In political jargon, the term "useful idiot" was used to describe Soviet sympathizers in western countries and the alleged attitude of the Soviet government towards them. The implication was that though the person in question naïvely thought themselves an ally of the Soviets or other Communists, they were actually held in contempt by them, and being cynically used.
The term is now used more broadly to describe someone who is perceived to be manipulated by a political movement, terrorist group, or hostile government, whether or not the group is Communist in nature.
The term is attributed to Vladimir Lenin, sometimes in the form "useful idiots of the West", to describe those Western reporters and travelers who would endorse the Soviet Union and its policies in the West. However, no reference to a communist sympathizer or political leftist as a "useful idiot" was made in the USA until 1948, and not until decades later would the phrase use by Lenin be commented on in the west. In 1948, the phrase was used in a New York Times article in relation to Italian politics; it was mentioned again in 1961. Critics of the term assert that the expression "useful idiot" has never been discovered in any published document of Lenin's, nor that anyone has claimed to have heard him say it. In the spring of 1987, Grant Harris, senior reference librarian at the Library of Congress, said "We have not been able to identify this phrase among published works..
This English language version was originally published in an edition of The Lufkin News, King Featurers Syndicate, Inc., 31 July 1962, page 4, and later reproduced in the Freeman Report, 30 Sept. 1973, page 8.
The so-called cultural element of Western Europe and America are incapable of comprehending the present state of affairs and the actual balance of forces; these elements must be regarded as deaf-mutes and treated accordingly....
A revolution never develops along a direct line, by continuous expansion, but forms a chain of outbursts and withdrawals, attacks and lulls, during which the revolutionary forces gain strength in preparation for their final victory...
We must: (a) In order to placate the deaf-mutes, proclaim the fictional separation of our government ... from the Comintern, declaring this agency to be an independent political group. The deaf-mutes will believe it. (b) Express a desire for the immediate resumption of diplomatic relations with capitalist countries on the basis of complete non-interference in their internal affairs. Again, the deaf- mutes will believe it. They will even be delighted and fling wide-open their doors through which the emissaries of the Comintern and Party Intelligence agencies will quickly infiltrate into these countries disguised as our diplomatic, cultural, and trade representatives.
Capitalists the world over and their governments will, in their desire to win Soviet market, shut their eyes to the above-mentioned activities and thus be turned into blind deaf-mutes. They will furnish credits, which will serve as a means of supporting the Communist parties in their countries, and, by supplying us, will rebuild our war industry, which is essential for our future attacks on our suppliers. In other words, they will be laboring to prepare their own suicide.
From antiquity (as noted in the Code of Hammurabi) until recent times, the terms "deaf-mute" and "deaf and dumb" were analogous to "idiot." Various versions of what could be inferred in English as "useful idiots" have been used in verbal references about some Americans and others in capitalist societies.
"Useful idiots" would be literally translated from Russian "poleznye idioty". Taking into account possible imprecise translation from Lenin's native Russian into English, other similar quotations exist, such as his assessment of US President Woodrow Wilson in a speech delivered at a meeting of activists of the Moscow Organization of Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (RCPB) on December 6, 1920, first published in 1923 according to the verbatim report in V.I. Lenin Collected Works, 4th English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1966, page 449 (translated from Russian):
Thus we have before us the greatest state in the world, which by 1923 will have a navy stronger than the British, and this state is meeting with growing enmity from the other capitalist countries. We must take this trend of things into account. America cannot come to terms with the rest of Europe -- that is a fact proved by history. Nowhere has the Versailles Treaty been analyzed so well as in the book by Keynes, a British representative at Versailles. In his book Keynes ridicules Wilson and the part he played in the Treaty of Versailles. Here, Wilson proved to be an utter simpleton, whom Clemenceau and Lloyd George twisted round their little fingers. Thus everything goes to show that America cannot come to terms with the other countries because of the profound economic antagonism between them, since America is richer than the rest.
John Maynard Keynes's book on the Peace of Versailles, which does deprecate Wilson, is The Economic Consequences of the Peace.. The quotation can also be interpreted as referring to discord among enemy powers (as Lenin held them to be).
Stalin said "They must be idiots" when his envoy came back from a tour of England during the 1930s depression and said "Your recruiting grounds for party-members will not be in the factories, but in the universities."
The term is also sometimes used by anarchists and other radicals to describe groups and individuals whose ideology is alleged to be excessively deferential to a government or authoritarian political movement.
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the term "useful idiot" has also been used by some commentators to describe individuals said to take a softer line against Islamism and terrorism. For example, Anthony Browne wrote in the United Kingdom newspaper, The Times:
Elements within the British establishment were notoriously sympathetic to Hitler. Today the Islamists enjoy similar support. In the 1930s it was Edward VIII, aristocrats and the Daily Mail; this time it is left-wing activists, The Guardian and sections of the BBC. They may not want a global theocracy, but they are like the West’s apologists for the Soviet Union — useful idiots.
Similarly, Bruce C. Thornton, a professor of Classics at American University of Cal State Fresno wrote:
Lenin called them "useful idiots," those people living in liberal democracies who by giving moral and material support to a totalitarian ideology in effect were braiding the rope that would hang them. Why people who enjoyed freedom and prosperity worked passionately to destroy both is a fascinating question, one still with us today. Now the useful idiots can be found in the chorus of appeasement, reflexive anti-Americanism, and sentimental idealism trying to inhibit the necessary responses to another freedom-hating ideology, radical Islam.