The phrase is an ancient one in Chinese, but sources differ as to when it entered the English vocabulary. Although some sources may claim it dates back as far as 1850 , it seems the Chinese phrase was first translated when it was applied to describe the United States using propaganda tactics. In 1946, in an interview by the american journalist Anna Louise Strong, Mao Zedong said of the United States:
In appearance it is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of; it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain. I believe the United States is nothing but a paper tiger.
In Mao Zedong's view, the term could be applied to all allegedly imperialist nations, particularly the United States and the Soviet Union (following the Sino-Soviet split): Mao argued that they appeared to be superficially powerful but would have a tendency to overextend themselves in the international arena, at which point pressure could be brought upon them by other states to cause their sudden collapse. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at some point remarked to Mao that although the "U.S. is a paper tiger, it has nuclear teeth".
The phrase is of common usage in Italy and France, according to the diffusion of The Little Red Book in Europe during the 1960's and 1970's contestation years.