Grenada is a small island country in the Caribbean with approximately 114,299 people per the CIA World Factbook’s most recent estimate as of November 17, 2023. It is also part of the Commonwealth of Nations (also known colloquially as the British Commonwealth). Like the United States to its north, Grenada’s national holiday calendar includes a day set aside for Thanksgiving. However, unlike Thanksgiving in the United States, which falls on the penultimate Thursday of November, Grenada’s Thanksgiving is locked to October 25. Moreover, while Grenada’s Thanksgiving is closely tied to the United States, the subject of thanks is separate and distinct from the topics that inspired America’s November holiday. I quote from a November 25, 2021 piece in The Economist (original link and archived link):
Grenada celebrates Thanksgiving on October 25th, though instead of marking the start of the harvest it commemorates an American invasion of 1983, when soldiers stopped a coup.
Grenada’s Thanksgiving Day celebration dates back to the United States’ 1983 invasion of the island. Of course, it is not the case that every country that is invaded by the United States sets aside a holiday to commemorate the occasion. What prompted the United States’ military intervention in Grenada’s small island nation affairs some four decades ago? Let us begin with a concise summary from Roving Raconteurs:
You may remember, political turmoil in the island nation culminated in 1983 with a military coup and the execution of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. Concerned for the welfare of 800 American students attending university on the island during this political chaos, along with the threat posed to the island by communist influences, President Ronald Reagan invaded the island on October 25, 1983. Many Grenadians were thankful and celebrated by serving a traditional American Thanksgiving to the American troops. The celebration endures and October 25 has been named Thanksgiving Day on the Island. It is a national day of remembrance and gratitude.
This is a good summary. The only clarification that I would addend is that then-President Reagan did not personally invade Grenada.
The phrase “you may remember” in the above passage will be a theme throughout the article – specifically because the United States’ short six-day war in Grenada (October 19-25, 1983), called Operation Urgent Fury, is not remembered much at all stateside, as Mr. David Silberman noted in an October 2023 article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
It is tempting to say the world has spent the past 40 years debating the little war in this onetime British colony, but the world has moved on. It is only here, where American intervention is venerated, that it is recalled — and recalled with a remarkable sense of gratitude.
This theme of American ambivalence about its ultimately successful intervention in Grenada has reportedly been recognized by some residents of Grenada. Below, I quote an account from Mr. Harlan Hague that has been online since October 24, 2000 (note that Mr. Hague is American):
When the subject came up recently during a taxi ride in St. George, the capital, my wife told the driver that many Americans were not proud of the invasion. ‘Why should they feel that way,’ he said. ‘We are very happy about it. President Reagan is a hero here.’ In fact, the day is commemorated with a national holiday, Thanksgiving Day, on October 25.
Mr. Hague continued:
Yet, many Grenadians are hesitant to talk about it, perhaps because of the American ambivalence.
Mr. Silberman described being a young reporter covering the short war:
I had no idea what I was doing, but maybe I was a perfect match for the moment, because the United States had little idea what its mission was about, and the rest of the world — including Canada and Great Britain — thought the mission was madness.
To be sure, the U.S.-led invasion of Grenada, which was joined by six other Caribbean countries, proved to be somewhat less popular in the United Nations (not that the United Nations, which struggles to come up with a cross word about the adventures of seventh century-inspired Islamist terror organizations, is a credible moral authority) – The General Assembly voted 108-9 to condemn Operation Urgent Fury, with the United States being joined by its six Caribbean partners, along with known-U.N. favorite Israel, and El Salvador. For whatever it is worth, President Reagan stated that the U.N.’s vote – which had no effect on anything – “didn’t upset my breakfast at all.” He found a (somewhat tepid) supporter in then-Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. He undoubtedly would have found support in the persons of former Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams (I hope some readers see what I just did there).
The focus of this article is on Grenada’s Thanksgiving and not the ins and outs of Operation Urgent Fury. But because the events that led to, and were resolved by, Urgent Fury prompted Grenada’s Thanksgiving, a short discussion is in order. I turn to a detailed article in American Legion magazine by retired U.S. Army Colonel Keith Nightingale, who was an assault force commander in Grenada
[In 1979], Grenada’s democratic government had been overthrown in a coup and replaced by a socialist dictatorship. On Oct. 14, 1983, an internal power struggle within the dictatorship resulted in the killing of original coup leader Maurice Bishop. He was succeeded by chief lieutenant Bernard Coard and his enforcer, Gen. Hudson Austin, both hardline communists. U.K. Gov. Gen. Sir Paul Scoon was placed under house arrest. The eight islands of Grenada quickly became a gangland, ruled by military-age males with new AK-47s and no discipline. Thuggery ruled more than ideology.
Mr. Silberman quoted a Grenadian musician in 2023 describing what the country was like at the time of Bishop’s murder:
‘The Americans came in when Grenada was an unsettled place,’ the musician Sidney Hyppolite told me. He used his guitar to demonstrate how Maurice Bishop, the Marxist prime minister and leader of the revolutionary New Jewel Movement, was killed by a firing squad after the coup that set in motion the upheaval that, in turn, prompted American intervention.
The United States did not look favorably on communist coups in its backyard (the Reagan Administration had already been concerned about the construction of a large airport by the former Cuba-friendly Bishop Administration). Moreover, then-President Reagan had several additional concerns, including one involving the fate of U.S. citizens in Grenada, described below by Mr. Nightingale:
Amid the chaos, a U.S.-based expatriate medical school, St. George’s University, continued to operate on Grenada’s main island. However, students and faculty became increasingly alarmed about their well-being. On Oct. 20, Austin announced a curfew and vowed to shoot anyone leaving his or her home without authorization. He brought in additional guards and accused the medical school of spying. Students called friends and families, fearing their lives were in danger.
Paul Scoon, who was then the Queen’s representative in Grenada as Governor-General, requested assistance from the United States, Jamaica, Barbados, and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States for assistance in his capacity as the sole constitutional representative in the coup-plagued country (recall that Grenada is a Commonwealth country and the Queen, now King, of the United Kingdom is Grenada’s head of state). The United States, Jamaica, and Barbados were amenable to the request – but Mr. Nightingale noted that American planning hit a tragic snag with Hezbollah’s October 23, 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 U.S. marines:
The Joint Chiefs met Oct. 23 and had a heated exchange regarding the invasion. Marine Corps Commandant P.X. Kelley made an impassioned speech to engage the Beirut-bound Marines in the invasion. Chairman Gen. John Vessey Jr. noted the short time to execution but was willing to consider alternatives to the JSOC plan.
Mr. Nightingale described several factors which caused things to “slip off the rails” in the lead-up to the invasion, which ultimately began on October 25. I encourage you to read his full article, but despite some shortcomings in planning and errors in the invasion, the United States and its allies toppled the Grenadian People’s Revolutionary Government, expelled the Cubans and Soviets from the country by October 29, and established a transitional government (elections would ultimately be held in December 1984). 19 American soldiers were killed in the operation. Mr. Nightingale noted that most of the American soldiers returned home in November 1983.
According to Mr. Nightingale, the seeds for what grew into Grenada’s Thanksgiving were planted in November 1983:
During that late autumn of 1983, U.S. soldiers told locals about a fast-approaching American holiday and its meaning. The concept of Thanksgiving and its traditional meal had been unknown on the island nation, once a British colony.
The Grenadians, scattered in more than 100 different small population centers, were determined to express their thanks to the U.S. forces who came to overthrow the violent communist dictatorship.
On America’s Thanksgiving, grateful Grenadians celebrated:
Finally, on Thanksgiving Day, the many towns and villages with squads or platoons of U.S. soldiers invited them to have a Grenadian Thanksgiving. No one was more surprised than the soldiers and their leadership.
Mr. Nightingale recalled the general tenor of the Thanksgiving speeches delivered by the Grenadians:
Speeches from the locals invariably went something like this: ‘We don’t know much about this thing you call Thanksgiving, and we don’t understand the food. But we do know that it is important to you and want you to know that our Thanksgiving is the day you came. Thank you.’
As we know, since 1984 Grenada had formalized its own Thanksgiving holiday on October 25. . The tradition, unlike Thanksgiving in the Philippines, continues to this day as a national holiday on the Caribbean island.
I cobbled together several sources on contemporary Thanksgiving observances in Grenada. According to one source, “[b]anks, businesses and most shops” in Grenada are closed for Thanksgiving. However, observance may vary from place to place. Another source states that Thanksgiving “is largely not given much attention in the rural communities.” My general impression is that Grenada’s Thanksgiving is most focused on national ceremonies and commemorations.
Beginning in 2013, commemorative events were extended to one week to cover October 19 to 25:
Celebrated under the theme “Thirty years of Peace and Stability; bringing families together,” this year’s celebrations will be the first time ever that the 1983 intervention and its surrounding events will be commemorated by a week of activities that will run from October 19 to 25, 2013.
The 30th anniversary announcement highlighted that “[d]istinct to past thanksgiving celebrations, this year the Committee will memorialize the 1983 events, as well as place great emphasis on rejoicing over the three decades of peace that the country has experienced since that time.”
In 2017, then-Acting Grenadian Prime Minister Gregory Bowen offered remarks commemorating Thanksgiving:
We thank our Almighty Father for delivering us safely from the dark days of our history to the light and hopefulness of the present. Thirty-four years on, we can truly say that we are a resilient, peaceful and blessed nation.
Without specifying, the former Acting Prime Minister thanked Grenada’s friends:
We are grateful to our many friends and neighbours who have come to Grenada’s aid, time and time again, to help us rebuild, restore and sustain this said democracy and stability that we now experience.
He also recognized those who gave their lives for Grenada’s freedom:
Thanksgiving each year gives us an opportunity to remember the Grenadians and friends of Grenada who are no longer with us; and to recognise and pay homage to their service in the interest of nation-building. We continue to pray for their families and to thank them for their sacrifice.
I came across an event itinerary for the official recognition of Thanksgiving in Grenada in 2019 by Ms. Linda Straker. Firstly, she noted (from a Grenadian perspective) the purpose of the Thanksgiving services:
The traditional ecumenical service organised by the National Celebrations Committee is among 4 activities that will be observed on 25 October as Grenada commemorates the 36th anniversary of the collapse of the revolution, and the US military intervention on the island.
She then listed the four activities that followed the service:
- 9 am: Embassy of the Republic of Cuba’s tribute at the memorial at Point Salines
- 10 am: National Celebrations Committee’s ecumenical service in St Patrick
- 11 am: Maurice Bishop and October 19th Martyrs Foundation tribute at St George’s Cemetery
- 2 pm: Grenada Revolution Memorial Foundation’s tribute at St George’s Cemetery
The Cuban event is interesting in light of the fact that Cuba played a small role in resisting the U.S. intervention.
I had noted earlier that in 2013, Grenada extended commemorative events to begin on October 19, which marks the murder of former Prime Minister Bishop. In 2019, October 19 was “National Heroes Day,” but its status appears to have been in flux prior to 2022. I also came across an interesting op-ed by Ms. Lou-Ann Jordan, again from a Grenadian perspective, on the events beginning with October 19 and culminating with Thanksgiving on October 25. Ms. Jordan described National Heroes Day:
On 19 October 2023, Grenada will observe a new public holiday, as announced last September by Prime Minister Dickon Mitchell. National Heroes Day, which is instituted in honour of former Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, will give our island a chance to pause and fully acknowledge the tragic events of one of the most notable incidents in the country’s, and possibly the Eastern Caribbean region’s, history.
Regarding Thanksgiving, she wrote:
As we embark on a new chapter, we are thankful for the opportunity to remember our fellow countrymen who lost their lives and honour the men and women whose actions inspire national pride. Moreover, we continue to pay homage to those whose actions helped restore order to our nation.
One interesting point in Ms. Jordan’s essay appears to be reminding what is now a peaceful and relatively stable Grenada about the sentiments in a very different time and place that led to tragedy. She wrote:
With the passage of time, it’s almost inconceivable that there was such unrest on this incredibly serene island. It may even be challenging to imagine the intensity of emotions that would have stirred our people to such actions.
In 2020, the President of the Grenadian Senate called to add October 19 to the permanent roster of federal holidays in Grenada, honoring the late former Prime Minister Bishop. As I noted earlier, there had long been informal commemorations on October 19. On October 19, 2022, the St Vincent Times reported that October 19 was made into a formal holiday to honor Maurice Bishop, joining the long-standing October 25 Thanksgiving and book-ending a week with state holidays.
The fact that Grenada has, for nearly four decades, commemorated the commencement of the U.S.-led intervention in 1983 as a national holiday strongly suggests that it is generally viewed favorably. However, this is not to say that views on the events of 1979-83 in Grenada are universal. I knew one Grenadian who had a decidedly negative view of the U.S. intervention and a decidedly favorable view of Castro-led Cuba, and I came across one 2023 Grenadian newspaper that took similar positions on the matter. Conversely, the links in the previous paragraph point to disagreements about the legacy of Maurice Bishop and the movement he started and was consumed by. I include this paragraph only to note that a survey of readily available online resources is unlikely to yield a complete picture of all of the most common perspectives and understandings of Thanksgiving in Grenada in 2023.
I conclude with official U.S. government perspectives on Grenada’s Thanksgiving. First, from the Embassy in 2020:
On this 25th day of October, we recognise the heroism shown by Caribbean and US forces who 37 years ago answered the call of Grenada’s Governor-General, the late Sir Paul Scoon, and the leadership of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States to restore rule of law and order to Grenada.
This American statement emphasizes the facts that Grenada’s Governor-General requested assistance at that the United States worked with key stakeholders “to restore rule of law and order to Grenada.”
I also found a 2021 statement on Thanksgiving from the U.S. Chargé d’ Affaires, Karl Duckworth. Mr. Duckworth led similarly to the 2020 statement:
As we observe Thanksgiving Day, we are grateful for the heroism shown by Caribbean and U.S. servicemembers — who 38 years ago answered the call of Grenada’s Governor General and the leadership of the OECS — to restore the rule of law to Grenada. We honor the brave people who made the ultimate sacrifice in this noble cause.
Mr. Duckworth, similarly to Mr. Nightingale, thanked the people of Grenada for their 1983 response to the American soldiers:
We also offer profound thanks for the response of Grenada’s citizens to this intervention. Grenadians from all walks of life and from every part of the tri-island state and the diaspora responded. They showed their dedication and commitment to this nation by defending a tradition of democracy, peace, and stability.
Mr. Duckworth’s 2021 statement brings us to a neat conclusion. Operation Urgent Fury, like many other relatively small U.S. military interventions, is not often remembered in the United States these days. It took place what is now 40 years ago, and the United States has fought a number of longer, much higher profile wars, in the interim. That it immediately followed the Beirut Marine Barracks bombing most likely further impaired its place in historic memory. Moreover, as Mr. Nightingale aptly explained, to the extent Urgent Fury is remembered today, it is just as often for what the U.S. military learned from it as it is for its successful outcome:
The various glitches and issues that arose as part of the invasion were addressed and resolved, though not without controversy. Key was the elevation of the Special Operations Forces to the same level of other major commands.
But as small as the intervention was (Grenada is a small island) and as short a duration as combat persisted (five days), real soldiers served in Operation Urgent Fury and 19 Americans lost their lives. Mr. Nightingale described one soldier under his command who died in an accident during the operation:
One of my soldiers was killed by an accidental weapons discharge. He was the only child of Indian parents, a doctor and a nurse, who immigrated to the United States. I wrote a letter of condolence to them that was quickly answered. The parents said it was a privilege to have him as their son and a greater privilege to pay back the nation that gave them so much.
Thanksgiving on October 25 will always be a distinctly Grenadian occasion in light of the fact that the events of October 1983 perhaps remain the defining occasion – for worse and for better – in Grenada’s post-independence history. But from an American perspective, the day serves as an opportunity to remember those who served – most of whom are still with us – and those who died, in the brief intervention. We (and those in Jamaica and Barbados) can be thankful for those who served, what was learned from Urgent Fury, and that it appears that Grenada has made good use of its post-intervention new beginning.