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In political jargon, a useful idiot (also useful fool[1]) is a derogatory term for a person perceived as a propagandist for a cause the goals of which they are not fully aware, and who is used cynically by the leaders of the cause.[1][2] The expression is widely attributed to words by Lenin, although it does not directly appear in his written works. The term was originally used to describe non-Communists regarded as susceptible to Communist propaganda and manipulation.[2] The term does not appear to have been used within the Soviet Union.[2]


Origin of the termEdit

The term is first documented to have appeared in print in a June 1948 The New York Times article on contemporary Italian politics ("Communist shift is seen in Europe"), citing the social-democratic Italian paper L'Umanità.[3][2] 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.[4][5][6][7][8][9]

The phrase "useful idiot" is often attributed to Vladimir Lenin, although he is not documented as having ever used the phrase.[10] 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.[10]

Useful innocents (English, Serbo-Croat, French, 1946–47)Edit

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".[11]

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."[12] Note, however, that budala in Serbo-Croat translates as "a fool", not "an innocent".

Modern usageEdit

In December 2016, the Editorial Board of The New York Times applied the term to President-elect Donald Trump.[13] 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".[14]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b 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. 
  2. ^ a b c d "useful idiot". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2017. 
  3. ^ "Communist Shift is seen in Europe; Tour of Two Italian Leaders Behind Iron Curtain Held to Doom Popular Fronts", Arnold Cortesi, The New York Times, 21 June 1948, p. 14
  4. ^ "Italy: From the Slums". Time. 13 January 1958. 
  5. ^ "WORLD: The City as a Battlefield: A Global Concern". Time. 2 November 1970. 
  6. ^ Lamar, Jr., Jacob V. (14 December 1987). "An Offer They Can Refuse". Time. 
  7. ^ Poniewozik, James (3 November 2009). "TV Marks Obama Anniversary with Documentaries, Aliens". Time. 
  8. ^ Klein, Joe (26 November 2010). "Israel First, Yet Again". Time. 
  9. ^ "Wednesday Words: Useful Idiots, Don 'Draping' and More", Time, 14 March 2012.
  10. ^ a b Safire, William (12 April 1987). "On Language: Useful Idiots Of the West". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 July 2017. 
  11. ^ Ludwig von Mises, Planned Chaos, Foundation for Economic Education, 1947, p. 17 in electronic document.
  12. ^ Bogdan Raditsa, "Yugoslavia's Tragic Lesson to the World", Reader's Digest Service, p. 138 in electronic document.
  13. ^ 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. 
  14. ^ Hayden, Michael (3 November 2016). "Former CIA chief: Trump is Russia's useful fool". The Washington Post. Retrieved 19 July 2017. 

External linksEdit