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)

The Capitalists Will Sell Us the Rope with Which We Will Hang Them

Vladimir Lenin? Joseph Stalin? Karl Marx? George Racey Jordan? Samuel E. Keeble? S. Dmitrijewski? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A quotation about imprudent greed and near-sightedness has been attributed to three prominent communists: Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Karl Marx. Here are three versions of the statement:

  • The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.
  • When it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will sell us the rope.
  • The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.

Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in 1955 within a periodical called “The Commonwealth: Official Journal of the Commonwealth Club of California”. The club is a non-profit public affairs organization. The quotation appeared as a filler item. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Lenin wrote, “When it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will vie with each other for the rope contract.”
—Major George Racey Jordan

Jordan was a U.S. military officer who became a fierce anti-communist. Lenin had died in 1924; hence, the 1955 date was quite late. No documentary source was specified, and multiple researchers have been unable to find a match in Lenin’s writings. The Congressional Research Service did report a thematically pertinent passage ascribed to Lenin. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Capitalists Will Sell Us the Rope with Which We Will Hang Them

Notes:

  1. 1955 October 31, The Commonwealth: Official Journal of the Commonwealth Club of California, Volume 31, Number 44, (Freestanding quotation), Page 268, Column 2, Published by Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, California. (Verified with scans; thanks to John McChesney-Young and the University of California, Berkeley library system)

The Crowd Came to the Funeral, Not To Mourn, But To Make Sure the Person Was Dead

Who Said It: Samuel Goldwyn? Mr. Jones? S. S. Van Dine? Joey Adams? Whispering Russian?
joey08Whose Funeral: Louis B. Mayer? Fogarty’s Brother? Joseph Stalin? W. Kerr Scott?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to Hollywood legend when the tyrannical chief of a powerful movie studio died many were surprised to see that his funeral was well attended. When the leader of a competing studio was asked for an explanation he said:

The turnout was large because so many people wanted to make sure he was dead.

Would you please explore this sardonic tale?

Quote Investigator: This questionable story was printed in the 1960 biographical work “Hollywood Rajah: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer”. Mayer was a very successful movie producer who was a co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. He died in 1957, and the cutting remark above has been attributed to fellow mogul Samuel Goldwyn. The details for this citation are listed further below.

Interestingly, barbs of this type have been circulating for more than 125 years. For example, in 1889 and 1890 multiple newspapers recounted a story from the “San Francisco Chronicle” of California about a longstanding bitter quarrel between two people named Jones and Fogarty. Jones felt some empathy for Fogarty when he learned that his brother had died. So he made an effort to end the dissension by attending the funeral, but his gesture of reconciliation backfired. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1 2 3

He displayed becoming grief and sorrow, but he did not have a chance to speak to Mr. Fogarty. A few days after he met Mr. Fogarty and went up to him with outstretched hand and a sympathetic look on his face. To his surprise Mr. Fogarty drew himself up and glared at him:

“May I inquire, sir, what the devil you were doing at my brother’s funeral?”

The Christian feeling in Mr. Jones evaporated. He took in the outstretched hand, and said with considerable force: “I went to make sure he was dead.” The war is fiercer than ever.

The story above exhibited a comparable punchline and provided a thematic match; however, it did not refer to a large turnout at a funeral. A different thematic match appeared in multiple newspapers in 1934 when a serialized mystery called “The Kennel Murder Case” by S. S. Van Dine was published. A police officer questioned a suspect: 4 5

“If you think your uncle was such a wash-out and you were so glad to find he’d been croaked, why did you run over to him and kneel down, and pretend to be worried?”

Hilda Lake gave the Sergeant a withering, yet whimsical, look.

“My dear Mr. Policeman, I simply wanted to make sure he was dead.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Crowd Came to the Funeral, Not To Mourn, But To Make Sure the Person Was Dead

Notes:

  1. 1889 November 28, The Parsons Sun (The Parsons Weekly Sun), Why He Went to the Funeral (acknowledgement to San Francisco Chronicle), Quote Page 2, Column 2,Parsons, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1890 January 12, The Morning Reporter (Independence Daily Reporter), Why He Went to the Funeral (acknowledgement to San Francisco Chronicle), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Independence, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1890 May 20, Arkansas City Traveler (Arkansas City Daily Traveler), Why He Went to the Funeral (acknowledgement to San Francisco Chronicle), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Arkansas City, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1934 January 12, Valley Weekly (Valley Morning Star), ‘The Kennel Murder Case’ Thrilling Tale of a Man’s Death Twice by S. S. Van Dine, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Harlingen, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1934 August 31, The Alton Democrat, The Kennel Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Alton, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)

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)