Useful Idiot

Vladimir Lenin? Joseph Stalin? Bogdan Raditsa? Ludwig Von Mises? Mario Scelba? Edward Derwinski? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Historically, the term “useful idiot” has referred to a naive or unwitting ally of a ruthless political movement especially a communist movement. Supposedly, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin used this expression contemptuously of non-communists who aligned themselves with their political positions. Yet, I am skeptical of these ascriptions because I have not seen any good citations. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: A significant precursor appeared in an article titled “Yugoslavia’s Tragic Lesson to the World” by Bogdan Raditsa published in “The Reader’s Digest” of October 1946. Raditsa joined the Yugoslav government of communist Josip Broz Tito, and by 1945 he had become the chief of the foreign press section of the Ministry of Information. As the communists consolidated their power in Yugoslavia, Raditsa became disillusioned. He watched as individuals he respected were being arrested, imprisoned, and executed. He believed that his decision to join the government of Tito had been naive and misguided. The communists employed a sardonic label that prompted the shudder of self-recognition. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

In the Serbo-Croat language the communists have a phrase for true democrats who consent to collaborate with them for “democracy.” It is Koristne Budale, or Useful Innocents.

Raditsa rendered this crucial phrase as “Useful Innocents”, but a more direct translation of “Koristne Budale” into English yields “Useful Fools”.

Raditsa asserted that the recently held elections in the country were not genuinely democratic: 2

Some “Useful Innocents” in the onlooking democratic world were impressed by these elections. They can learn their true nature from General Rankovich of OZNA. Addressing the elected National Assembly of Yugoslavia on March 24 of this year, he said:

“Those who oppose the policy of the present regime cannot possibly put themselves into power through free elections. They cannot participate in the government. And they cannot even exist as a tolerated opposition.”

The conclusion of Raditsa’s piece included another use of the phrase: 3

Be careful about people whose vocabulary is yours but whose record wherever they hold power is your destruction. Do not be Koristne Budale. Do not be “Useful Innocents.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

QI has located no substantive evidence that Vladimir Lenin who died in 1924 or Joseph Stalin who died in 1953 used the expression “useful idiot”.

Lenin did once refer to some of his political adversaries as “simpletons”. Volume two of “The Essentials of Lenin” contained the following passage translated from Russian to English. According to Lenin these “simpletons” were nominally socialists, but they were really accomplices to his enemies. In this context the term “simpletons” may be viewed as the ideological mirror-image of “useful idiots”: 4

These simpletons “do not recognize terror” because they chose for themselves the role of servile accomplices of the Whiteguards in fooling the workers and peasants. The Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks “do not recognize terror” because under the flag of “Socialism” they are fulfilling their function of placing the masses at the mercy of the Whiteguard terror.

After Bogdan Raditsa’s 1946 article appeared it inspired newspaper editorial writers in the U.S. For example, “The Iola Register” of Iola, Kansas printed this: 5

The only privilege the Communists ever accorded the truly democratic groups was to use them as “front” for their subversive methods of gaining complete political control. “Useful Innocents” they called them.

Also, Raditsa’s article was reprinted in newspapers such as “The La Crosse Tribune” of La Crosse, Wisconsin: 6

In the Serbo-Croat language the Communists have a phrase for true democrats who consent to collaborate with them for “democracy.” It is Koristne Budale, or Useful Innocents.

I was one of those Innocents. The story of my gradual awakening may serve as a warning to Innocents in other countries.

In 1947 the prominent economist Ludwig Von Mises published “Planned Chaos”, and he included the phrase “useful innocents”: 7

The subversive activities of these professional plotters are dangerous precisely on account of the naivete of those who are merely flirting with the revolutionary idea. Those confused and misguided sympathizers who call themselves “liberals” and whom the communists call “useful innocents,” the fellow-travellers and even the majority of the officially registered party members, would be terribly frightened if they were to discover one day that their chiefs mean business when preaching sedition.

The earliest exact match of the phrase “useful idiot” located by QI appeared in an April 1948 article from the International News Service (INS) published by the “San Francisco Examiner” of California. The phrase was spoken by an Italian politician and rendered into English: 8

Italian Interior Minister Mario Scelba announced tonight that the Italian elections will be called off “if individual liberty is endangered.” Scelba said he favored reorganization of the Italian police to enable policemen to guarantee freedom of the ballot.

He called Socialist Leader Pietro Nenni, who is co-operating with the Communists, the “No. 1 useful idiot assisting Communist aspirations to control Italy.”

In June 1948 “The New York Times” printed the phrase while acknowledging an Italian periodical: 9

L’Umanita, right-wing Socialist newspaper, emphasized that if the Communists were abandoning Popular Fronts this would have far-reaching effects on the congress of Italian left-wing Socialists in Genoa next week.

L’Umanita said the Communists would give the “useful idiots” of the left-wing Socialist party the choice of merging with the Communist party or getting out. It declared this would mark the end of the pro-Communist policy followed by the left-wing Socialist leader, Pietro Nenni.

Two days later a newspaper in Wilmington, Delaware used the expression: 10

Such fellow-traveling allies are called “useful idiots” by an Italian publication. Like the Wallace followers in the United States, they have ignored the record of the last 12 years. Wherever the Communists have had the power, from Madrid in the Spanish civil war to Czechoslovakia today, they have persecuted or killed the useful idiots who refused to accept absolute dictation.

In 1959 U.S. Congressman Edward Derwinski of Illinois placed into the “Congressional Record” a reprint of an editorial from the “Chicago Daily Calumet” which attributed the phrase to Vladimir Lenin: 11

This is the cold war. The leaders of the states and of the nations, instead of going in droves to Moscow and becoming what Lenin calls useful idiots in the Communist game, should go to Mackinac Island, Mich., to the moral rearmament ideological war college where thousands of our friends from the free world are coming to plan global strategy to answer communism.

In 1961 “The Khrushchev Pattern” by Frank Gibney asserted that Lenin coined the phrase: 12

Historically, the hard core of Communist believers have always needed a spongelike mass support around them, to swell their triumphs and to cushion their adverse moments.
Lenin first coined the term “useful idiots” for them.

In 1964 a letter to the editor of a Minneapolis, Minnesota newspaper attributed the variant phrase “useful fools” to Lenin: 13

The frustrated intellectuals, the opportunists, the mentally deranged, the social derelicts, the atheists and a handful of good people (the “useful fools” of Lenin) who still believe in the panacea of this Marxist revolution?—Si!

The book “Diplomats and Demagogues: the Memoirs of Spruille Braden” included the text of a speech delivered by the author in 1965 in which the phrase was attributed to Joseph Stalin: 14

Aiding this huge conspiracy have been countless innocent although well-intentioned sentimentalists or idealists. Stalin baptized these groups as “useful idiots”.

In conclusion, Croatian journalist Bogdan Raditsa used the phrase “Koristne Budale” in an October 1946 article. He translated the phrase as “Useful Innocents”, but it may also be translated as “Useful Fools” or “Useful Idiots”. Raditsa stated that the phrase was employed by Yugoslav communists to describe genuine democrats who naively collaborated with them.

The first English language instance of the phrase located by QI appeared as a translation of an Italian phrase in April 1948. The Italian politician Mario Scelba described the Italian Socialist Leader Pietro Nenni as the “No. 1 useful idiot assisting Communist aspirations to control Italy.”
The ascriptions to Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin are currently unsupported.

(Great thanks to David Taylor and two anonymous people whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to previous researchers including Paul F. Boller Jr., John George, Barry Popik, Fred Shapiro, Nigel Rees, Ralph Keyes, and William Safire. Further thanks to the Congressional Research Service and the volunteer editors of Wikipedia.)

Addendum: Researcher Fred Shapiro identified an interesting match in Google Books which is visible via snippets. QI has not yet accessed this book to verify the details of this citation. This citation appears to be the earliest attribution of the phrase “useful idiots” to Lenin circa 1951.

Year: 1951
Periodical: Italy Today
Article title: Unknown
Article author: Unknown
Quote Page 20
Publisher: G. Barbera, Firenze, Italy
Database: Google Books Snippet
Note: Verification with hardcopy is required. Google books snippet data is incomplete and may be inaccurate.

These intellectuals apparently ignore the fact that idea and practice of justice are banned from all countries under Communist rule, but they very well serve the cause of Communism as « useful idiots » as Lenin called them.

Notes:

  1. 1946 October, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 49, Yugoslavia’s Tragic Lesson to the World by Bogdan Raditsa (Condensed from a forthcoming book), Start Page 138, Quote Page 138, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1946 October, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 49, Yugoslavia’s Tragic Lesson to the World by Bogdan Raditsa (Condensed from a forthcoming book), Start Page 138, Quote Page 144, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1946 October, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 49, Yugoslavia’s Tragic Lesson to the World by Bogdan Raditsa (Condensed from a forthcoming book), Start Page 138, Quote Page 150, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1947, The Essentials of Lenin In Two Volumes by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Volume 2 of 2, Chapter: The Tax in Kind, Free Trade and Concessions, Quote Page 722, Lawrence & Wishart, London. (Verified with hardcopy)
  5. 1946 September 30, The Iola Register, “Useful Innocents” (Editorial), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Iola, Kansas. (Special Note: The article in the October 1946 issue of “The Reader’s Digest” was available a few weeks before it’s cover date) (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1946 October 6, The La Crosse Tribune, ‘Yugoslavia s Tragic Lesson To The World’ by Bogdan Raditsa (Condensed from a forthcoming book), Quote Page 6, Column 3, La Crosse, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1947 Copyright, Planned Chaos by Ludwig Von Mises, Chapter 3: Socialism and Communism, Quote Page 43, The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1948 April 6, San Francisco Examiner, Italy Threatens To Call Off Vote, Quote Page 2, Column 3, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1948 June 21, New York Times, Communist Shift Is Seen in Europe by Arnaldo Cortesi (Special to the New York Times), Quote Page 14, Column 5, New York, New York. (ProQuest)
  10. 1948 June 23, Journal-Every Evening (The News Journal), The ‘Useful Idiots’, Quote Page 8, Column 2, Wilmington, Delaware. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1959, Congressional Record, Section: Appendix, Useful Idiots: Extension of Remarks of Hon. Edward J. Derwinski of Illinois in the House of Representatives on June 30, 1959, (Reprint of editorial from June 23 edition of the Chicago Daily Calumet), Page A5653, Column 2, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (LexisNexis Congressional Record Permanent Digital Collection)
  12. 1961 (1960 Copyright), The Khrushchev Pattern by Frank Gibney, Quote Page 8, Duell, Sloan and Pearce. (Verified with hardcopy)
  13. 1964 September 4, Minneapolis Morning Tribune, Section: Letters to the Editor, Letter title: Articles on Cuba Missed the Truth, Letter from: Charles M. Graupera, Cuban Freedom Committee of Yankton, S.D., Quote Page 4, Column 6, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1971, Diplomats and Demagogues: the Memoirs of Spruille Braden by Spruille Braden, Appendix: Immorality and Communism, Address by the Honorable Spruille Braden, Americanism Educational League Award Dinner, January 15, 1965, Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Beverly Hills, California, Page 461, Arlington House, New Rochelle, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)