Commentary Magazine

When Useful Idiots Were Useful

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Last week, Robert Mueller’s probe established with legal precision the methods Russian nationals used to sow chaos and dissension in 2016. Moscow’s efforts ranged from laughably silly to quite menacing; all of it amounted to an attack on American sovereignty. The precise effects of the Russian operation are still debatable, but whatever efficacy it enjoyed would have been impossible without the aid and support of Russia’s unwitting accomplices in the United States.

Media outlets have dutifully begun to work backward from the special counsel’s indictment to identify formerly anonymous Trump supporters in the grassroots who voluntarily boosted the signal for Russia’s propagandists. It’s not entirely clear how the discourse is advanced when reporters show up on an elderly woman’s yard to berate her for unknowingly being “in communication electronically with Russians,” but media literacy is an absolute good. If this new crusade is an honest one, though, it won’t begin and end on poor old Florine Goldfarb’s front yard. Those on the left who spent the previous century engaging in any political activity are going to have hell to pay.

The CIA has a valuable real-world example of how Moscow’s agitprop found willing human megaphones in the Western world and to what extent they were, well, useful. If you were inclined toward value judgments, you might even say that the KGB’s campaign to create the impression that AIDS was an invention of Western intelligence agencies, for example, was a marginally greater threat to Western political cohesion than “Killary Rotten Clinton” Facebook memes.

The “active measures” appealed to by Soviet Bloc intelligence agencies in the 1980s to advance the notion that the AIDS virus was developed at Fort Detrick to wipe out homosexuals and African Americans placed a premium on self-hating Westerners. “The KGB was particularly keen on employing another of its standard active-measure practices, the use of unwitting agents who were held in high esteem in their home countries,” the CIA study revealed. “Often, these individuals were journalists, scientists, or other public figures with left-wing views who were not openly pro-Soviet. Bloc intelligence referred to them as ‘agents of influence,’ ‘subconscious multiplicators,’ or simply as ‘useful idiots.’”

The Soviets were fortunate; they never lacked for “subconscious multiplicators” willing to malign the United States under the flimsiest of pretenses. South African President Thabo Mbeki accused the CIA of covering up details about the true nature of AIDS transmission, a claim that is believed to have contributed to approximately 300,000 deaths in his severely affected country. Nobel Peace Prize, Kenyan ecologist Wangari Maathai also claimed AIDS was “designed by some evil-minded scientists” as a biological warfare agent. Barack Obama’s controversial pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, blamed the government for “inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.” The author Gary Glum postulated that the World Health Organization deliberately spread the CIA-created pandemic under the guise of the smallpox eradication campaign. Polling between 1990 and 2005 suggests that a significant portion of the population agreed with the notion that AIDS was a “man-made virus” designed to “kill and wipe out black people.”

To be charitable, echoing Soviet propaganda when you first encounter it among people you trust is forgivable, if not entirely understandable. It’s much harder to countenance abetting the work of the West’s enemies when that work isn’t well concealed. Soviet efforts to cultivate “agents of influence” in the peace movements of the early 1980s were obvious.

Much like the Russian efforts to organize political demonstrations in 2016 both for and against Trump, the Soviets were actively involved in planning demonstrations in New York City in support of the “nuclear freeze” movement—only instead of measuring this gathering in the tens of participants, the event drew 500,000 marchers. According to the testimony of both CIA and FBI officers, the Soviet Union saw an opportunity in this organic movement and sought to co-opt it. The “freeze” movement had significant support in America’s elite political circles; Senate Democrats sponsored resolutions compelling the Reagan administration to adopt it. Walter Mondale ran against the president in 1984 on a “freeze” platform—an agenda item drew no opposition from Mondale’s primary opponents, Senators Alan Cranston or Gary Hart. No serious observer would claim that these Democrats were Soviet assets merely because their views on arms control were determined to be of value for the Kremlin.

European leftist peace movements were even more vulnerable to Soviet influence and infiltration than their American counterparts. “The KGB carries out a wide range of overt and covert activities, including the dissemination of officially sponsored propaganda, attendance at disarmament conferences, friendship and cultural events, and speaking engagements in the guise of accredited Soviet diplomatic and official representatives and journalists,” wrote Walter Laqueur and Robert Edwards Hunter in their 1985 book on the Soviet Union’s active measures in Europe. The Soviets’ goal was to establish “informal contacts with peace groups and their principal members, and the collection of information about the views of peace organizations and their membership.”

Among those movements that the Soviet Bloc intelligence infiltrated was Labour Action for Peace (LAP)—a leftist group eventually led by the current leader of the Labour Party in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn. Though it seems Corbyn himself was not recruited to serve as an asset for the East, as other British MPs like John Stonehouse and William Owen were, it is clear that both Corbyn (who was assigned a code name by Czechoslovak intelligence) and the organization he went on to lead were of great value to the Communist world. After all, according to East German Stasi archives, “The position of leading representatives of the LAP coincides with that of the socialist countries: The blame for the escalation of the nuclear arms race is borne by the U.S. and its NATO allies.”

None of this excuses the behavior of Americans on either side of the divide in 2016 who were wooed by shoddy Russian propaganda. Indeed, it’s condemnation in the strongest of terms; there’s no redemption for Republicans who adopted the most detestable traits of their political foes. But this national outpouring of condemnation targeting those who found something to love in Russian propaganda should strive to achieve comprehensiveness. If some Trump supporters are damnably naïve for letting Moscow lead them around by the nose for a few months, what does that say about the left’s enduring infatuation with the Soviets?

Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!

For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.

6 weeks free! Then 29.99/year

6 weeks free! Then 19.99/year