Samantha Reed Smith
(June 29, 1972-August 25, 1985)
"Actually, the whole thing started when I asked my mother if there was going to be a war. There was always something on television about missiles and nuclear bombs. Once I watched a science show on public television and the scientists said that a nuclear war would wreck the Earth and destroy the atmosphere. Nobody would win a nuclear war. I remembered that I woke up one morning and wondered if this was going to be the last day of the Earth.
I asked my mother who would start a war and why. She showed me a news magazine with a story about America and Russia, one that had a picture of the new Russian leader, Yuri Andropov, on the cover. We read it together. It seemed that the people in both Russia and America were worried that the other country would start a nuclear war. It all seemed so dumb to me. I had learned about the awful things that had happened during World War II, so I thought that nobody would ever want to have another war. I told Mom that she should write to Mr. Andropov to find out who was causing all the trouble. She said, "Why don't you write to him?" So I did."
In the summer of 1983, 11-year-old Samantha Smith from Manchester, Maine, was the most famous little girl in the world. Images of a freckle-faced smiling Samantha holding a letter from the Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov and later touring the Soviet Union went out on all news wires.
“Actually, the whole thing started when I asked my mother if there is going to be a war,” Samantha wrote in her book, “Journey to the Soviet Union.”
In response to her daughter’s question about war, Jane Smith showed Samantha a November 1982 Time magazine, with stern bi-spectacled Andropov gracing its cover. In it some U.S. experts were concerned about escalating U.S.-Soviet conflict; others saw “the transfer of power in the Kremlin [as] an opportunity to relieve tensions.”
Samantha’s reaction: “If everyone is so afraid of him, why don’t they ask him if he is going to start a war?”
“Why don’t you write to him?” suggested Jane.
Samantha did just that. She penned a question that was on the minds of many adults, “Are you going to vote to have a war or not?” She addressed the envelope, “Mr. Yuri Andropov, the Kremlin, Moscow, USSR,” mailed it and soon forgot about it.
When called to the phone in Secretary Peabody’s office at her Manchester Elementary School several months later, Samantha learned from an United Press International reporter that her letter was published in Pravda. Baffled as to why she didn’t receive a response, Samantha wrote another letter — to the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. Andropov’s response arrived a little more than a week later.
“It was the sincerity of Samantha’s letter that garnered attention,” continued Gorbachev. “We understood at the time that people on both sides of the ocean were very worried, and they wanted to make sure that their concern was felt by the leaders of USSR and USA. An American girl was able to express that in her letter.”
By the time Samantha got home from school that day, her lawn was covered with reporters. By evening she and her mother were bound for New York for interviews on NBC and CBS. In his letter Andropov wrote that Soviets didn’t want to start a war. They were busy “growing wheat, building and inventing, writing books and flying into space.” And he invited Samantha’s family to visit USSR in the summer.
On July 7, 1983, Samantha and her family departed for Moscow. Cheerful, blue-eyed Samantha seemed so unlike the “armed to the teeth Americans” that often appeared in Soviet political cartoons. Media crews from all over the world filmed her swimming with the Soviet kids at camp Artek and being a perfect diplomat as she visited the Red Square.
Smith family’s tour was broadcast on the two available Soviet channels, and the Soviets were glued to the TV screens following the girl’s every move. For many in the Soviet Union Samantha and her family put a human face on the U.S. On the other side of the ocean, Americans got a rare glimpse of the Soviet Union.
When Samantha was killed in a plane crash in 1985, the heads of the two most powerful nations on earth sent condolences to Samantha's mother, Jane:
"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." -- Mikhail Gorbachev
"Perhaps you can take some measure of comfort in the knowledge that millions of Americans, indeed millions of people, share the burdens of your grief. They also will cherish and remember Samantha, her smile, her idealism and unaffected sweetness of spirit." -- Ronald Reagan
In October 1985, Jane Smith founded the Samantha Smith Foundation, which sponsored Soviet-American exchanges for the next decade. A statue of Samantha letting out a peace dove, with a bear sitting at her feet, now stands at the entrance of the Maine State Museum in Augusta. The Soviet government issued a commemorative stamp; a diamond, a mountain, a cultivar of tulips, and even an asteroid were given Samantha’s name.
Following her trip Samantha wrote: “I mean, if we could be friends by just getting to know each other better, then what are our countries really arguing about? Nothing could be more important than not having a war if a war would kill everything.”
This text appeared in part in "Mikhail Gorbachev Reflects on America's Youngest Ambassador, Samantha Smith," Bangor Daily News, July 10, 2013. By Lena Nelson.