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In political jargon, the term useful idiot was used to describe Soviet sympathizers in Western countries. The implication is that though the people in question naïvely thought themselves an ally of the Soviet Union, they were actually held in contempt and were being cynically used. The term has been extended to other people perceived as propagandists for a cause they do not understand.
The earliest known usage in Western media is in a 1948 article in the social-democratic Italian paper L'Umanita - as cited in a New York Times article on Italian politics of the same year. Despite often being attributed to Lenin, in 1987, Grant Harris, senior reference librarian at the Library of Congress, declared that "We have not been able to identify this phrase among [Lenin's] published works."
A similar term, "useful innocents", is used in Austrian-American economist Ludwig von Mises' "Planned Chaos". Von Mises claims the term was used by communists for liberals that von Mises describes as "confused and misguided sympathizers".
"Useful idiot" is often used as a pejorative term for those who are seen to unwittingly support a malignant cause through their 'naive' attempts to be a force for good. For example, the term has been used by some commentators to describe people the commentators believe are effectively supporting Islamic terrorism by favouring an approach based on appeasement. Anthony Browne wrote in the British 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. ”A 2010 BBC radio documentary lists among useful idiots of Joseph Stalin several prominent British writers including H. G. Wells and Doris Lessing, the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw, and the American journalist Walter Duranty and the singer Paul Robeson.
Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got it Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First by Mona Charen was published in 2003.