A Tribute to Samantha Smith

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u201CBlessed
are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.u201D
~ Matthew 5:9

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 u201CRing of Fireu201D). 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
u201CWill we or won't we?u201D 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 u201Csee for yourself: in the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace
and friendship among peoples.u201D

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 u201CAmerica's Youngest Ambassador,u201D 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 u201CInternational Granddaughter Exchangeu201D 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
u201Cmy side,u201D 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 Soviets 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
Smith postage stamp issued by the Soviet Union in 1985

 
 

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.

Samantha
Smith's official web page.

Reprinted
from The Jeffersonian.

April
12, 2010

Robert Hawes
is the author of One
Nation, Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution
.
This article, along with his past writings, can be found on his
blog
. He lives in South Carolina with his family, and is working
on a career as a freelance writer.

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