In political jargon, a useful idiot (also useful fool) is a person perceived as a propagandist for a cause the goals of which they are not fully aware of, and who is used cynically by the leaders of the cause. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms, the phrase stems from useful fool to refer to "a dupe of the Communists" and was used by Vladimir Lenin to refer to those his country had successfully manipulated.
Reported usage by Lenin
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms, the phrase stems from the Russian useful fool to refer to "a dupe of the Communists" and was used by Vladimir Lenin to refer to those his country had successfully manipulated. The Dictionary of Espionage noted that scholars researching Lenin were unsuccessful in finding direct usage of the phrase by Lenin among his published writings. Vladimir Bukovsky wrote in 1982 that useful idiot was, "a term in party jargon coined by Lenin himself". In a 1987 article for The New York Times, American journalist William Safire noted that a Library of Congress librarian was not able to find the phrase in Lenin's works, and his reporting on the matter was inconclusive. Safire recommended individuals preface with "As Lenin was reported to have said", before usage of the phrase. William J. Bennett wrote "'Useful idiot' was the term Lenin had used for credulous Western businessmen", giving as an example Armand Hammer, "who helped build up the Soviet Communist state." Bennett recounted a famous story wherein Lenin was asked, "How will we hang the Capitalists, we don't have enough rope!" Lenin was reported to have "famously replied" with the rejoinder, "They will sell it to us — on credit."
In her book, Useful Idiots, author Mona Charen wrote about Lenin's attributed use of the phrase. She commented, "Lenin is widely credited with the prediction that liberals and other weak-minded souls in the West could be relied upon to be 'useful idiots' as far as the Soviet Union was concerned." Charen commented on the veracity of Lenin's reported usage of the phrase, "Though Lenin may never have actually uttered the phrase, it was consistent with his cynical style. And ... liberals managed, time after time during the Cold War, to live down to this sour prediction." Author Michael Prell wrote in his book Underdogma, "The term Useful Idiot is largely attributed to Vladimir Lenin, who reportedly used it to describe Soviet sympathizers among the ranks of Western media and intellectual elites."
Useful idiot (English, 1945 onwards)
In the 1945 memoir of actor Alexander Granach, the phrase was used to describe a boyhood incident in a shtetl in Western Ukraine. In June 1948, the term appeared in The New York Times in an article on contemporary Italian politics ("Communist shift is seen in Europe"), citing the social-democratic Italian paper L'Umanità.
Time first employed the phrase in January 1958 and it has recurred thereafter in the periodical's articles, most recently on 14 March 2012 in Katy Steinmetz's "Wednesday Words: Useful Idiots, Don 'Draping' and More".
In December 2016, the Editorial Board of The New York Times applied the term to President-elect Donald Trump. Michael Hayden, former director of both the US National Security Agency and the CIA, writing in the Washington Post in November 2016, described Donald Trump as a polezni durak, and he cited as translation of the term: "the useful fool, some naif, manipulated by Moscow, secretly held in contempt, but whose blind support is happily accepted and exploited".
Useful innocents (English, Serbo-Croat, French, 1946-7)
A similar term, useful innocents, appears in Austrian-American economist Ludwig von Mises' "Planned Chaos" (1947). 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 Readers Digest article (1946) titled "Yugoslavia's Tragic Lesson to the World", written by a "high ranking official of the Yugoslav Government", Bogdan Raditsa (Bogdan Radica). "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."
The French equivalent, "Innocents utiles" or Useful innocents, was used in the title of a front-page article in the Paysage newspaper, late in 1946.
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- 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.
- Goulden, Joseph (2012), "Useful Idiot", The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English, Dover Military History, Weapons, Armor, Dover Publications, p. 239, ISBN 978-0486483481
- Bukovsky, Vladimir (1982), "The Soviet Role in the Peace Movement: Moscow's 'Useful Idiots'", in Lefever, Ernest W.; Hunt, E. Stephen, The Apocalyptic Premise: Nuclear Arms Debated, University Press of America, p. 191, ISBN 978-0896330627
- Safire, William (12 April 1987). "On Language: Useful Idiots Of the West". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 July 2017.
- Bennett, William J., America: The Last Best Hope (Volume II): From a World at War to the Triumph of Freedom, Thomas Nelson, p. 618, ISBN 978-1595550576
- Charen, Mona (2003), Useful Idiots, Regnery Publishing, p. 10, ISBN 978-0895261397
- Prell, Michael (2011), "Chapter 13", Underdogma, BenBella Books, pp. 259–277, ISBN 978-1935618133
- Granach, Alexander (1945). There Goes an Actor. Doubleday, Doran. p. 60.
- "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
- "Italy: From the Slums". TIME Magazine. 13 January 1958.
- "WORLD: The City as a Battlefield: A Global Concern". TIME Magazine. 2 November 1970.
- Lamar, Jr., Jacob V. (14 December 1987). "An Offer They Can Refuse". TIME Magazine.
- Poniewozik, James (3 November 2009). "TV Marks Obama Anniversary with Documentaries, Aliens". TIME Magazine.
- Klein, Joe (26 November 2010). "Israel First, Yet Again". TIME Magazine.
- "Wednesday Words: Useful Idiots, Don ‘Draping’ and More", Time, 14 March 2012.
- The Editorial Board (15 December 2016), "Donald Trump’s Denial About Russia", The New York Times, retrieved 19 July 2017,
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.
- Hayden, Michael (3 November 2016). "Former CIA chief: Trump is Russia’s useful fool". The Washington Post. Retrieved 19 July 2017.
We have really never seen anything like this. Former acting CIA director Michael Morell says that Putin has cleverly recruited Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation. I’d prefer another term drawn from the arcana of the Soviet era: polezni durak. That’s the useful fool, some naif, manipulated by Moscow, secretly held in contempt, but whose blind support is happily accepted and exploited. That’s a pretty harsh term, and Trump supporters will no doubt be offended. But, frankly, it’s the most benign interpretation of all this that I can come up with right now.
- Ludwig von Mises, Planned Chaos, Foundation for Economic Education, 1947, p. 17 in electronic document.
- Bogdan Raditsa, "Yugoslavia's Tragic Lesson to the World", Reader's Digest Service, p.138 in electronic document.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 23 December 2012. Retrieved 12 June 2012. "Les innocents utiles: l'utilisation democrates-antifascistes", Paysage (No 72), 24 October 1946.