Grenada, at the southern end of the Caribbean chain, the Cubans, with Soviet financing and backing, are in the process of building an airfield with a 10,000-foot runway. Grenada doesn't even have an air force. Who is it intended for?

POWERS: At the time, 10,000 feet was considered the standard length for a runway at an international airport. But it wasn't really about the airport. It was about who was building the airport. Several hundred Cuban engineers and construction workers had been sent to help design and build the runway. And that, to Reagan, was a sign that this was all part of some big Soviet plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: The Soviet Cuban militarization of Grenada, in short, can only be seen as power projection into the region.

POWERS: This fear of power projection from other countries was not new. Since the early 1800s under President Monroe, U.S. policy was to oppose European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. As it developed, Teddy Roosevelt argued that the quote, "Monroe Doctrine" meant that the U.S. was in charge of policing that part of the world. And that continued through the 20th century

GRENADE: Based on the Monroe Doctrine, the United States claimed the Caribbean basin as its sphere of influence. And to do that, you had to crush what you define as communism wherever you saw it raising its head, particularly in your so-called backyard.

POWERS: And this might be an obvious question but was it a communist regime?

GRENADE: I never felt as if I was in a communist state. I went to church freely every Sunday. And in fact, if we look at it from a political economy perspective, we had a mixed economy model. You had the private sector. You had the state. You had cooperatives.

WILLIAMS: Yes, there were communists in the party, but so were all other kinds of people. But I mean, there are people who are either, you know, communist-inclined or socialist thinkers and idealists in the revolution, the party and so on. But that was not the danger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: These people understand very well that a revolution means a new situation. Revolution means that the abuses and excesses of the violent, reactionary and disruptive minority has to be crushed so that a majority interest can prevail.

(APPLAUSE)

POWERS: Some of these accusations from the U.S. government of Grenada becoming a Soviet military bastion - they struck a lot of people as totally bogus. But there were also real concerns about how Maurice Bishop was governing.

GRENADE: To be honest, we had in terms of human rights violations - that was part of the sort of weaknesses and flaws of the revolution, in terms of intolerance for dissent.

POWERS: People were thrown in jail for speaking out against the government. Four years after the revolution, still no election had been held. And Dessima Williams says there was a feeling that you could not openly criticize Maurice Bishop.

WILLIAMS: It was a single-party state in practice. No opposition was tolerated. You know, I speak for myself, and I know many others - we were completely carried forward by the positive development changes that were happening in the country. I, for one - I was fixed on that. I was studying economic development before, and I could see it happening, and it moved me.

At the same time, I didn't turn a completely blind eye to the fact that, for example, a former teacher of mine was arrested - not charged, but thrown in jail. And I was disturbed about that. There was no evidence provided. But I think that he was treated very harshly and many others. We had a saying that the revolution shall not be overthrown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: That nobody, regardless of who you are, will be allowed to be involved in any activity surrounding the overthrow of the government by the use of armed violence.

WILLIAMS: That if there was a threat to the revolution, then there is justification in securing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: And anyone who moves in that direction will be ruthlessly crushed.

(APPLAUSE)

WILLIAMS: Was that always, you know, justified or exceeded? Well, the record stands.

POWERS: The thing is, this is where the record also gets complicated. Maurice Bishop did come down hard on opposition. He did talk about ruthlessly crushing people who wanted to overthrow the government. And yet, looking back, some Grenadians now say that he didn't come down hard enough because of what happened next.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: In the fall of 1983, Dessima started to notice that things were off. She would call cabinet members and colleagues from her office in D.C., and they would seem distracted and unfocused. Then the foreign minister told her that there was some, quote, "trouble" on the island. At the same time, strange things were happening in D.C. Dessima noticed someone following her to a 7-Eleven. Somebody broke into her office at the embassy. The security guard was acting strangely. He was standing outside her room in the middle of the night. She realized later that that is when she began to feel like a hostage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: Then another phone call. The deputy prime minister had staged a government takeover. He and others in the party were communist hardliners who wanted to go in a more radical direction. And they placed Maurice Bishop under house arrest. He stayed there for a week until a crowd gathered outside - this crowd that included children and teenagers and Wendy Grenade.

GRENADE: I still recall that day. The crowd was saying, you know, we want our leader.

POWERS: This mass of people pushed down the gate where Bishop was held, and they got him out. Then they marched together to this big fort overlooking the capital. That's where the army was headquartered, and that's where they would take back control of the government.

GRENADE: The crowd went to the Fort. Maurice Bishop went to the fort. He was in the room.

POWERS: Wendy was outside with hundreds of other people.

GRENADE: I was in the market square at the time. It was the loudest explosion I ever heard in my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: Witnesses heard the sound of machine guns. And then they say they saw black smoke coming from the fort, probably from grenade launchers.

GRENADE: About three armored cars came up on the fort. And they just started shooting off at the people.

POWERS: Members of the army who supported this coup were shooting at the crowd inside the fort. People ran. They tried to escape. Some of them climbed onto the walls of the fort, which was several stories up, and they jumped. Many of them died. Many others were severely injured.

GRENADE: I left there a few minutes before that happened. And I stood in my kitchen and just looked at fire blazing and people just falling down. Yeah. It was real terrible.

POWERS: Then, the military dragged out Maurice Bishop and his ministers, and they stood them up against the wall.

GRENADE: Then there was a lining up and execution.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: What is your memory of when you heard that he had been executed?

GRENADE: I could not stand. I was like, no. No. They didn't kill him. No.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

POWERS: Back in D.C., a phone rang at the embassy.

WILLIAMS: The prime minister was killed. The foreign minister was killed. The minister for education, my good friend Jackie (ph), was killed. Trade unionists - many people were killed. And for me, I was not a minister or anything like that. But I knew if I were in Grenada, I would have been in - around those circles. And I couldn't understand.

POWERS: In that moment, Dessima was also terrified. She knew that she was being followed. She knew that there were people inside the embassy who might see her as a target, Grenadians or even Americans. She grabbed her passport and a radio, and she went into hiding. Because Dessima also knew what was coming next.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHRIS: Hey, this is Chris (ph), calling from Davidsonville, Md., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Part 3 - Urgent Fury.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: The days after the assassination of Maurice Bishop were objectively scary for everyone on the island. These new, more radical leaders declared martial law on the radio. They announced that anyone who violated curfew would be shot on sight. As word spread about what had happened, other Caribbean leaders started to speak out against the coup, calling it a travesty. All flights between Grenada and neighbouring islands were halted. No one could get in or out, including hundreds of American medical students who lived and studied near the capital. And that presented President Reagan with an opportunity

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: Early this morning, forces from six Caribbean democracies and the United States began a landing or landings on the island of Grenada in the eastern Caribbean.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER BLADES WHIRRING)

GRENADE: It was about 4 o'clock on the morning of the 25th. And we heard planes flying above...

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE FLYING)

GRENADE: ...And we realized that something was happening. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: United States paratroopers have invaded Grenada with helicopter gunships. Our armed forces are engaging them in fierce battle.

REAGAN: We have taken this decisive action for three reasons.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: The Grenadian people are asked to block all roads and obstruct the enemy's progress.

REAGAN: First and to overriding importance, to protect innocent lives, including up to 1,000 Americans, whose personal safety is, of course, my paramount concern.

GRENADE: There were bombings. We heard a lot of it because of where we were located.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: Second, to forestall further chaos.

GRENADE: Every glass in the house was smashed. The whole room was smashed up.

POWERS: They bombed the house.

GRENADE: They bombed the house, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: And third, to assist in the restoration of conditions of law and order and of governmental institutions to the island of Grenada, where a brutal group of leftist thugs violently seized power, killing the prime minister, three cabinet members, two labor leaders and other civilians, including children.

GRENADE: Operation Urgent Fury - that was the name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: The initial operation of landing, securing the immediate targets, taking control of the airports, completely successful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: There was never any doubt that the invasion would be successful. In total, it took four days. But there were significant casualties. 19 members of the U.S. military died. One of these deaths and multiple injuries were later found to be the result of friendly fire. Several dozen Grenadians were killed, including the patients at a psychiatric hospital that was accidentally bombed by the Americans. 24 of the Cuban soldiers who were working on the airport also died. But after a few days, the American medical students were evacuated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: Mr. President, as late as...

REAGAN: One at a time, please.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: As late as yesterday, your own spokesman said that Americans on Grenada were in no danger. Did you have information that things had changed?

REAGAN: They were in no danger in the sense of that right now, anything was being done to them. This was a case of not waiting until something actually happened to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: In the final hours of the battle for Grenada, the Americans were still pouring in, more combat troops who arrived at the new airport, one way following another.

POWERS: These troops fanned out throughout the island, looking for weapons. And they found them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: Russian and Cuban ammunition was found, as well as communications equipment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: And the Americans came in here, in the house?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Looking for who, for what?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: For guns, they said, in the roof.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: It was all there in such quantities that the Americans believe this to be the makings of a full-scale military base.

REAGAN: Grenada, we were told, was a friendly island paradise for tourism. Well, it wasn't. It was a Soviet Cuban colony being readied as a major military bastion to export terror and undermine democracy. We got there just in time.

POWERS: Did you watch Reagan's speech when he announced the invasion?

GRENADE: I saw it after.

POWERS: Was there any part of you that was like, the president of the U.S. is talking about my community, you know, where I'm from, and if there was, like, a strangeness of seeing the way that he was describing Grenada, which I imagine is very different from how you think about your own country?

GRENADE: Yes. Yes, of course. You feel insulted and angry, really, in the way that your country is made invisible, really, the people within it made invisible for a larger imperialist goal. I did not believe it had anything at all to do with the U.S. students at the medical school at the time. I believe it had a lot to do with reclaiming U.S. preeminence in the world and making a point to the Soviet Union and Cuba.

POWERS: For the record, Wendy's reaction was not everyone's reaction. There were quotes in media reports of Grenadians thanking America for saving them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: Grenadians are free. We are thankful to the president of the United States for what he has done for Grenada. At last, we are free.

POWERS: And these reactions were real. There are still a lot of Grenadians who say the invasion was good. It got the country back in order.

GRENADE: It was very much a divided response. Some of the older people, and also for those who were not supportive of the revolution, of course, felt that this was a rescue mission.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: Praise God, and thanks to Mr. Reagan that we are delivered, and we are once again so happy.

GRENADE: Most progressives, younger people and so forth took offense.

POWERS: They felt that Grenada could have rescued itself. They could have decided their own political fate without the intervention of the Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: It seems to me that part of what made this an attractive operation for Ronald Reagan and what ultimately I think made it successful in many people's, or in many Americans', eyes, is the fact that they were just sort of, like, in and out, very different from something like Vietnam, where the U.S. got stuck there forever and ever. I guess, is that your sense, that this operation was politically expedient for Reagan and for the U.S. government?

GRENADE: Oh, yes, definitely. Because at the end of the day, it wasn't a prolonged, boots-on-the-ground - as we see now, for example, in Afghanistan. So in that way, I think it was an easy win from an American perspective. It was about conquest, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: The United States is safer, stronger and more secure in 1984 than before.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: U.S. troops left Grenada. A little over a year later, there was an election won by a new party and prime minister who were very friendly to the U.S. and the U.K. By that time, Reagan had started running for reelection. And one of the big themes of his campaign was America is back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: America is back, standing tall, looking to the '80s with courage, confidence and hope.

POWERS: And at least in the U.S., this became the story of the invasion of Grenada, the story of either Reagan saving the med school students, or Reagan being an opportunist in the middle of the Cold War, or even the story of how so many Americans can completely cease to remember that this even happened in the first place. But for me and for people in my family and for many people from this part of the Caribbean, this is not the part that we remember, or at least it's not the only part that we remember.

WILLIAMS: I felt that I have never stopped grieving the loss of what happened on the 19th of October, 1983. Sometimes I, you know, grieve it more than others. I've never stopped feeling what a terrible, terrible loss of human life, of spent opportunity and so on. And the sadness for me is that we were not really allowed - ourselves and those who invaded, we were not allowed to make and fix our errors. Once you kill somebody, that can't happen. And once you, you know, invade and occupy and tell people that they were - their lives had no value or meaning, well, then you destroy something for a long time. It's not killed, but it's a setback enormously.

POWERS: Shortly after the invasion, Dessima came out of hiding. She became a public and outspoken critic of the Reagan administration's decision to invade her country. But the invasion is still just one part of what she wishes could have gone differently.

WILLIAMS: Had the revolution survived and had Bishop been able to figure out which way forward, that it would have remained as something that was of value to neighbors and to the United States, as people thought, that they didn't have to be so subservient within a democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BISHOP: And if we have 95% of predominantly African origin in our country, then we can have dangerous appeal to 30 million Black people in the United States.

POWERS: For Wendy Grenade, that image and that message is what makes this history still so powerful.

And what is your message to people of why the Grenada revolution is still important, why it still matters?

GRENADE: It still matters because, at the end of the day, it's about that search for freedom. How do we shape the societies that we deserve? And the Grenada revolution becomes one example of a very small country where people worked to build a new society. And I think it's important to understand it because it was about how do you transform, how do you create an alternative world? And for my generation, we would forever be speaking about that period because it was a period where we saw possibilities for what could be.

POWERS: So right now, we're in the middle of the courtyard at the fort. And there is a plaque here, and I'm going to read the plaque. It says, "in everlasting memory of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop." And then it lists names - Fitzroy Bain, Norris Bain...

A few months ago, I went to the fort in Grenada's capital where Maurice Bishop was killed to see where the executions took place. And when you're there, it's weird how immediate all of this history feels. You can walk right up to this 300-year-old wall where Bishop and his cabinet were shot, and you can still see the bullet holes. It's all right there.

They have gone to join the stars and will forever shine in glory.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: That was Martine Powers, host of "Post Reports" from The Washington Post. You can find and subscribe to "Post Reports" wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei. Rund Abdelfatah, our fearless leader, is out this week again. But she'll be back next week after a much-deserved vacation. The rest of the team includes...

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine.

VICTOR YVELLEZ, BYLINE: Victor Yvellez.

GREG VALDESPINO, BYLINE: Greg Valdespino (ph).

YOLANDA SANGWENI, BYLINE: Yolanda Sangweni.

ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking was done by Kevin Volkl. Thanks also to Anya Grundmann, Deb George, Maggie Penman, Alana Sherlyn Riojas (ph), Adriana Rodriguez (ph), Darius Rafieyan, Tamar Charney and also the NPR RAD Team for all their help. And appreciation to Damani Baker plus "The House On Coco Road" for the Angela Davis tape we used in the episode. Our music was composed by me and my band Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was mixed and mastered by Andy Huether. And finally, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at throughline@npr.org, or hit us up on Twitter at @throughlineNPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.