In political jargon, a useful idiot is a derogatory term for a person perceived as propagandizing for a cause without fully comprehending the cause's goals, and who is cynically used by the cause's leaders. 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.
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 in the absence of 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 appeared 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 to either merge with the Communists or leave 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 used the phrase in January 1958, writing that some Italian Christian Democrats considered social activist Danilo Dolci a "useful idiot" for Communist causes. It has since recurred in that 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".
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 was stationed in a number of Latin American countries during the 1930s and 1940s and was 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 a "useful idiot for Soviet propaganda."
- "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. Retrieved 30 December 2018.
- 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.