Washington Bullets: A History of the CIA, Coups, and Assassinations (book review)


Washington Bullets: A History of the CIA, Coups, and Assassinations by Vijay Prashad. Monthly Review Press, New York, 2020. 162pp. $17 pb

Washington Bullets offers a quasi-encyclopaedic account of United States (US) imperialism, referencing the countless occasions the class struggle has been fractured. It is a short guide to the long history of one country’s quest for ‘preponderant power’ (25), from 19th century colonialism all the way up to the 2019 coup in Bolivia, and modern, more creative methods of subordination. But this is not merely a chronology of all the times Washington Bullets have ‘shattered hope’ (11). There is an underlying structure detailing the historical, legal, and cultural frameworks which have been central to US imperialism, dissecting the various ways Washington has orchestrated the demise of progressive movements. There is, for example, a step by step practical guide of the overthrow of Guatemala’s Árbenz – the US’ very own ‘manual for regime change’ – and a guide to how imperialism has transformed Haiti into a ‘republic of NGOs’.

The history of interference, sabotage, assassinations – the history of crushing revolutions – is not one that can be fully examined in this short volume. Instead, Prashad’s guidebook to US imperialism acts as a springboard for readers for their own journey in understanding imperialism and the role of the US in global politics. Reference is made to economic sabotage in Cuba, Venezuela, and Russia; to trampled revolutions in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Grenada; to hybrid wars, outright killings, and other forms of subversion from Burkina Faso to Greece; Iran to Iraq; from Indonesia to Japan. From these small pockets of history readers can both appreciate the sheer ubiquity of US imperialism, and also choose from the numerous case studies of interference to further their own analysis.

A more appropriate title for this volume may have been Washington Dollars. This is a book about dollars. Dollars which ‘guide the US agenda across the world’ (119), promoting anti-communist views. Dollars which financed fascist groups in El Salvador and funded anti-communist trade unions in France. Dollars which force countries to adopt punitive, IMF-induced policies or face isolation. Dollars which threaten any country that would dare to challenge US supremacy. Dollars which strangle economies, fund open coups, and infiltrate governments. This is a book about all the ways capital has suppressed hope and upheld US preponderance.

In Part 1 Prashad provides a historical context for the emergence of the US as a supreme power, citing the 19th century carving up of Africa for the colonial powers, the ‘internal colonization’ of Mexico (58), and the genocide of the Native peoples as early examples of an imperial identity. Conquests were pursued through legal frameworks, and a concomitant reframing of such policies as ‘spheres of influence’, ‘expansionism’ and ‘frontier settlement’ served to mask the devastation they caused. The foundations of the US as an imperialist power – often orchestrated through legal means – and the paradoxical outward insistence of the US as arbiter of human rights and liberalism, are two fundamentals of this account.

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