The only US military intervention Britain (somewhat) opposed

by Mark Curtis, Declassified UK, 25 October 2023

Margaret Thatcher’s government sought to prevent the US invasion of Grenada in October 1983, but once it went ahead, Whitehall refused to condemn it and sought its “swift success” – even though it knew it violated international law, declassified files show.

The American military invaded the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada – with a population of 100,000 – on 25 October 1983.

US president Ronald Reagan, the architect of the ‘second cold war’ with the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, claimed America was intervening to protect US citizens, prevent disorder and restore democracy following an armed coup on the island.

Yet Washington barely paid any attention to the fact that Grenada, although an independent country, was a member of the Commonwealth presided over by a governor general appointed by the Queen.

Whitehall officials were enraged that the US only cursorily informed them in advance it intended to invade.

They then did something extraordinary in the annals of post-1945 UK foreign policy – they frantically sought to halt a prospective US military intervention hours before it went ahead, and aired some criticism publicly after it took place.

But although British opposition to the invasion of Grenada is well-known, the declassified files show that ministers and officials specifically held back from condemning the US action and wanted to see it successfully concluded.

Thatcher lobbies Reagan

Washington was reacting to a coup on Grenada that took place on 13 October 1983. This brought to power a so-called Revolutionary Military Council which arrested and then murdered Grenada’s leader, Maurice Bishop.

Bishop and his New Jewel Movement, a Marxist party that established good relations with Cuba, had himself assumed power in a coup in 1979. It was now Bishop’s deputy, Bernard Coard, and the army commander, General Hudson Austin, who ousted their former ally.

On the evening before the invasion, 24 October, Reagan messaged Thatcher at 7.15pm saying he was giving “serious consideration” to invading. This ostensibly followed a request from a group of nations in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).

Before Thatcher replied, Reagan sent a second message at around 11pm, informing the prime minister the invasion would indeed go ahead.

Thatcher replied to these two messages just past midnight on 25 October, in strong terms.

She told him his decision “causes us the gravest concern”. “The only justification for intervention which is likely to seem credible in the eyes of the world is the need to protect the safety of US and British citizens” – but these “are not at risk”, she messaged.

Thatcher added that an invasion would be seen as intervening in the internal affairs of a “small independent nation” which could have implications for East/West relations in the rivalry with the Soviet Union.

She ended by asking him to “think most carefully about these points”. Soon after, Thatcher also phoned Reagan on a secure line and reiterated her arguments.

Reagan was not, however, open to influence. A further message from him at 7.45am on 25 October confirmed the US would go ahead. At 9.40am US troops landed.

‘US ally’

The files from the prime minister’s office at the National Archives in London show that some British officials objected in principle to the US intervention.

Later on the day of the invasion, for example, Thatcher’s foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, privately told US secretary of state George Schulz that “it was not open to one member state [of the OECS treaty] to request intervention of another”. 

But the day after the invasion, Thatcher held a 15 minute phone call with Reagan in which she expressed no opposition to the US action, according to the Downing Street write-up of the call.

Reagan told Thatcher he “very much regretted the embarrassment that had been caused”, and Thatcher said she hoped the operation would soon be over.

Two days later, a Foreign Office briefing highlighted two reasons why Britain failed to publicly condemn the invasion. The first was that it “didn’t want to make task [sic] of US/OECS forces more difficult”.

The second was that it was “concerned to avoid public row with US ally [sic]”.

Thus Thatcher’s government supported the successful outcome of the intervention it argued against for the sake of preserving the special relationship.

‘Finish the task’

Thatcher reiterated this position to her Commonwealth counterparts. She told Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau in a phone call on 27 October that while the UK had “advised” the US “to take a different course” “it was now vital that they should be successful” and that it was important to “finish the task”.

The following week she told Australia’s prime minister, John Fraser, that “we had to take our stand on the issue of principle – that an invasion, without clear justification in international law, of an independent state is contrary to Western democratic values and a dangerous precedent for the future.”

However, she added: “But once the invasion had occurred my concern was to do everything possible to avoid hindering the operation and to minimise the danger to the Western Alliance. Thus we refused to condemn the invasion here at home and refused to join all those in the [UN] Security Council who wished to do so”.

Thatcher was referring to the US veto of a UN security council resolution ”deeply deploring” the invasion as a ”flagrant violation of international law.” Eleven countries supported the resolution, with only the US opposing. Britain abstained, alongside Togo and Zaire.

A few days later, in early November, Britain also abstained on a UN general assembly resolution that also condemned the invasion as “a flagrant violation of international law”, in a vote supported by 108 countries and opposed by nine.

Britain’s abstention, rather than joining the majority in opposing the US, earned Britain “credit” in Washington, its ambassador there, Oliver Wright, noted.

Wright, not surprisingly given his position, was especially keen to smooth over UK relations with the US. On 26 October he had cabled London that while US officials might grudgingly accept that Britain was taking a different view on the intervention “they will not understand if we publicly criticise their actions while their troops are still engaged”.

He hoped the Foreign Office would judge that a “swift American success” was its major interest. Now that the invasion had happened, “it must now be in our overall interests to make the best of a bad job”, Wright added in a further message to London on the same day.

‘Not prepared to condemn’

Britain’s limited public criticisms of the US intervention provoked much irritation in Washington. But UK ministers went to great lengths to defuse the tensions.

On 3 November, Howe said in parliament: “We are not prepared to condemn, nor shall we condemn, the United States and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States for the action they took”.

Ambassador Wright outlined to Lawrence Eagleburger, a senior official in the US state department, that Geoffrey Howe “refused to condemn what had been done. We had consistently made clear that we fully shared the objective of restoring order and democracy. We had also subsequently welcomed the speed and success of the US operation”.

He added: “Many of the difficulties could have been avoided had we been told what the Americans were planning to do at the time when the president took his tentative decision to go ahead”.

This suggestion points to the possibility of the UK more deeply acquiescing in an invasion if it had been adequately consulted beforehand.

This possibility is supported by a message to the Foreign Office from Giles Bullard, Britain’s high commissioner to the West Indies, who was based in Barbados but whose brief covered Grenada.

Writing three days before the invasion, on 22 October, he wrote: “I agree that those in control of Grenada must know that there is a risk of foreign military intervention”. Bullard saw this “risk” as a way of pressing the coup leaders to hold elections and restore constitutional government.

Indeed, he concluded his despatch to the Foreign Office by stating that if the US eventually favoured an intervention “we should give our support too or at the very least take no steps that might weaken the operation”.

It wouldn’t have been the first time the UK looked favourably on intervening in Grenada. Phil Miller has revealed that a decade before the US intervention, in 1974, the British military prepared a full-scale invasion plan on the eve of Grenada’s independence.

This planned “to restore law and order and constitutional government” amid fears that Bishop’s New Jewel Movement might assume power. The plan was not eventually executed because the UK’s favoured political figure on the island, Eric Gairy, clung on to power during and after independence, until Bishop overthrew him five years later.

International law

British officials were aware the US invasion was contrary to international law.

On the eve of the intervention, Howe instructed Oliver Wright in Washington to inform the US of the British position, which was that there were “no grounds on which military intervention could be justified internationally unless it were required to protect lives. This does not at present seem to be the case”.

The US claim it intervened to protect the 1,000 Americans on Grenada was given short shrift by other British officials. Giles Bullard wrote after the invasion that this US argument was “less than convincing”.

No US citizens were harmed in the intervention but some of those rescued “felt most at risk on the morning of the invasion”, Bullard wrote.

A Foreign Office briefing of 28 October noted that “as a matter of law, states are entitled to act [ie conduct military intervention] to protect lives of civilians” – suggesting this was the only basis on which such action would be justified.

It added that British citizens in Grenada – who numbered around 200 – were “in no immediate danger” and that it was for the US to “make [its] own case”.

Within a fortnight, the military operation, conducted by around 3,000 US troops with a token force of 300 from other Caribbean nations, had countered all opposition and taken over the island.