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.

Continue reading Useful Idiot

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)

A Single Death is a Tragedy; a Million Deaths is a Statistic

Joseph Stalin? Leonard Lyons? Beilby Porteus? Kurt Tucholsky? Erich Maria Remarque?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a vivid statement that typifies a heartless attitude toward human mortality:

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

These words are often attributed to the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, but I have not found a precise citation for this harsh expression. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI linking this saying to Joseph Stalin was published in 1947 by the popular syndicated newspaper columnist Leonard Lyons in “The Washington Post”. The ellipsis in the following passage was in the original text. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

In the days when Stalin was Commissar of Munitions, a meeting was held of the highest ranking Commissars, and the principal matter for discussion was the famine then prevalent in the Ukraine. One official arose and made a speech about this tragedy — the tragedy of having millions of people dying of hunger. He began to enumerate death figures … Stalin interrupted him to say: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

QI does not know what source Lyons used to obtain the details of this noteworthy scene and quotation. Without additional corroborative evidence or an explanation QI believes that this citation provides weak support for the ascription to Stalin. Perhaps future researchers will locate further relevant evidence.

There are several interesting precursors that illustrate the possible evolution of this expression, and additional selected citations are presented below in chronological order. The family of sayings examined here is variegated, and the denotations are often distinct, but QI believes that grouping them together is illuminating.

Continue reading A Single Death is a Tragedy; a Million Deaths is a Statistic

Notes:

  1. 1947 January 30, Washington Post, Loose-Leaf Notebook by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 9, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)