Samantha Smith, the forgotten peacemaker

By Robert Hawes

I was only ten years old in 1983, but I well remember the political tensions of the time. In those days, my family and I lived in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, a mere stone's throw from Washington D.C.; and I knew enough even then to realize that, if the Soviet Union ever decided to send President Reagan some radioactive airmail, we would be there to sign for it right along with him. I imagined that I had some idea of how awful a nuclear war would be (looking back on it, I was clueless, really), but I also thought that there was a whole lot of nothing I could do about it.

If and when the alarms went off and the Emergency Broadcast System interrupted Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to announce that negotiations between East and West had broken down for the final time, well, I figured that that would be that. I had heard that Soviet ICBMs would take around forty minutes to reach us, whereas submarine-launched missiles would take maybe less than half of that time. We were too close to the city to go anywhere fast, not when hundreds of thousands of other people would be trying to get out of Dodge, too, and points to the south and west of us would likely be hit as well (Dulles Airport and Quantico among them...cue Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire"). My only consolation at the time was the knowledge that, while my parents and I were running for the basement with what we could carry, somewhere out there Uncle Sam would be sending the commies a formal protest, one inscribed on the gleaming steel cylinders of thousands of nuclear bombs and missiles of our own - and our stuff was better than theirs. Surely, we wouldn't lose.

Meanwhile, while I was busy imagining how manfully (or not) I would face The End, a little girl living several hundred miles to the north had considered the same scenario and put her foot down. Enough of this "Will we or won't we?" business, Samantha Smith decided. It was time to call the Soviets out.

Writing to the newly installed General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, in November of 1982, Smith was charmingly polite but to the point:

"My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren't please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight."

The Soviets received Samantha's letter and published it in Pravda. Later, in April of 1983, Samantha received a reply from Andropov himself. In it, Andropov complimented her courage and assured her that the Soviet people deplored the idea of nuclear war every bit as much as Americans did: 

We want nothing of the kind. No one in our country - neither workers, peasants, writers nor doctors, neither grown-ups nor children, nor members of the government - want either a big or 'little' war.

We want peace-there is something that we are occupied with: growing wheat, building and inventing, writing books and flying into space. We want peace for ourselves and for all peoples of the planet. For our children and for you, Samantha.

Andropov followed this assurance with an invitation for Samantha to visit the Soviet Union, to meet the people, visit a children's camp and, in short, to "see for yourself: in the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples."

Samantha and her parents accepted Andropov's invitation, and history was made. The intrepid little girl from Maine became an instant, global celebrity, an inspiration to millions who feared for the future, as well as an object of skepticism on the part those who felt that the Soviet government was using her for propaganda purposes. Dubbed "America's Youngest Ambassador," Samantha spent two weeks in the Soviet Union and was impressed with the friendliness of the Soviet people (although she never did meet Yuri Andropov in person, the Soviet leader being seriously ill and in seclusion at the time). 

Upon returning to the United States, Samantha continued for a time in the public eye, speaking at the Children's International Symposium in Kobe, Japan (during which she suggested an "International Granddaughter Exchange" in order to facilitate peace and understanding between opposing countries), interviewing various political figures during the 1984 general election campaign, writing a book about her trip to the Soviet Union, and even starring in a television show.

What more Samantha Smith might have accomplished, and in what direction her budding idealism might have developed, can only be imagined; tragically, both she and her father were killed in a plane crash while traveling home to Maine from California on August 25, 1985. She was thirteen years old.

I still remember the media attention that surrounded Samantha Smith and her trip to the Soviet Union. Most of the adults I overheard in conversation at the time were of the opinion that she was being used by the Soviets to put a pleasant face on Communism, and I pretty well took my cue from what I heard. Still, I couldn't help but be impressed that a kid just like me had captured the world's attention by the simple act of writing a letter. What Samantha had done challenged my perception of the world as a place where one person could not make a difference, unless that person happened to be rich and famous.

Samantha also challenged me in another important way in that what she had to say about her visit made me really see, for the first time, that the Soviet people were distinct from their government. Prior to that time, I had seen the entire Soviet Union, down to the last individual, as a repressive monstrosity, teeming with evil, dedicated to the destruction of human freedom in general and the United States of America in particular. I would not have been saddened had I heard that the earth had opened up and swallowed the entire country in one righteous gulp. I was only a child then, of course, immature, lacking in knowledge of the world at large, and fiercely loyal to "my side," as children so often are (and as Samantha Smith herself was at first, given the wording of her letter to Andropov); but my worldview began to mature after Samantha opened the Soviet Union up a little and let us average folk have a look inside. From then on, the tragedy of nuclear war (of war at all, for that matter) took on a new dimension. I no longer saw only American children huddled in their basements in fear of impending annihilation, but Soviet children as well - both equally wanting to live and grow up, both feeling equally helpless as their governments tried to destroy one another for whatever reason.

Now, don't get me wrong here: none of this should be taken as an apology for the Soviet Union. The Soviet state was, in fact, a repressive monstrosity, second only to Communist China in terms of oppression and murder among the nations of the modern world. Nor was Yuri Andropov the grandfatherly sort of man that Samantha Smith envisioned him when she received his reply to her letter. In reality, Andropov was brutal and ruthless, a true believer in iron-fisted tyranny. He had played a key role in the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Afghanistan, and, had he been younger and in better health when he ascended to the leadership of the Soviet empire, East and West might very well have had that war they so narrowly avoided.

So, no, Yuri Andropov was no kindly old reformed Communist eagerly seeking an opportunity to display the fruits of his repentance before the world. His invitation to Samantha Smith was a convenient propaganda piece, and a masterful one at that. Whether it was his idea or a bit of public relations magic his handlers conjured up for him, we may never know; but it was a play that would have made Lenin himself crack a chilly smile. It scored the Soviet government some brownie points in the court of international opinion at the time.

That said, however, Samantha's visit ultimately back-fired on the Soviet propagandists more than it benefited them, and it did so in two important ways: first, by providing a much-needed respite in an atmosphere of otherwise unremitting hostility; and second, as I've already indicated with regard to myself, it caused the American and Soviet people to re-evaluate one another a bit. As the Christmas truce of the First World War demonstrates, the last thing that most governments want is their people mixing with the enemy, as, more often than not, once those peoples come together, they discover that those they have been trained to hate really don't sleep in coffins or toss babies about on bayonets. The Soviet people impressed Samantha with their - well, humanity - and she opened their eyes a bit as well; the Soviets eventually named a diamond, a mountain, and an asteroid after her, and issued a postage stamp with her likeness. At the time of her death, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote:

Everyone in the Soviet Union who has known Samantha Smith will forever remember the image of the American girl who, like millions of Soviet young men and women, dreamt about peace, and about friendship between the peoples of the United States and the Soviet Union.

Samantha once told "Nightline's" Ted Koppel that she hoped her efforts on behalf of peace would do some good. Clearly, they did. While Samantha herself never lived to see the Berlin Wall battered to pieces and the hammer-and-sickle lowered from the spires of Moscow to the cheers of hopeful millions, she became a symbol of the courageous vision that brought about those events in the fullness of time.

History's gallery walls are crowded with the portraits of warriors, conquerors and tyrants, but precious few advocates for peace. And of those few, Samantha Smith is unique; never before or since has anyone so young impacted the world stage, and she did so at an especially crucial time. It is to our shame and detriment that we have largely forgotten her. Today's troubled world could use an infusion of her optimism and her call for understanding. We could do with a reminder that, although there are truly evil people in the world and we do right in opposing them, far too often we allow ourselves to be overcome by prejudices that blind us in terms of how we perceive other cultures, and how they perceive us.

And so, here's to you, Samantha, one of the blessed peacemakers, from one of your generation who still remembers. You challenged us. You encouraged us. You gave us hope. You did us proud.

Robert Hawes


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