In political jargon, a useful idiot is a derogatory term for a person perceived as a propagandist for a cause of whose goals they are not fully aware and who is used cynically by the leaders of the cause. The term was originally used during the Cold War to describe non-communists regarded as susceptible to communist propaganda and manipulation. The term has often been attributed to Vladimir Lenin, but this attribution is unsubstantiated.
Origin of the term
The phrase "useful idiot" has often been attributed to Vladimir Lenin, although he is not documented as having ever used the phrase. In a 1987 article for The New York Times, American journalist William Safire investigated the origin of the term, noting that a senior reference librarian at the Library of Congress had been unable to find the phrase in Lenin's works and concluding that absent new evidence, the term could not be attributed to Lenin. Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary in defining "useful idiot" says: "The phrase does not seem to reflect any expression used within the Soviet Union".
The term is first documented to have appeared in print in a June 1948 New York Times article on contemporary Italian politics ("Communist shift is seen in Europe"), citing the centrist social democratic Italian paper L'Umanità. L'Umanità wrote that left-wing social democrats, who had entered into a popular front with the Italian Communist Party during the 1948 elections, would be given the option of either merging with the Communists or leaving the alliance. The term was later used in a 1955 article in the American Federation of Labor News-Reporter to refer to Italians who supported Communist causes. Time first employed the phrase in January 1958, writing that some Italian Christian Democrats considered social activist Danilo Dolci to be a "useful idiot" for Communist causes and it has recurred thereafter in the periodical's articles.
A similar term, "useful innocents", appears in Austrian-American economist Ludwig von Mises' 1947 book, Planned Chaos. Von Mises wrote that the term was used by Communists for liberals, whom von Mises describes as "confused and misguided sympathizers". The term useful innocents also appears in a 1946 Reader's Digest article titled "Yugoslavia's Tragic Lesson to the World", written by Bogdan Raditsa, who had served the Yugoslav government-in-exile during World War II, supported Josip Broz Tito's partisans (though not a Communist himself) and briefly served in Tito's new Yugoslav government before leaving for New York. "In the Serbo-Croat language", says Raditsa, "the communists have a phrase for true democrats who consent to collaborate with them for [the sake of] 'democracy'. It is Korisne Budale, or Useful Innocents".
Use of the term
In 1959, Congressman Ed Derwinski of Illinois entered an editorial by the Chicago Daily Calumet into the Congressional record, referring to Americans who traveled to the Soviet Union to promote peace as "what Lenin calls useful idiots in the Communist game". In 1961, American journalist Frank Gibney wrote that Lenin had coined the phrase "useful idiot". Gibney wrote that the phrase was a good description of "Communist follower[s]" from Jean-Paul Sartre to left-wing socialists in Japan to members of the Chilean Popular Front. In a speech in 1965, Spruille Braden, an American diplomat who stationed in a number of Latin American countries during the 1930s and 1940s and later a lobbyist for the United Fruit Company, said the term was used by Joseph Stalin to refer to what Braden called "countless innocent although well-intentioned sentimentalists or idealists" who aided the Soviet agenda.
Writing in The New York Times in 1987, William Safire discussed the increasing use of the term "useful idiot" against "anybody insufficiently anti-Communist in the view of the phrase's user", including Congressmen who supported the anti-Contras Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Dutch socialists. After President Ronald Reagan concluded negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, conservative political leader Howard Phillips declared Reagan to be a "useful idiot for Soviet propaganda".
The label "useful idiot" was applied both to supporters and opponents of the Iraq War. Conservative political commentator Mona Charen applied the label to liberal Congressmen who had toured Iraq before the war, arguing that they had been manipulated by the Iraqi government. Tony Judt wrote that liberal supporters of the Iraq War and the War on Terror had made themselves "useful idiots" of George W. Bush's foreign policy. Judt argued that liberals saw these wars through an altruistic lens that Bush's neoconservative allies did not share and provided an "ethical fig-leaf" for "brutish policies".
In 2007, professor of political science Peter W. Sperlich labeled George Bernard Shaw and Lion Feuchtwanger "useful idiots" for their comments on the Soviet famine of 1932–1933 and the Moscow Trials, respectively. In 2012, The Guardian correspondent Luke Harding wrote that Walter Duranty, a New York Times correspondent in Moscow during the 1930s, allowed himself to be "duped" by Soviet authorities and is depicted in a play by contemporary reporter Malcolm Muggeridge as a "quintessential 'useful idiot'".
In the end of 2016, the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the Editorial Board of The New York Times applied the term to President-elect Donald Trump. Michael Morell, former acting CIA director, wrote: "In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation". Michael Hayden, former director of both the National Security Agency and the CIA, described Trump as a "useful fool, some naif, manipulated by Moscow, secretly held in contempt, but whose blind support is happily accepted and exploited".
- "useful idiot". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2017.
- Holder, R. W. (2008), "useful fool", Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms, Oxford University Press, p. 394, ISBN 978-0199235179,
useful fool – a dupe of the Communists. Lenin's phrase for the shallow thinkers in the West whom the Communists manipulated. Also as useful idiot.
- Safire, William (12 April 1987). "On Language: Useful Idiots Of the West". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 July 2017.
- Boller, Paul F.; George, John H. (1989). They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes. Barnes & Nobles Books. ISBN 9781566191050.
- Cortesi, Arnold (21 June 1948). "Communist Shift is seen in Europe; Tour of Two Italian Leaders Behind Iron Curtain Held to Doom Popular Fronts". The New York Times.
- Stogel, Syd (1955). "'Useful Idiots' Keep Italy Reds Strong". American Federation of Labor News-Reporter.
- "Italy: From the Slums". Time. 13 January 1958.
- "WORLD: The City as a Battlefield: A Global Concern". Time. 2 November 1970.
- Lamar, Jr., Jacob V. (14 December 1987). "An Offer They Can Refuse". Time.
- Poniewozik, James (3 November 2009). "TV Marks Obama Anniversary with Documentaries, Aliens". Time.
- Klein, Joe (26 November 2010). "Israel First, Yet Again". Time. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
- "Wednesday Words: Useful Idiots, Don 'Draping' and More". Time. 14 March 2012. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
- Ludwig von Mises, Planned Chaos, Foundation for Economic Education, 1947, p. 17 in electronic document.
- "Yugoslavia Run by Russia, says Ex-Aide of Tito". Chicago Daily Tribune. 24 September 1946. p. 6.
- Raditsa, Bogdan (1946). "Yugoslavia's Tragic Lesson to the World". Reader's Digest Service. Vol. 49.
- Gibney, Frank (1961). The Khrushchev Pattern. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. p. 8.
- Braden, Spruille (1971). Diplomats and Demagogues: the Memoirs of Spruille Braden. Arlington House. p. 496.
- Smith, Hendrick (17 January 1988). "The Right Against Reagan". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
- Charen, Mona (October 2004). "Useful Idiots: Then and Now". St. Croix Review. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
- Judt, Tony (21 September 2006). "Bush's Useful Idiots". London Review of Books. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
- Ryan, Maria (2011). "Bush's "Useful Idiots": 9/11, the Liberal Hawks and the Cooption of the "War on Terror"". Journal of American Studies. 45 (4): 667–693. doi:10.1017/S0021875811000909.
- von Hoffman, Nicholas (23 October 2006). "Useful Idiots". The Nation. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
- Sperlich, Peter W. (2007). The East German Social Courts: Law and Popular Justice in a Marxist-Leninist Society. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 17.
- Harding, Luke (22 May 2012). Expelled: A Journalist's Descent into the Russian Mafia State. St. Martin's Press. p. 104. ISBN 9781137048387.
- Albright: Trump fits the mold of Russia's 'useful idiot' by Madeleine Albright
- The Editorial Board (15 December 2016), "Donald Trump's Denial About Russia", The New York Times, retrieved 12 March 2018,
There could be no more 'useful idiot', to use Lenin's term of art, than an American president who doesn't know he's being played by a wily foreign power.
- Morell, Michael J. (12 August 2016). "Opinion – I Ran the C.I.A. Now I'm Endorsing Hillary Clinton". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
- Hayden, Michael (3 November 2016). "Former CIA chief: Trump is Russia's useful fool". The Washington Post. Retrieved 12 March 2018.