The Cold War began to end on Oct. 25, 1983—something no one could have imagined only years before. The international situation was bleak when Ronald Reagan assumed office in 1981. The Soviets enjoyed a military, propaganda and nuclear strategic advantage. They controlled Eastern Europe and had invaded Afghanistan, while funding Marxist “wars of national liberation” across four continents. Moscow directed a global network of propagandists to persuade witting or naive Westerners into supporting anti-American disarmament campaigns.
The West had been immobilized by the Brezhnev Doctrine, declared after the bloody Soviet suppression of an anticommunist uprising in Czechoslovakia in 1968. It said that once a country became Marxist-Leninist, the process became irreversible. The Soviet army would enforce it.
“Vietnam syndrome” also weighed down the West. This was the notion that since America’s military involvement in Southeast Asia had not succeeded, the U.S. should no longer influence events around the world through the use of military force. It enabled America’s enemies to mount bold challenges to U.S. influence in the Caribbean Basin, a strategic “third border.”
In the Caribbean island nation of Grenada, the Soviets and their catspaw in the Western Hemisphere, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, were building a militarized socialist society. They also were constructing a massive airfield for military purposes, while stating publicly it was for commerce and tourism. They planned to expand communist ideology and totalitarianism to other islands in the Eastern Caribbean as they simultaneously undermined governments throughout the Americas.
Then Oct. 25, 1983, happened. President Reagan—declining to consult major allies, confronting fierce criticism from Congress and the media, facing opposition from some in his administration, and with little more than a weekend’s planning—ordered U.S. military forces to join law-enforcement units from neighboring English-speaking island nations and invade Grenada. Only six years later, in 1989, the Soviet empire began to disintegrate, finally disappearing in 1991. This liberated hundreds of millions of people in two dozen nations from oppression. The U.S.S.R. did not end because of the invasion of Grenada alone, but the shock of Reagan’s decisive action to the Soviet political, military and ideological organism was pivotal.
Grenada’s crisis started in 1979. Maurice Bishop, a young revolutionary with an affinity for Castro, overthrew the elected government and suspended the constitution. While Bishop imposed a radical socialist regime on the island, Cuba began building a massive airfield out of all proportion to the island’s needs. This drew America’s attention.
Soon a national-security concern became an emergency. On Oct. 19, 1983, Bishop’s even more radically Marxist deputy, Bernard Coard, seized power, executing Bishop and some cabinet officials. The British governor-general alerted the outside world to the imminent outbreak of civil war. Caught in the middle were some 800 American students attending medical school on the island.
Meanwhile, neighboring governments, led by the indomitable Dominica Prime Minister Mary Eugenia Charles, appealed for U.S. intervention to forestall the spreading bloodshed. Reagan responded: “What kind of country would we be if we refused to help small but steadfast democratic countries in our neighborhood to defend themselves against the threat of this kind of tyranny and lawlessness?”
Operation Urgent Fury commenced on Oct. 25. Despite minimal planning, the invasion succeeded after four days of heavy fighting. Nineteen American servicemen were killed and 115 wounded; the medical students were evacuated. With constitutional authority on the island restored, U.S. troops began withdrawing Nov. 2, only eight days after they landed.
Reagan’s critics condemned his use of military force without congressional consent and said the students had never been in danger. But news reports showing the rescued students profusely thanking U.S. paratroopers and Marines undermined these claims. Upon returning to U.S. soil, some students descended the aircraft steps, knelt, and kissed American ground.
The U.S. also achieved a stunning intelligence haul, seizing thousands of documents detailing how to construct a communist police state. U.S. forces discovered arms caches capable of equipping a 10,000-man force—some in crates labeled “Cuban Economic Office, Grenada.” Among those captured and eventually deported were nearly 800 Cubans, 49 Soviets, 10 East Germans, three Bulgarians, 15 North Koreans and 17 Libyans. Quite a throng of “tourists and merchants.”
Vietnam syndrome and the Brezhnev Doctrine perished in Grenada, replaced with a renewed American spirit that robustly confronted the Soviet Union and its proxies around the world. The liberation of Grenada—the first time American military force was used to roll back a communist government—transfigured the posture of the U.S. following the “malaise” of the Carter years. It demonstrated Reagan’s resolve to reclaim the U.S. role as the world’s premier defender of freedom.
Yet many Americans fail to appreciate that there was nothing inevitable about the collapse of Berlin Wall or the demise of international communism. It required leadership, courage and vision by a president determined to restore America’s legitimate influence. Oct. 25 is celebrated as Grenada’s Thanksgiving Day. Americans also can give thanks, for that day the Evil Empire began to retreat.
Mr. Reich has served as an assistant secretary of state, U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and special envoy for Western Hemisphere affairs.