Useful Idiots: Then and Now

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist and political analyst living in the Washington, D.C. area. She has written a book titled Useful Idiots. How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First, Regnery Publishing. The following lecture was presented at Grove City College, published by Vision and Values a publication of Grove City College.

The term “useful idiots,” usually attributed to Lenin, has entered the lexicon as a term for people who simply do not get it and are willing to be dupes of totalitarians, tyrants and various other characters. I will make the case that liberals have been wrong about all of the major foreign policy issues we have faced in the last 40 years, which is a record that is probably unparalleled in the history of thought. However, I acknowledge that not all liberals fall into this category. Throughout the latter two-thirds of the Cold War, which I would date from 1966 until 1990, a number of liberals and Democrats remained firm anti-Communists including former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Senator Scoop Jackson of Washington.

A weakness for believing the best about the Communists was common to Leftists from the time of the Russian Revolution until the red flag with the hammer and sickle was pulled down from the Kremlin some 74 years later. But that history has been recently obscured. Liberals today in my judgment are trying to put one over on history by suggesting that they were members in good standing of the anti-Communist camp. But some of us have not forgotten the recent shameful past. We’ve not forgotten that liberals excused, justified and overlooked the aggression of the side that lost the Cold War. Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy were both unconfused cold warriors, but liberals rarely cite that history any more. I think the reason is that after 1966 liberals became so alienated from anti-Communism that they wouldn’t acknowledge that somebody with those views could be a member of the Democratic Party. I like to put it this way. If John F. Kennedy had lived and run for president in 1972 with the views that he expressed in 1960, Ted Kennedy would not have voted for him.

The reason for recounting this is that the people who were so wrong about the Cold War are back at their post in the War on Terror and, if they prevail, we may very well lose. It is worth remembering that those who counseled appeasement of Hitler before World War II were thoroughly chastened and even shamed after the war had begun. Charles Lindbergh was one of the greatest American heroes of the 20th century and yet his reputation never recovered from his overly cozy relationship with the Nazi government of Germany. By contrast, today’s liberals have paid no price in prestige for their disgraceful toleration of tyrants and despots who were, in every relevant respect, Hitler’s equals. In fact, they continue to look back on their so-called youthful activism with pride. They continue to offer their wisdom on foreign policy as if the USSR, Nicaragua, China, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Cuba had never happened. Talleyrand is supposed to have said of the Bourbon restorationists that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Liberals have learned nothing and want us to forget everything.

Useful Idiots Exposed

I’m frequently asked, “Who was the biggest useful idiot?” I think the answer would have to be that it is not one person but an institution: the New York Times. Walter Duranty was the New York T’mes correspondent in Moscow in the 1920s and 30s. Here’s what he said about Stalin:

Stalin is giving the Russian people, the Russian masses -- not Westernized landlords, industrialists, bankers, and intellectuals -- but Russia’s 150 million peasants and workers, what they really want, mainly joint effort, communal effort.

Later when Stalin was starving millions to death, Duranty filed dispatches denying that anything was amiss. It was later learned that the Soviet secret police were blackmailing Duranty. But the New York Times has never apologized nor acknowledged his grave offense and never returned the Pulitzer Prize that he earned. Only now, 80 years later, is there a move to revoke Duranty’s Pulitzer.

Thirty years after Duranty, the place and climate had changed, but the New York Times was still at it. Its reporting from Cuba was almost a duplicate of its reporting from the Soviet Union. New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews dispatched his first admiring reports about Castro in 1957. He wrote of him as a flaming symbol, the rebel leader of Cuba’s youth. Matthews had only been in Cuba for a few days when he filed those reports. Nevertheless, he wrote: “The Cuban government did not and could not know that thousands of men and women are heart and soul with Fidel Castro.”

Ten years later the scene was again different. This time it was Southeast Asia, but the New York Times was again telling the world it had more to fear from anti-Communists than from Communists. Having succeeded in getting the United States to withdraw all of its forces from Southeast Asia, liberals were scornful of the notion that a Communist victory might lead to a bloodbath. The Washington Post editorialized: “The threatened bloodbath is less ominous than a continuation of the current bloodletting.” The LA Times urged a cutoff of all aid to the Cambodian government, “for the good of the suffering Cambodian people.” Anthony Lewis, who was a columnist at the New York Times for 40 years, wrote: “Some will find the whole bloodbath debate unreal. What future possibility could be more terrible than the reality of what is happening in Cambodia now?” Lewis had an impoverished imagination. But even in the midst of the horror that followed -- mass starvation and executions -- many liberals could not see the reality in front of their eyes. It reminds me of what Robert Frost once said: “A liberal is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.”

The Media’s Spin on 20th Century Communism

Let’s consider what occurred under 20th century Communism: 40 years of mass executions, the Gulag, the Great Leap Forward, starvation, lies, repression and the unrelenting aggression of the Communist world; and yet liberals had learned nothing. Though they now claim that they were “cold warriors” all along, what exactly were reporters telling us about the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s?

In 1986, CNN’s Moscow correspondent Stuart Loory said:

If suddenly a true two-party or multi-party state were to be formed in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party would still win in a free election. Except for certain pockets of resistance to the Communist regime, the people have been truly converted.

CBS’s Bruce Morton explained:

People were happy. All of these services are part of an explicit bargain the Soviet workers have made with their government. They are less free than workers in the West but more secure.

ABC reporter Walter Rodgers explained: “Many Soviets don’t want Western-style human rights which they tend to equate with anarchy.” And Dan Rather agreed saying: “Despite what many Americans think, most Soviets do not yearn for capitalism or Western style democracy.”

Moreover, when the Soviets pushed their advantage during the decade of the 1970s and took 13 new nations into the Communist orbit, Carter’s Ambassador to the UN, Andrew Young, explained: “Soviets naturally emphasized economic rights because their growing season was so short.” “As for Cuban troops in Africa,” he said,

I don’t believe Cuba is in Africa because it was ordered there by the Russians. I believe that Cuba is in Africa because it really has shared in a sense of colonial oppression and domination. Besides . . . these troops brought a certain stability and order to Angola.

Reagan came into office determined to rebuild American strength and revive the anti-Communist cause. But liberals were just as determined that Reagan should fail. During the 1980s, whether the subject was Central America or the so-called Arms Race with the Soviet Union, we had a reprise of each earlier argument over Communism. Liberals, for example, welcomed the advent of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The Hollywood Left and the usual political pilgrims -- Mike Farrell, Ed Asner, Bianca Jagger, Richard Falk, Pete Seeger, Jessica Mitford, William Sloan Coffin, Betty Friedan -- made their way to Nicaragua. The Washington Post Central American correspondent, the credulous Karen DeYoung, reported that fears of a Communist government in Nicaragua were misplaced. On the occasion of a huge rally to inaugurate the new regime, she wrote this.

While the junta’s program remained vague, today’s inaugural and victory speeches contained little to sustain fears shared by the United States that the country will move far to the Left.

The ever-reliable New York Times reported:

Thousands of landless peasants are now working their own land and the cheerful mood of the countryside contrasts sharply with that of the cities.

Blaming America

The other huge theme to emerge from the bitter debate over Communism in Central America was, as Jeane Kirkpatrick coined it, the “Blame America First” group. Rather than confront the obvious reality that Communists were permanently and implacably hostile to the United States, however soft American liberals might be toward them, liberals chose to believe and endlessly argued that it was American hostility that drove Communists to behave like enemies. It was U.S. hostility, they say, that drove Castro into the arms of the Soviets, though Castro has himself acknowledged he was Communist from the beginning. It was U.S. backing for the anti-Communist Contras that turned Nicaragua into an ally of Cuba and the Soviet Union they said. This, though the U.S. had helped to delegitimize the previous Somoza regime. This, though Jimmy Carter had hosted Daniel Ortega at the White House and had extended foreign aid to the new Sandinista government.

In the end, the elections in Nicaragua that were forced upon them by the other nations in the region caught all of American liberaldom by surprise. The night before the election, Nightline devoted its entire program to how the Bush administration would deal with the Sandinistas after they had won a free and fair election. Daniel Shore on National Public Radio said he would scorn the notion that anything other than a Sandinista victory was likely. On World News Tonight Peter Jennings took the results of pre-election polls very much to heart, never thinking to wonder whether Nicaraguans felt free enough to tell pollsters the truth. He remarked that after years of the Reagan and Bush administrations trying to get rid of the Sandinistas, there was not much to show for their efforts. The next day the Sandinistas were defeated in a landslide. American liberals were wrong about the nature of Communism, wrong about its spread, wrong about arms control including the much vaunted nuclear freeze, wrong about the economics of command economies, and above all they were and are wrong about America.

As we have seen in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the habit of hatred for America that was born during the Vietnam era has not died. It has merely found new channels. Though the enemy today, Islamic fascism, is the polar opposite of Communism in many ways, it does not seem to matter to the Left. They stand ready to condemn us for defending ourselves. In fact the only uses of the U.S. military that the Left has approved during the last four to five decades were those actions that Bill Clinton took -- Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti. And the reason they approved those deployments is that they bore absolutely no relation to American security. In the eyes of the Left that made them pure. It mystifies me that anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of world history can fail to appreciate that the United States is on balance a great blessing to the world. There has never been a nation with such enormous power that has used it so benevolently.

Today’s Useful Idiots

Liberals were as wrong as they could be about the Cold War. This is something they have never acknowledged. The grotesque suffering that Communism brought in its wake has never troubled their sleep. In fact they still believe that they hold the moral high ground. With only a couple of exceptions, they have never recanted their justification of Communist crimes. And of course today we see some of the same useful idiots deployed against the war with Iraq. Before war was declared, Congressmen David Bonior, Jim McDermott and Mike Thompson traveled to Baghdad touring hospitals and schools and letting it be known that they really did not trust George W. Bush. But regarding Iraqi leadership McDermott said that we had to take them at face value. The Iraqi government, not satisfied with this bit of chuckling on McDermott’s part, put words in his mouth for Iraqi television viewers. If you were an Iraqi watching TV, you saw a clip in which McDermott was shown to say in the subheads:

We are three veterans of the Vietnam War who came over here because we don’t want war. We assert from here that we do not want the United States to wage war on any peace-loving countries.

Asked how he felt about being so used by the Iraqis, McDermott said:

If being used means we’re highlighting the suffering of Iraqi children or any children, then yes, we don’t mind being used.

Unlike the Cold War period when the useful idiots were motivated in part by the romance of revolution and a belief in Marxism, today’s useful idiots seem motivated by one thing, hatred for the United States. This is the corrupt core of the anti-globalization movement and the so-called peace movement. The organizer of two huge anti-war rallies in Washington, D.C., a group called ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), is an offshoot of the Workers’ World Party, an openly Stalinist group that supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Chinese governmen’s crackdown in Tian’anmen Square. The protests that they put on were shrill and hysterical, but it didn’t appear that way on the evening news. The New York Times welcomed the protest as representing a large segment of the American public. The demonstrators were greeted warmly by the Washington Post and the Newshour with Jim Lehrer which offered a number of aging hippy college professors an opportunity to reminisce and rhapsodize about their own anti-war marches. To give you a flavor of what this march was like, they carried placards that showed George Bush with a Hitler mustache which said that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were the true “axis of evil.”

False Predictions

Liberals have permitted their disdain for American power also to color their predictions about how our military ventures will unfold. Before the first Gulf War, Senator Claiborne Pell predicted that the war to oust Iraq from Kuwait would cost 20,000 American lives. The late Senator Paul Wellstone warned, before President George H.W. Bush gave the order to begin bombing, that we stood on the brink of catastrophe. When American forces had not succeeded in ousting the Taliban after one week in Afghanistan, the Cassandras pronounced that we had gotten ourselves into another Vietnam-like quagmire. Others predicted that out of control U.S. forces would murder thousands upon thousands of innocent Afghan civilians and wondered loudly what we had done to make them hate us so. This was soon followed up by the utterly predictable cry that we had created the Taliban and armed Saddam. Senator Tom Daschle declared himself saddened that this president had failed so miserably at diplomacy that we were now forced to war, saddened that we had to give up one life because this president couldn’t create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical for our country. Columnist and television host Chris Mathews predicted: “This invasion of Iraq, if it goes off, will join the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Desert One, Beirut and Somalia in the history of military catastrophe.” There’s something very unhealthy about the degree to which liberals predict and expect disaster from every United States use of force.

It’s one thing to resist the projection of American power when we are at peace, but we were attacked. We lost 3,000 people on September 11, innocent civilians; and yet many liberals seem to believe we should fight only if the United Nations gives us its blessing. As in the Cold War, they come up with a thousand reasons why passivity in the face of open aggression is the best course. Before the war in Afghanistan, the failure chorus warned that the winter weather would paralyze our troops and that the Taliban could count on the aid of Muslims worldwide. Before the Iraq War, the negativity brigade warned darkly that our troops would be subject to poison gas or chemical attack. With utter inconsistency, some of the same people are now saying those weapons never existed.

They further proclaimed that the Israelis would be drawn into the conflict thus igniting a wider regional war, that Muslims worldwide would unite against us, that the price of oil would skyrocket, that Iraq’s oil fields would burn out of control creating an ecological catastrophe and that patriotic feeling would cause the Iraqis to fight to the death, just as the Russians had fought at Stalingrad. Once the war had begun, many in the press declared that we had become bogged down in a quagmire after only a few days of fighting. When Iraqi armed forces capitulated in the South, we were told that this was a clever way to draw us into a sustained house-to-house battle in Baghdad that would take months or years to win if we won at all. When Baghdad fell just three weeks after the war had begun, we were told that not since Nebuchadnezzar’s time had the city experienced such a terrible spate of marauding and looting.

The U.S. and Britain had just demonstrated that an enlightened coalition could liberate a nation from a crazy and unspeakably cruel dictator with very few civilian casualties, very little damage to the nation’s infrastructure, and extraordinarily low casualties for the coalition itself. But the news media in Britain and United States were singing lamentations. “Where, oh where, were the precious antiquities from the Iraqi museum?” It turns out they were all fine. From a reported 170,000 missing pieces they now cannot account for only 25. “Why is the electricity still not functioning?” they asked. “Why are there shortages of water? What about the street crime?”

As each problem is solved, a new lament is discovered. I freely admit that I did not anticipate a failure to find weapons of mass destruction, thereby giving them another argument to use. Apparently the CIA and the other major intelligence services around the world were mistaken about the condition of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. David Kay, the chief investigator, has plenty of evidence of WMD programs but no actual weapons. But rather than view this as an intelligence failure, liberals are all united in declaring that Bush must have lied. Have they thought this through? The United Nations, the Democrats themselves, Britain, France, Russia, the whole world believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that his programs for developing nuclear weapons were more advanced than they turned out to be. He had used poison gas, after all, against the Kurds and the Iranians.


We are now engaged in a great debate over whether Iraq is another Vietnam. This says far more about the liberal mind than it does about history. There are very few parallels between the two conflicts except in the way liberals respond to them. Here’s a quote from a liberal journalist from the online magazine,, writing just after the fall of Baghdad. Gary Kayima wrote this.

I have a confession. I have at times, as the war has unfolded, secretly wished for things to go wrong. Wished for the Iraqis to be more nationalistic, to resist longer. Wished for the Arab world to rise up in rage. Wished for all the things we feared would happen. I’m not alone. A number of serious, intelligent, morally sensitive people who oppose the war have told me they had identical feelings.

Few were as forthright as this, and yet we know they shared this sentiment by looking at the reporting from Iraq. It does bear similarities to the reporting that was done about the offensive in Vietnam. Today, losses and bombings are news, but they are being spun into the only news. The magnitude of what our people are achieving in Iraq is not being described. Americans have developed an entirely new currency. They are building the banking system up from scratch. Hospitals are being resupplied and hiring new staff. They’re training and putting new police on the streets. They’re opening schools. All of this is being done from the ground up. Yet many of the most influential people in the U.S. not only dwell on setbacks and reversals, they seem to welcome them. It’s a perversity of our times that those who claim to be most dedicated to liberty are so alienated from the nation that best embodies it, the United States.     *

“He who reigns within himself and rules his passions, desires, and fears is more than a king.” --Thucydides


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