Adolf Hitler was a joke. At least that's how it seemed in the late 1930s, when I was in high school.
Newsreels showed a strutting popinjay; the soothing voice-overs made fun. Everyone knew that Germany was too poor to pose a threat to anyone. Reports of a "secret" air force and submarine fleet? Media hype. Anyway, it was far away. Someone else's problem.
Three years later, I was a swabbie. My entire generation faced a deadly, uncertain future, and the world was in flames.
Fast forward to 1982. I was ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), and "alleged" Soviet incursions into the Western hemisphere were blithely dismissed. After all, we'd "won" the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. End of story, right?
Not really. Twenty years on, Cuba was home to more than 5,000 Soviets operating the largest intelligence-gathering network outside the Soviet Union. The Cuban military had $1 billion-worth of new equipment, including more than 200 MIG fighters. Cuban agents were training and equipping Communist cadres in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
And, now, Cuban workers were building a 9,000-foot runway in Grenada. To encourage tourism, they said. But the project was far too big for an island with fewer than 1,000 hotel rooms. Grenada's hotels would be swamped by any more than two 747 planeloads of tourists in the same week.
Why such an ambitious effort? Here's a hint: the operational range of a Cuban MIG fighter was 690 miles. With bases in Nicaragua, Havana and Grenada, the Soviet aircraft could threaten all of Latin America and interdict the vital sea-lanes of the Caribbean. Vital? At that time, more than half of all the oil imported into the United States was carried by ships passing within a few miles of Grenada.
Something had to be done, and soon. The October 1983 murder of Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop -- by his own Marxist cronies -- provoked a wave of lawlessness. And that gave the United States a plausible reason to intervene: to safeguard 700 Americans enrolled at the island's medical school.
The day after Bishop was killed, Vice President George Bush chaired a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) where I offered this assessment: the Latins would support an invasion -- if we won quickly. I then committed to work to dissuade our southern neighbors from passing any resolutions opposing our projected strike.
Aside from Cuba, there were some 31 Latin and Caribbean states. I spoke with all of them.
Most understood the problem of Soviet encroachment but felt they couldn't deal with it. Privately, they might say, "Take them out." But publicly? "No comment." Most were hanging by a slender economic thread and would welcome aid and support from either the Soviet Union or the United States. Economic need usually trumps ideology. Someone else's problem.
Still, several of the smaller island nations proved brave enough to call for U.S. intervention two days after Bishop's death. Forty-eight hours later, we launched the invasion. President Reagan didn't brief Congressional leaders until the following Tuesday, when the invasion was actually under way.
As wars go, "Operation Urgent Fury" was not very impressive. The assault force consisted of perhaps 7,000 Marines and Army troopers. Most of the island was secured by the second day.
As for our friends at the OAS, Reagan's resolve had made our case. Yes, a virulent anti-American resolution was introduced. But no one -- not one nation -- would even second the motion.
The bottom line: Our action stemmed the tide of Soviet incursions in the hemisphere. That, at least, was the assessment of a former Soviet general I met at a Heritage Foundation board meeting in Moscow in the early 1990s. The Soviets, he told me, thought they had found in the Caribbean the "soft underbelly" of the United States. But Ronald Reagan gave them a big surprise in Grenada, and that, in the general's opinion, marked the turning point of the Cold War.
Fast forward once more, to 2002. A new popinjay struts. This time, in Baghdad. And now armed with weapons of mass destruction and the demonstrated willingness to use them.
Saddam Hussein's most vulnerable oil-rich neighbors stand mute. They will commit only to a winner. Our European "allies" seem hesitant and appear beyond reach. Someone else's problem. Again.
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In addition to his posting as U.S. Ambassador to the OAS, the writer served as Secretary of the Navy, Ambassador to the Netherlands, and Ambassador to the European Union.
Distributed nationally on the Scripps Howard wire