Although there have always been wars by proxy, conflicts that depend on or are fueled by the lasting or temporary alignment of the tactical or strategic interests of two or more states, a proxy war is—as a term of art, a discrete policy instrument, and a motivating metaphor—a relatively novel concept.1 A reaction to the increased stakes of mechanized warfare and, more to the point, the potentially world-killing devastation of the atomic bomb, the proxy war emerged during the Cold War as a way for major military powers to pursue strategic ends through military means while remaining on the “good” side of the threshold separating the political use of force from the endgame of nuclear annihilation. Andrew Mumford writes that “the global reach of the Cold War soon demonstrated, in the mid-twentieth century, that engagement in proxy wars was a convenient means by which the superpower states could exert their influence and attempt to maximize their interests in parts of the Third World, while simultaneously reducing the risk of conflict escalation.”2 In this sense, we can see the proxy war as both the practical and the conceptual synthesis of two parallel historical tendencies: the fate of imperial power as it redefined itself in the immediate wake of decolonization and alongside the twentieth-century refinement of neoliberalism and comprador capitalism; and more abstruse debates taking place within think tanks, universities, and government agencies as a new class of “defense intellectuals” imagined the reality and the possibility of military conflict in the proleptic shadow of nuclear conflagration.

The first of these threads appears in a variety of forms over the course of these pages. The reciprocal relation between petrocapitalism and proxy war; proxy adoption as one of proxy war’s least visible and yet most quietly devastating fronts; human capital theory as an apparently benign cousin to the proxy’s indefinitely transitive logic of equivalence; the late imperial blockbuster, the novel of the disappointed or deluded spy, and the novel-in-of-and-against-translation as artifacts of a post-proxy culture industry: all of these highlight the geographic spread and adaptability of the proxy war as form, as well as the different late imperial economies in which it functions. The second thread, the story of the defense intellectual, the defense expert, or the “action-intellectual,” has a more oblique but no less important relation to the theory and practice of proxy war.

Because of the logistical and supply challenges posed by the global reach of the Second World War and because of novel strategic problems that emerged along with the development and first use of nuclear weapons, civilian consultants, academics, and experts became more and more central to American foreign policy and the business of imagining and making wars. This was in part the work of a handful of military figures—among them the air force generals Henry “Hap” Arnold and Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay—who aimed to establish peacetime equivalents to fruitful military-civilian partnerships that had developed during the war. The resulting and highly funded institutions—most significantly the RAND Corporation—created space and occasion for a new and oddly flashy kind of freelance intellectual, for a scholar who drifted somewhat irregularly but comfortably between the seminar table and the situation room. Indeed, a well-funded home to an assortment of mathematicians, physicists, political theorists, and social scientists, RAND was from the first characterized by its split commitment to a campus ideal of academic and intellectual disinterestedness and a shared belief in the life-and-death, all-in nature of America’s Cold War struggle with communism and the Soviet Union. It is no coincidence that a similarly syncretic attitude toward personnel was at work in the CIA, which, under Alan Dulles, sometimes looked more like an Ivy League internship than a clandestine government agency. “Since,” writes Norman Mailer in a 1976 essay on the Company, “we live in an age of general systems, where all knowledge is assumed to live ultimately in the same field as other knowledge, so, from its inception, the CIA looked to draw its experts from every field: bankers, journalists, lobbyists, colonels, professors, commodores, soil-erosion specialists, diplomats, business consultants, students, lawyers, doctors, poison specialists, art experts, public-relations men, magazine editors, movie technicians.”3

This new class of defense intellectual—an odd amalgam of gentleman scholar, public intellectual, policy wonk, and Renaissance man—thus rose to new prominence within think tanks, universities, and government agencies and emerged, for a time, as a kind of “ultrarealist” and technocratic folk hero, an “action-intellectual” who promised to make fresh and pragmatic sense of a world gone either soft or mad. They were, as Edward Said says of Antonio Gramsci’s “organic intellectuals,” “always on the move, on the make.”4 In Theodore White’s gushing 1967 Life Magazine profile of “action-intellectuals” like McGeorge Bundy, Thomas Schelling, Hans Mark, and Walt Rostow, he writes: “No one can describe to any intellectual’s satisfaction what the word ‘intellectual’ means—let alone define the elite new category of action-intellectuals who generate such waves of impact on the American government. Yet, broadly speaking, intellectuals are men for whom ideas provide more than the thought patterns that weave connections among facts—as ideas do for most thoughtful men. For the true intellectual, ideas have an electric vitality of their own which is sensed only by other artists-of-the mind; ideas engaged his passion more than reality or humanity itself.”5 What did it mean to imagine that these men—and White for sure wants us to remember that they are men—cared more for ideas than for reality or humanity itself? In the same profile, Richard Goodwin, who had been an adviser in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, comes off sounding like something out of Dostoevsky: “The ultimate commitment to ideas is,” he says, “to act on them; action can involve a commitment to an idea that the most brilliant thinking never approaches. It’s easy to be pure when you’re detached. But Goethe said to act is to sin, and so you have to be willing to sin a little. It’s only when the necessity for compromise or accommodation begins to drown the ultimate conviction that led you to act in the first place that you have to withdraw—and that’s a matter of individual conscience and judgment.”6

On the one hand, this is pretty thin stuff, spun out as an excuse to publish high-contrast color photos of middle-aged white guys brooding behind their desks. On the other hand, White inadvertently hits on a dangerous truth about these so-called action-intellectuals. The sense that, as he puts it, the action-intellectual chooses the idea over reality is one to which critics of the defense intellectual regularly returned. In his 1967 classic, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” Noam Chomsky notes that what looks like tough-mindedness in Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War is in fact gibberish tricked out with a thick coat of pseudoscience: “Kahn proposes no theories, no explanations, no factual assumptions that can be tested against their consequences, as do the sciences he is attempting to mimic. He simply suggests a terminology and provides a facade of rationality.”7 David Halberstam writes of Walt Rostow that “his great strength was also his great weakness: a capacity to see patterns where previously none existed.”8 Others have written that “what was distinctive about Cold War rationality was the expansion of the domain of rationality at the expense of that of reason, asserting its claims in the loftiest realms of political decision making and scientific method—and sometimes not only in competition with but in downright opposition to reason, reasonableness, and common sense.”9

What’s interesting here isn’t—or at least isn’t only—catching at the bad faith at work among the so-called action-intellectuals. What’s interesting is how those intellectuals facilitated the circulation of bespoke images, ideas, and metaphors that helped to shape the culture and conflicts of the Cold War: the prisoner’s dilemma, the domino theory, the escalation ladder, the delicate balance of terror, the madman theory, the quagmire, the stalemate machine, and, last but not least, the proxy war. In each case, these concepts seemed to thrive on a mobile and symbiotic play between fantasy and facticity, between how one wanted things to be and what things in fact were. Halberstam, for instance, catches the peculiar mix of flimsiness and tenacity that kept some of these metaphors alive: “Each time,” he writes, “the question of the domino theory was sent to intelligence experts for evaluation, they would send back answers which reflected their doubts about its validity, but the highest level of government left the domino theory alone. It was as if, by questioning it, they might have revealed its emptiness, and would then have been forced to act on their new discovery. In fact, [Kennedy’s] own public statements on Laos and on Vietnam, right through to the time of the assassination, reflected if not his endorsement of the domino theory, then his belief that he could not yet challenge it, and by his failure to challenge it, the necessity to go along with it.”10 American foreign policy in Southeast Asia—a foreign policy that largely took the form of dropping bombs on the people of Vietnam—and beyond was, in other words, at least partly founded on a willing, cowardly, and disastrous suspension of disbelief.

Here are two related suggestions about what might come from taking the fevered images, the forced metaphors, and the bad ideas of the action-intellectuals as objects of serious study. First, if we read the history of the Cold War as an internally stadial history, as a series of more and less rickety paradigms and more and less convincing forms generated by more and less reasonable minds, then we can avoid a tendency to see the Cold War as a single and bipolar conceptual field. Where, in other words, the Cold War explanatory matrix can sometimes look less like Smiley’s People than Spy vs. Spy, seeing the period as a move from game theory to systems analysis, from Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) to Nuclear Utilization Target Selection (NUTS), and from total war to limited war to proxy war is a way to see this history as various, developing, and dialectical. As Kent Puckett has argued elsewhere, part of what drives the move from one to the other of these stages is narrative desire or, rather, a desire for at least some bare quantum of narrative. The thing about Mutually Assured Destruction is that it left the expert with little to say: the end of everything left one without any story to tell. As the action-intellectuals turned back to tactical, limited, and proxy wars, they managed to maintain a world in and for which they had something to say. They managed, in other words, to maintain a world that required expertise. Second, understanding this history as a real history of concepts, that is, a history that isn’t merely reflected in but generated by these discursive forms, makes it more possible to see what a literary or cultural critic might have to say about it. This is a period characterized by the concretization, the autonomization, and the weaponization of the idea. Where Hayden White once showed us that the major historians of the nineteenth century relied on narrative forms to make sense of historical events, that they invoked narrative discourse in order to do something with the story stuff of time, the action-intellectuals ushered in a world in which the answer came before the question, in which discourse came before story, and in which the narrative desire of the expert tended not only to describe but to make, and sometimes also to break, the world.

This is also where it pays to think about the proxy not only as a tactic but also as an enabling and structuring metaphor. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that, before it was a kind of war, the “proxy” was “a person appointed or authorized to act on behalf of another” or “a document authorizing a person to vote on behalf of another.”11 The proxy is, in other words, a way to express an intention either at a distance or by other means. In this sense the proxy war was not only another of the metaphors spun out by the defense intellectuals; it was also a metaphor about metaphor, a metonymy about metonymy. It was a perverse and violent instantiation of the dreamwork, one that fed intentions and military aims through the twin distortions of condensation and displacement: in proxy war, two or more intentions are barely collapsed or condensed into one, a metaphoric process that allows war to occur under the radar precisely because it is tactically overdetermined; and because the client is understood to act both on its own and in place of the controlling state, its actions, aims, and losses are understood as a metonymic and “therapeutic” displacement of major forces into or onto the safer space of “minor” military theaters. The point here is that, in addition to standing as another of the Cold War’s many figural expressions, the proxy war was, as Paul de Man might have said, a living and devastating instance of the metafigural: “it is an allegory of a figure (for example, metaphor) which relapses into the figure it deconstructs.”12 The proxy war was an open secret, a bald-faced and bad-faith suspension of disbelief that allowed controlling states to imagine that they could pursue wars not only at a distance but also at a discount. On the one hand, we need to see how the real violence of this dream played out in the lives of the people who were forced to live within its irrational but devastating confines. On the other hand, we want to see here how the figural and metafigural force of the proxy existed at a moment when similar relations had begun to be thought in the realms of culture, aesthetics, and literary representation. “Perhaps,” said Jacques Derrida in 1966, “something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an ‘event,’ if this loaded word did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function of structural—or structuralist—thought to reduce or to suspect.”13 And perhaps that event was—or was at least in part—the world’s brutal embrace of the metafigural proxy.


How were the action-intellectuals of America related to the theories emerging on the other side of the Atlantic? And how were those theories related to the prosecution of proxy war? The structuralist moment, according to François Dosse’s history, reached its peak in the annus mirabilis 1966 (also, it won’t go without saying, a “good” year for the proxy war). Dosse quotes a writer (Gilles Lapouge) who had just discovered structuralism by reading Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, published in that year (and selling 15,000 copies between April and September): “I was infected. The fever did not stop and I loved this infection. I did not want to get better.…I spent my nights teaching myself the principles of linguistics.…If I happened to have any discussions with a humanist, I wiped him out with an epistemic blow.…I spoke the names Derrida or Propp in an emotional and almost trembling voice, preferably during autumn evenings, like an old soldier caressing the flags he has wrested from his enemy.”14 Without a doubt, structuralism also exfoliated its own celebrity culture, generated its own glamour. Jean-Paul Sartre viewed it as “an American import, an ideological adaptation of a technocratic civilization in which philosophy has no place: ‘You see what is happening in the United States: philosophy has been replaced by the social sciences.’”15 Dosse notes that, in 1966, “President Johnson sent B-52s to bomb North Vietnam on a daily basis, [so] we can appreciate the extent to which Sartre’s evaluation could be insulting to the structuralist musketeers.”16 In 1966, the US was also actively engaged in covertly helping Indonesia’s newly-installed General Suharto undertake an all-out effort to “exterminate Communism…thereby,” in the words of the historian Odd Arne Westad, “[becoming] complicit in mass murder of monstrous proportions.”17 The dissolution of man was more than a theoretical event.

Now recognizable as a form of Cold War rationality, structuralism offered metafigures of action: abstractions aimed to illuminate that single potent system or field of knowledge that Mailer saw at work in and beyond the halls of Langley. The framework of structuralism promised to integrate every field of cultural and political endeavor, and to overcome that gap between idea and action: structure was itself the action, as in the title of an essay by Jacques-Alain Miller.18 Structuralism focused attention not on how things were decided but on how they were organized. In 1960, Claude Lévi-Strauss had used this as a way to distinguish structuralism from formalism. “Form is defined by opposition to content…but structure has no distinct content: it is content itself and the logical organization in which it is arrested.” “For formalism…form alone is intelligible and content is only a residual deprived of any significant value. For structuralism…content receives its reality from its structure.19 But structure stumbles over the question of narrative, the dimension of the diachronic. Is there a before and after? Can there be a real openness? Five years before Lévi-Strauss’s essay, Richard Wright seems to identify such a possibility. In The Color Curtain, he writes, “Bandung was a decisive moment in the consciousness of 65 percent of the human race, and that moment meant: How shall the human race be organized? The decisions or lack of them flowing from Bandung will condition the totality of human life on this earth.” Where communists may have seen a “mystic-minded throng of colored men,” or former colonialists a “sea of anger” their own behavior had produced, Wright sees something that looks like an opportunity.20 But he uses the language not of self-determination or telos but of organization and process. “Bandung represented mankind negatively freed from its traditions and customs,…the first attempt in history on the part of man as man to organize himself.” He adds, “And he is not prepared to do so.”21

Structuralism is often dismissed as auto-referential, as turning away from the world to the “parallel reality” of language as a system. Describing Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistics, Fredric Jameson comments that “the entire system of signs, the entire field of the langue, lies parallel to reality itself; that it is the totality of systematic language, in other words, which is analogous to whatever organized structures exist in the world of reality.”22 But the models of structuralism applied to a fraught historical situation. That moment seems to have demanded new ways of thinking about relations between units and levels, principals and proxies. Take, for example, these three statements:

1. The assault on free institutions is world-wide now, and in the context of the present polarization of power a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.…When the integrity of Czechoslovak institutions was destroyed, it was in the intangible scale of values that we registered a loss more damaging than the material loss we had already suffered.23

2. What happens to a Black man in America today happens to the black man in Africa. What happens to a Black man in America and Africa happens to the black man in Asia and to the man down in Latin America. What happens to one of us today happens to all of us.24

3. We are with the Blacks from America, we are with them in the streets of Los Angeles.25

The first is from the 1950 National Security Council Paper NSC-68 (“United States Objectives and Programs for National Security”), declassified in 1975; the second from a speech given by Malcolm X in New York in 1964; and the third from an interview given by Amilcar Cabral, the head of the African Party of Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde. What calls for attention here is the topology on which solidarity depends. What links one local struggle (or “assault”) to another? The NSC-68 memo suggests that it has to do with the level of description.

Roland Barthes’s essay “Introduction to a Structural Analysis of Narrative,” which was published in the 1966 issue of Communications, reads almost like a key to this situation, offering an account, from a safe distance, of the logic of proxy wars. In this model of narrative, a certain rhythm is highlighted: a unit opens up, offers itself for integration into something larger, higher, more final.

From the very first, linguistics provided the structural analysis of narrative with a decisive concept, because it pointed out the essentials for any system of meaning, namely, its organization; linguistics made it possible…to clarify the enormous mass of elements that go into the making of a narrative. Such a concept was that of the level of description.

It is well known that a sentence can be described, in linguistic terms, on several levels (phonetic, phonological, grammatical, contextual); these levels stand in hierarchical relation to each other, for if each has its own units and its own correlations,…none can, of itself, produce any meaning. No unit pertaining to a certain level can be endowed with meaning unless it can be integrated into a superior level: a phoneme…means nothing by itself; it partakes in meaning only if integrated into a word; and the word itself must in turn be integrated into the sentence. The theory of levels…provides two types of relations: distributional (if the relations belong on the same level), integrative (if they straddle two levels).…

Levels are operations.26

In narrative, “an enormous mass of elements” otherwise indescribable and meaningless (one can think here of Wright’s phrase, “65 percent of the human race”) becomes operational by introducing relations that link elements to each other (on the same level) or “integrate” them into a higher one.

The most extraordinary feature of such units, as Barthes describes them, is how absolutely open, how indeterminate, they are. Vladimir Propp had given names such as “villainy” to the functions that made up a narrative; in Barthes’s essay, though, a functional unit is simply “the term of a correlation” (244). It opens something. These functional units exist purely as incompletion, either in terms of “action” or in terms of “being.” Like proxies, they receive their “sanction” “further on,” “higher up,” or both (247).

“Levels are operations,” Barthes notes (242). Murkier in his context than in the linguistic one he drew on, levels are ways to encompass and give significance to a unit. Barthes sketches out three: the level of functions; that of action, which comprises the “larger articulations of praxis (to desire, to communicate, to struggle)”; and that of narration (258). What they all perform is an operation he calls integration: “integration makes it possible to compensate for the seemingly uncontrollable complexity of units situated on one level”; it “helps direct the comprehension of fragmented elements, at once contiguous and heterogeneous” (269–70). Importantly, and perhaps damningly, Barthes does not distinguish between the teller of the story and the world in which the story occurs. For Gérard Genette, writing in these same years, that distinction is crucial. Describing narrating as “the act that consists…of introducing into one situation, by means of a discourse, the knowledge of another situation,” Genette insists on “the importance of the boundary…that is precisely the narrating (or the performance) itself: a shifting but sacred frontier between two worlds, the world in which one tells, the world of which one tells.”27 Crossing this boundary or pretending it doesn’t exist gives rise to the figure of metalepsis. But Barthes’s model ignores any such boundaries.

It requires minimal imagination to see homologies with the status of nations then emerging from colonialism: units that seemed to become meaningful to greater powers when integrated into a level of praxis, acted upon or within through proxies or direct intervention. Indeed, the level of action received its most urgent meaning when taken up into the level of narration, as in this ominous example given by Richard Nixon in 1953: “if Indochina falls, Thailand is put in an almost impossible situation. The same is true of Malaya.…The same is true of Indonesia. If Indochina goes under Communist domination the whole of Southeast Asia will be threatened and that means that the economic and military security of Japan will be inevitably endangered also.”28 These nations have become functions that are by definition incomplete. The lone domino is, as a unit, nearly meaningless; it is only when that unit is articulated within the rule of the pattern, the figure, the organization, that it means something and can thus meaningfully fall. That story appears to consist of pure repetition (“the same is true of Malaya…of Indonesia”). That repetition, however, possesses maximum significance: at its end could be seen the possible event that, in Wright’s words, “frightened the living daylights out of the human race.”29

Westad argues that, in the late 1950s, America’s strategy of covert operations or proxy wars “did much to create the Third World as a conceptual entity,” as a level on its own or another’s terms.30 John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, declared in 1953: “as between a territorially united Indonesia which is leaning…towards Communism and a break up of that country into racial and geographical units, I would prefer the latter.”31 The desire to resist this vertical integration, to move toward a more horizontal integration (that is, on the same level as similar units, what Barthes calls “distributional” relations), can be seen in the final communiqué of the Bandung Conference, with its call for “abstention from the use of arrangements of collective defense to serve the particular interests of any of the big powers.”32

Even in the places where the US was engaging in first-person praxis, action was envisioned in terms of distinguishing units and integrating them into higher levels (more extensive, superior, more advanced). The “strategic hamlet” program in Vietnam is a particularly astonishing example. The plan was that new villages would be constructed (by the forced labor of people who had been removed from their original villages), sealed off, and surrounded with barbed wire but, at the same time, modernized and connected; in this way, they would be integrated into the final level of the free and modern world. This is how an aide to Walt Rostow envisioned how the program would work, in 1961:

Over the years each of the…villages could create its own subsidiary clusters. In the meantime a new agro-center could be constructed in the center of the “community compound.” It would be a market place, bus terminal, stores, meeting hall, mid school, vocational training institute, landing strip, chopper pad [and] fair grounds. The agro-center would be completely modern—it would “futurize” village life without killing the old village.33

The plan was based on previous projects of European colonizers in Southeast Asia but juiced up in a recognizably “ugly” American style. Superpower involvement in the Third World generated models and relied on them; after the US succeeded in deposing the president of Guatemala in 1954, that operation became a closely followed template for other interventions. As a CIA analyst later commented, “The language, arguments, and techniques of the Arbenz episode [in Guatemala] were used in Cuba in the early 1960s, in Brazil in 1964, in the Dominican Republic in 1965, and in Chile in 1973.”34 The Soviet Union, in turn, used Angola as the model for other interventions.

Structuralism was far from alone in relying on models. Indeed, as we have argued, the reliance on models cuts across the otherwise obvious difference between the critical theorist and the defense intellectual, the Left Bank and the think tank. But structuralists were at times uneasily aware of what doing so might entail, as we can see in the 1966 symposium (funded by the Ford Foundation) held at Johns Hopkins University on “the languages of criticism and the sciences of man.” This “first structuralist crossing of the Atlantic to reach the New World,” according to Dosse, included Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, Georges Poulet, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Jacques Lacan, and Derrida, among others.35 Derrida observed, in 1990, that “what is now called ‘theory’ in this country may even have an essential link with what is said to have happened there in 1966.”36 The original invitation to the symposium suggested as topics that could be addressed from across disciplines “the general theory of signs and language systems, the use and abuse of models, homologies and transformations as analytic techniques, synchronic (vs.) diachronic descriptions…and the possible relationship between microcosmic and macrocosmic social or symbolic dimensions.”37

The Hopkins conference thus represents a moment that puts pressure on easy differences between theory and practice, aesthetics and politics, left and right. Just as the proto-poststructuralists were thinking through both the limits and the power of structure not only to explain but also to make a world, so were the defense intellectuals, the policy makers, and the generals relying on models, scenarios, and systems in which they only half believed. The point here is neither to see theory “merely” as a reflection of or response to the late imperial violence of proxy war nor to imagine the scenario planners at RAND as part of the same paradigm shift that let Derrida, Barthes, Louis Althusser, and others begin to think “the structurality of structure”; the point is rather to highlight and to consider ways in which the prescriptive and descriptive powers of the model became undeniable at a time when the world system seemed to have reached new levels of economic and political complexity, and when the threat of nuclear conflagration seemed to undermine all other ways to make sense of the past, present, and future. Both the proxy war and the metafigural or metaleptic forms of proxy logic seem, in that case, related by the recognition that, in the absence of other guarantees, making models was, both despite and because of the limits that any model will entail, one of only a few ways to find or, indeed, impose meaning on things.

We can see this not only in the ladder of escalation or the prisoner’s dilemma but also in the structural analysis of narrative. In that model, narrative is conceived as a series of operations that divides and integrates, subsumes and conquers time, contingency, and heterogeneity. In the process, the concept of fictionality became a dangerous blind spot. These models were built in order to blow up the boundary between “the world in which one tells” and “the world of which one tells.” The telling was intended not only to predict but to bring about or to circumvent the outcome. It meant to create, in Elaine Freedgood’s words, “one hugely ruptured but continuous world in which we are, as imperial liberal subjects, always in more than one place at the same time, always inhabiting multiple domains in person or by proxy.”38

Organizing or modeling a structure became a mode of action, given the challenges this historical moment posed to the imagination. It was not always imposed top-down, as Bandung and countless insurgencies revealed. But the abstract level at which it was envisioned and carried out could erase what was sedimented in place, replacing ties and boundaries with a way of proceeding based on the integration or accumulation of fungible units. The child, the adoptee from Korea, could become a means of postwar reparation or repair; the unit of the family could become the generator of human capital in the eyes of Chicago neoliberals—but only through the erasure of its reality. Still, scores were kept and geopolitical differences of power jealously maintained. Beneath flows of value there could still be seen the assertion of American dominance and dollars over the rest of the world. Representations, literary or cinematic, were pulled inevitably into the logic and the circuit of proxy wars. But in some novels of and about this era, ranging from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American to lesser-known and recently translated works by Anna Moï, Eric Ambler, and Sonallah Ibrahim, the narrator emerges as a special kind of proxy with distinctive powers—perhaps to hold open spaces against the flattening, integrationist logic of the proxy war by drawing attention to what remains unspoken or untranslated, or by invoking a space or time that cannot be captured within the logic of war and peace, state and insurgency, sovereign and subsidiary and provision. In the interstices of the global market, in unregulated passages, on the reverse side of these proxy wars and narratives, a different world was—perhaps—waiting to be born.


Although usually imagined as an interstate phenomenon, proxy wars can include relationships between states and a range of nongovernmental or quasi-governmental actors from insurgencies to multinational corporations. Andrew Mumford defines proxy war broadly “as the indirect engagement in a conflict by third parties wishing to influence its strategic outcome”; Andrew Mumford, Proxy Warfare (Cambridge, 2013), 15.


Ibid., 3.


Norman Mailer, “A Harlot High and Low: Reconnoitering through the Secret Government,” New York Magazine, August 16, 1976.


Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (New York, 1994), 4.


Theodore H. White, “The Action Intellectuals in the Halls of Power,” Life, June 9, 1967, 57.




Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” New York Review of Books, February 23, 1967.


David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York, 1969), 164.


Paul Erickson, Judy L. Klein, Lorraine Daston, Rebecca Lemov, Thomas Sturm, Michael D. Gordin, “Introduction: The Struggle over Cold War Rationality,” in How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind: The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality (Chicago, 2013), 2.


Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, 122.


OED Online, s.v. “proxy, n.”


Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven, 1979), 275.


Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, 1978), 278.


Quoted in François Dosse, “1966 Annum mirabile (I): A Watershed Year for Structuralism,” in History of Structuralism (Minneapolis, 1997), 1:316.


Quoted in ibid., 1:327.




Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge, 2007), 188.


Jacques-Alain Miller, “Action de la structure,” Cahiers pour l’analyse 9, no. 6 (Summer 1968): 93–105.


Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Structure and Form: Reflections on a Work by Vladimir Propp,” in Vladimir Propp, Theory and History of Folklore, ed. Anatoly Liberman, trans. Ariadna Y. Martin and Richard P. Martin (Minneapolis, 1984), 167, 179, emphasis added.


Richard Wright, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (Cleveland, 1956), 207–8, 209, 210.


Ibid., 206.


Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language (Princeton, 1972), 33.


National Security Council, Paper NSC-68, “United States Objectives and Programs for National Security” (April 1950).


Malcolm X, speech in Palm Gardens, New York, April 8, 1964, quoted in Westad, The Global Cold War, 143.


Amilcar Cabral, interview, October 1965, quoted in ibid., 211.


Roland Barthes, “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives,” trans. Lionel Duisit, New Literary History 6, no. 2 (1975): 241–42, emphasis added. Further citations will be parenthetical in text.


Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse, trans. Jane Lewin (Ithaca, 1980), 234, 236, original emphasis.


Quoted in Westad, The Global Cold War, 119, emphasis added.


Wright, The Color Curtain, 92–93.


Westad, The Global Cold War, 130.


Quoted in ibid., 129.


Ibid., 102.


Memorandum from Kenneth Young to Walt Rostow, February 17, 1961, quoted in ibid., 399.


Quoted in ibid., 149.


Dosse, “1966 Annum mirabile,” 327.


Quoted in Richard Macksey, “Anniversary Reflections,” in The Structuralist Controversy, ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore, 2007), x.


Ibid., xxii.


Elaine Freedgood, Worlds Enough: The Invention of Realism in the Victorian Novel (Princeton, 2019), xvii.