Vijay Prashad - 'Washington Bullets'

Vijay Prashad - 'Washington Bullets'


The cover of Vijay Prashad's *Washington Bullets*

Minister: As I was saying, Alex, you can be instrumental in changing the public verdict. Do you understand, Alex? Have I made myself clear? Alex: As an unmuddied lake, Fred. As clear as an azure sky of deepest summer. You can rely on me, Fred.

The above is a quote from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, but it could have come from the CIA. What do I mean by this? The CIA is a service of the federal government of the USA. It is designed to further the interests of the US government at any cost, especially that of human lives and suffering.


Where cynical desktop-based bureaucracy turns crime after crime into the mundane, it’s fairly easy to truly see how the CIA works. If the CIA were a human being, it’s safe to say it not one that you would befriend nor want to have as your colleague.

The USA renamed their War Department to the Defense Department around World War II. The CIA is an abbreviation for ‘Central Intelligence Agency’, and it’s not entirely wrong. Except when they are.

Calculated carelessness for human life doesn’t even begin to factor in the many motions of the CIA.

The gist of the book

Prashad could, as many historians are sadly prone to do, have lost track of the bigger picture and entered the reader into a myriad of minutiae; this did not happen.

Even as this book goes through the olitical roll-call of attempted US-world hegemony, things are clearly and commendably presented. It would be easy to let anger, frustration, and even rage commend these pages, but Prashad has kept a cool head, reminiscent of Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein.

Eva Morales Ayma, the former President of Bolivia, wrote the introduction for this book in 2020. From it:

In the pages of this book, Prashad documents the participation of the United States in the assassination of social leaders in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and in the massacres of the people, who have refused to subsidize the delirious business dealings of multinational corporations with their poverty.

In 2008, I had to expel Philip Goldberg, the ambassador of the United States, who was conspiring with separatist leaders, giving them instructions and resources to divide Bolivia. In that moment, the US Department of State said that my claims were unfounded. I don’t know what they would say now, when the participation of the US embassy in the coup that overthrew us at the end of 2019 is so clear. What will future researchers say who take up the work of reading the CIA documents that are classified today?

Seeing words from a former President of an entire country write this is, to some people who live in fairly democratic countries, breathtaking and near-unbelievable. On the other side is fact: the CIA has not only funded coup d’états but lead most of them.


Divine right is an old, established principle. It means that Kings have the right – ordained by God – to act in any way that they wish. Human-made laws are of no consequence beside the awesome power of God, and God’s representative, namely the monarch. In Delhi, towards the end of the 16th century, the Mughal Emperor Akbar began to have doubts about the idea of divine right. He established a translation bureau (maktab khana), where he asked intellectuals to read deeply into all religious traditions. ‘The pillars of blind following were demolished,’ wrote Akbar’s biographer Abu’l Fazl. ‘A new era of research and enquiry to religious matters commenced.’ Part of the emergence of a nonreligious idea of sovereignty was the sense that the Emperor had to rule for the people, not based on his own God-given right. ‘Tyranny is unlawful in everyone, especially in a sovereign who is the guardian of the world,’ wrote Abu’l Fazl in Ain-i-Akbari (1590). Nine years later, the Spanish historian Juan de Mariana wrote De rege et regis institutione (1598), which made the case that the people – he meant mainly the nobles – ‘are able to call a king to account’. Abu’l Fazl and de Mariana had sniffed the mood. Peasant rebellions had their impact. Their pitchforks were sharp; their anger a tidal wave. Sovereignty gradually went from God and King to People. A generation later, Louis XIV of France said – L’État c’est moi, the State is Me. His descendants would be guillotined.

This divine right still serves as a simple explanation for why the CIA exists. It performs operations abroad, topples governments, and even goes against its own government at times.

Prashad’s force of language is apparent with paragraphs like this one:

I reach above me and pull down a file on Guatemala. It is on the CIA coup of 1954. Why did the US destroy that small country? Because the landless movement and the Left fought to elect a democratic politician – Jacobo Árbenz – who decided to push through a moderate land reform agenda. Such a project threatened to undercut the land holding of the United Fruit Company, a US conglomerate that strangled Guatemala. The CIA got to work. It contacted retired Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, it paid off brigade commanders, created sabotage events, and then seized Árbenz in the presidential palace and sent him to exile. Castillo Armas then put Guatemala through a reign of terror. ‘If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it,’ he said later, ‘I will not hesitate to do so.’ The CIA gave him lists of Communists, people who were eager to lift their country out of poverty. They were arrested, many executed. The CIA offered Castillo Armas its benediction to kill; A Study of Assassination, the CIA’s killing manual, was handed over to his butchers. The light of hope went out in this small and vibrant country.

A frightening chill went through me as I read the paragraph above. These things happened. Did they?

They are most easily verifiable, and the US government has been forced to acknowledge them, against their will.

Even though Prashad writes about horrifying, cruel, and most thought-through decisions made by CIA bureaucrats, he remains optimistic.

Imperialism is powerful: it attempts to subordinate people to maximize the theft of resources, labour, and wealth. Anyone who denies the absolute obscenity of imperialism needs to find another answer to the fact that the richest 22 men in the world have more wealth than all the women in Africa, or that the richest one per cent have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people. You would have to have an answer for the reason why we continue to suffer from hunger, illiteracy, sickness, and indignities of various kinds. You could not simply say that there are no resources to solve these problems, given that tax havens hold at least $32 trillion – more than the total value of gold that has been brought to the surface. It is easy to bomb a country; harder yet to solve the pressing problems of its peoples. Imperialism’s only solution to these problems is to intimidate people and to create dissension amongst people.

Hiroshima, an example of US results

What Prashad writes about the US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima marks a point in time where the US went from simply bombing the life out of an entire city (including the consequences of nuclear radiation) to, later, more surrepticious activities:

Hiroshima, as photographed by Satsuo Nakata Nakaku, near Hiroshima, four days after the bomb. Photographed by Satsuo Nakata.

On 6 August 1945, the United States military dropped a bomb that contained 64 kg of uranium-235 over the city of Hiroshima (Japan). The bomb took just over 44 seconds to fall from 9,400 metres and detonated 580 metres above the Shima Surgical Clinic. Over 80,000 people died instantly. This was the first use of the nuclear bomb.

Four days later, Satsuo Nakata brought the Domei New Agency’s Leica camera to the city. He took 32 photographs of the devastation; each of these pictures – archived in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum – is iconic. The force of the bomb flattened the city, even though less than two per cent of the uranium detonated. Nakata took a picture of the office of the newspaper Chugoku Shimbun and of the Odamasa kimono store. The store’s metal twisted into a whirlwind. It is a sign of the power of this weapon. As Sankichi Toge, a hibakusha (survivor of the atom bomb) and poet, wrote of that power and its impact, as the fires burnt down from the bomb’s power in a city of 350,000: ‘the only sound – the wings of flies buzzing around metal basins’.

Between 1944 and 1946, Paul Nitze had been the director and then Vice Chairman of the US government’s Strategic Bombing Survey. He began this work in Europe, but then went to Japan shortly after the war ended. Nitze later said that he had believed that the war would have been won ‘even without the atomic bomb’. This is the thesis he hoped to prove during his time in Japan. The destruction he saw was breathtaking; it resembled the European cities that had faced conventional bombardment. As his biographer Strobe Talbott wrote, Nitze ‘believed that the measurements of the Survey at Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed the effects to be roughly the equivalent of an incendiary bombing raid’.

The immense authority of the atomic bomb had an impact on the Washington bureaucrats, even those who might have felt uneasy about its use. Nitze was one of them. He would have preferred that the atomic bomb not be used; but once used, saw its utility. It is why he would urge the US government to expand its massive arsenal. The point would not be to actually attack the USSR, but to ensure that the USSR was – as the US diplomat George F. Kennan said – contained, and then eventually rolled back. Nitze, more than Kennan, would shape US foreign policy for decades. With his team at the US State Department in 1952, Nitze formulated the clear objective of US power after the Second World War. The liberals in the US government, he said, tend to ‘underestimate US capabilities’; he did not, since he had seen it as part of the Strategic Bombing Survey. He introduced a word – preponderant – that would become part of the formula of US policy planners. ‘To seek less than preponderant power would be to opt for defeat,’ Nitze’s staff wrote in 1952. ‘Preponderant power must be the objective of US policy.’

The word ‘preponderant’ comes from Latin. It means to weigh more. The King is always worth his weight in gold. Now the United States claims the scale, its weight bolstered by the payloads dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The savage is the terrorist

Prashad makes a clear case for how ‘non-people’, as George Orwell called them, are always ‘uncivilised’ and ‘barbarians’, to paraphrase the massively racist Winston Churchill:

Young Winston Churchill went off to fight in ‘a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples’. In the Swat Valley, in today’s Pakistan, Churchill and his troops mowed down local resistance with extreme violence. When he reflected on that murderous war, he wrote that his troops had to be bloody because the people of Swat had a ‘strong aboriginal propensity to kill’. The French borrowed a distinctly American word, gook, first used in the Philippines, for their war in Algeria, sending in their troops on gook hunts. It is the native who is the savage. The colonizer is civilized, even in his brutality. The colonizer can never be the terrorist. It is always the savage who is the terrorist.

The Geneva Conventions were as toothless against colonialists as the Nuremberg Laws are against the biggest oppressors of the world:

Young Winston Churchill went off to fight in ‘a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples’. In the Swat Valley, in today’s Pakistan, Churchill and his troops mowed down local resistance with extreme violence. When he reflected on that murderous war, he wrote that his troops had to be bloody because the people of Swat had a ‘strong aboriginal propensity to kill’. The French borrowed a distinctly American word, gook, first used in the Philippines, for their war in Algeria, sending in their troops on gook hunts. It is the native who is the savage. The colonizer is civilized, even in his brutality. The colonizer can never be the terrorist. It is always the savage who is the terrorist.

It’s almost always interesting to see how terrorist xenophobes wash their hands by stating how ‘everybody’ lives in accord with their own self-interest.

Hoow this ‘self-interest’ could even remotely explain one’s own propensity to subject others to abject suffering and death is beyond me. However, for some, this paradoxical way of keeping two different rule-sets - one for your own people and another for others - is the gist of xenophobia:

During Britain’s genocidal war in Kenya from 1952 to 1960, the colonial police chief Ian Henderson led the most brutal pseudo-gangster operation. Henderson’s book – published to great acclaim in 1958 – was called Man Hunt in Kenya; he was after terrorists and savages, and his attitude was fully in the saddle as he prosecuted one of the ugliest colonial wars of the 20th century.

In 1976, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo dramatized the trial of Dedan Kimathi – the leader of the Mau Mau rebellion, who Henderson had captured. They meet in the cell – the national liberation leader Kimathi and the colonial policeman Henderson. ‘Look, between the two of us,’ Henderson says, ‘we don’t need to pretend. Nations live by strength and self-interest. You challenged our interests. We had to defend them. It is to our mutual interest and for our good that we must end this ugly war.’ Kimathi responds, ‘Do you take me for a fool?’ ‘I am a Kenyan revolutionary,’ Kimathi said – a human being who stands against the lawless colonial wars. Before Kimathi was executed, he told his wife Mukami, ‘[M]y blood will water the tree of independence.’

CIA operations

This book contains much to take in. It not only goes through the advent of colonialism, how Rulers of The World divide and conquer, but also of how people have stood up to power, successful or not.

Mainly, the reactions to protest are sublimely recorded.

Little doubt that by the time Nitze wrote his memorandum in 1952, the United States had exercised ‘preponderant power’ over Western Europe. In 1949, at the initiative of the United States, Western European powers joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); NATO was the military aspect of European unification under the US umbrella, a move – as Acheson said – ‘completely outside our history’. There was no partnership here. The US dictated the terms. It had the money, and it had the industrial capacity.

Opposition is smashed, over and over, until it simply cannot be refused.

Jacobo Árbenz came to power in 1951 in impoverished Guatemala with a democratic mission. He wanted to make sure that the peasantry held land and could use that land to free themselves.

The CIA developed a covert programme called PBFORTUNE to overthrow Árbenz. There was nastiness from the start. General James Doolittle wrote to his old army buddy US President Dwight Eisenhower that the CIA needed to operate viciously. ‘There are no rules in such a game,’ he wrote. ‘Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply.’

PBFORTUNE is but one of many CIA operations. Check out COINTELPRO for another heinous attack, albeit on US soil.

Colombia’s war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Sri Lanka’s war against the Tamil Tigers, Turkey’s war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), or India’s war against the Maoists all hastily fit into this narrative; all states that needed to use any possible military method to crush local threats were given license to do so. Japan’s desire to rearm, and Israel’s calumnies against the Palestinians were justified by alleged threats by states that the United States branded as rogue, such as North Korea and Iran. The spokes had a great advantage by this new geography of power, reconstructing their older animosities around the new story being told from Washington.

The key development in the past fifty years has been the construction of the global trade, finance, and development world through US-dominated institutions. It was US private banks – flush with Petro-dollars – that supplanted Central Banks (apart from the US Federal Reserve) at the centre of the world financial and trade system; these banks, and the US Federal Reserve, subjugated financial systems and exchange rates of most of the world’s countries to that of the United States; it was the US, as a result, that produced the rules for international supervision of the banking and trade system, and it was the US that determined the entire regulatory framework for globalization. The US dollar became the central currency of this system; US ratings agencies and the US-dominated IMF became the measure of the strength of economies and firms; a European wire service – SWIFT – dominated the movement of money from one country to another. If any country displeased the US government, and if a regime of sanctions was put in place, this institutional architecture could throttle any government, wiping out its lines of credit, making it impossible to sell its goods and settle payments. No system outside the control of the US government was allowed to remain in place.

Some times, even members of the US government tell it like it is:

John Bolton, who would go on to become Trump’s National Security Advisor, said in 2000, ‘If I were redoing the Security Council today, I’d have one permanent member because that’s the real reflection of the distribution of power in the world.’ Who would that member be? ‘The United States,’ Bolton replied. He was right. There is no other way, for example, to explain the behaviour of the Israeli state against the Palestinian people than to acknowledge the way the United States mobilizes its full power through the United Nations on behalf of the Israelis.


This book is based on a vast amount of information of US-government documents and documents from its allied governments and multilateral organizations, as well as the rich secondary literature written by scholars around the world. It is a book about the shadows; but it relies upon the literature of the light.

It’s a fairly breathtaking and obligatory book to read. It is not only current but brief: there is much more to discover about most stories about American presidents, invasions, wars, covert operations.

While I wish that Prashad would have delved into how the CIA is funded - through the US government, d’oh, I hear people say - it could have possibly made for a more rounded-out book; I mainly think of Alfred W. McCoy’s excellent work1, especially on how it all relates to feed colonialism. I also think of Adam Curtis’s documentary Bitter Lake

This book is extremely valuable. At its best, it succinctly puts its finger on the CIA and analyses why and how things occurred. Prashad is always on the side of the oppressed, and points out the oppressors by using their own words.

I end with listing Prashad’s nine-point list in a manual for regime change; this is a short plan to produce a coup climate:

  1. Lobby ‘public’ opinion A coup has to be first prepared in public opinion.
  2. Appoint the right man on the ground
  3. Make sure the Generals are ready
  4. Make the economy scream
  5. Diplomatic isolation
  6. Organise mass protests
  7. Green light
  8. A study of assassination
  9. Deny
  1. McCoy, Alfred W. 2003. The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.