The term has been used to refer to Soviet sympathizers in Western countries. The implication was that, although the people in question naïvely thought of themselves as an ally of the Soviet Union, they were actually held in contempt and were being cynically used. The use of the term in political discourse has since been extended to other propagandists, especially those who are seen to unwittingly support a malignant cause which they naïvely believe to be a force for good.
Despite often being attributed to Lenin, in 1987, Grant Harris, senior reference librarian at the Library of Congress, declared that "We have not been able to identify this phrase among [Lenin's] published works."
A New York Times article from 1948, on contemporary Italian politics, documented usage of the term in an article from the social-democratic Italian paper L'Umanita. The French equivalent, "idiots utiles", was used in a newspaper article title as early as 1946.
An earlier usage (1947) of a similar term, useful innocents, appears in Austrian-American economist Ludwig von Mises' "Planned Chaos". Von Mises claims the term was used by communists for liberals that von Mises describes as "confused and misguided sympathizers". The term useful innocents also appears in a Readers Digest article (1946) titled "Yugoslavia's Tragic Lesson to the World", an excerpt from a, at the time, forthcoming book (no title printed) authored by Bogdan Raditsa (Bogdan Radica), a "high ranking official of the Yugoslav Government". Raditsa says: "In the Serbo-Croat language the communists have a phrase for true democrats who consent to collaborate with them for 'democracy.' It is Korisne Budale, or Useful Innocents." Although Raditsa translates the phrase as "Useful Innocents", the word budala (plural: budale) actually translates as "fool" and synonyms thereof.
A 2010 BBC radio documentary titled Useful Idiots listed among "useful idiots" of Joseph Stalin several prominent British writers including H. G. Wells and Doris Lessing, the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw, the American journalist Walter Duranty, and the singer Paul Robeson.
See also 
- "Useful Idiots", a documentary, BBC World Service, Last updated: 7 july, 2010 (Retrieved March 22, 2011)
- An editorial clarification of a quotation in the article "Ходорковский просит Лондон не идти на сделки с Кремлем", BBC, Russian Service
- Mona Charen, Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First, 2003, ISBN 0895261391
- Paul Kengor, Dupes: How America's Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century, 2010, ISBN 1-935191-75-6
- William Safire on the term
- Boller, Jr., Paul F.; George, John (1989). They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505541-1.
- "COMMUNIST SHIFT IS SEEN IN EUROPE; Tour of Two Italian Leaders Behind Iron Curtain Held to Doom Popular Fronts", Arnold Cortesi, New York Times, June 21, 1948 p. 14
- [full citation needed]
- "PLANNED CHAOS" p.17 in electronic document; Ludwig von Mises;http://mises.org/books/plannedchaos.pdf
- "Reader's Digest Service" article titled "Yugoslavia's Tragic Lesson to the World"; p.138 in electronic document; Bogdan Radista;http://books.google.com/books?id=rCgYAQAAIAAJ&q=%22koristne+Budale%22&dq=%22koristne+Budale%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=akPWT7WVO6ag2gWl452OCw&ved=0CDUQ6AEwAA
- Useful Idiots - Part One