• A Tribute to Samantha Smith

    Email Print
    Share

     

     
     

    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.

    Email Print
    Share
  • Political Theatre

  • LRC Blog

    LRC Podcasts