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In December 1982 Samantha Smith, a 10-year-old girl from Manchester, Me., wrote to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov to ask if he was going to wage a nuclear war against the U.S. The following July she toured the USSR at his invitation and as a result, became known as America’s youngest goodwill ambassador.

Samantha Reed Smith

“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.?

Like millions of American children during the Cold War, 10-year-old Samantha Smith of Manchester, Maine, was terrified of getting nuked by the Russians. News reports and TV specials about nuclear bombs, missile defense systems, and ?mutually assured destruction? were commonplace, and Smith got more and more frightened about the possibility of war.

In the summer of 1983, 10-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.

For months, there was no response?until her letter was published in Pravda, the Soviet state newspaper, as a plea for international understanding. But that didn?t mean much to Samantha-she?d written the letter to Andropov himself, and she wanted a reply that answered her questions.

Samantha Smith was born on June 29, 1972, in the small town of Houlton, Maine, on the Canada?United States border, to Jane Reed and Arthur Smith. At the age of five, she wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth II in order to express her admiration to the monarch. When Smith had finished second grade in the spring of 1980, the family settled in Manchester, Maine, where she attended Manchester Elementary School. Her father served as an instructor at Ricker College in Houlton before teaching literature and writing at the University of Maine at Augusta while her mother worked as a social worker with the Maine Department of Human Services.

Samantha Smith saw Yuri Andropov on the cover of Time magazine, with an accompanying article on the former KGB chief?s career that would be alarming to any discerning reader, even one who was 10 years old. ?God made the world for us to live together in peace,? Samantha told Andropov in her December 1982 letter, ?and not to fight.? Soviet premier Yuri Andropov sent a letter to 10-year-old Samantha Reed Smith of Manchester, Maine. He assured the American girl that his countrymen did not want war with the United States, and invited her to visit the Soviet Union. It was a propaganda ploy, to be sure. But young Samantha had some innate public relations skills of her own. She accepted Andropov?s offer ? and gave hope to a nervous world.

Military vehicles move along Red Square in Moscow during a Victory Day parade on May 9, 2009. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

In November 1982, two days after the death of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, former head of the KGB Yuri Andropov was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. His KGB past raised some international eyebrows, and Andropov was?preoccupied?with the idea that the U.S. was planning a nuclear attack to overthrow the Soviet government.

An ailing, 69-year-old Yuri Andropov was running the Soviet Union from his Moscow hospital bed as the United States and its NATO allies conducted a massive series of war games that seemed to confirm some of his darkest fears.

Two years earlier Andropov had ordered KGB officers around the globe to gather evidence for what he was nearly certain was coming: A surprise nuclear strike by the U.S. that would decapitate the Soviet leadership. While many didn’t believe that the U.S. had such plans, they dutifully supplied the Kremlin with whatever suspicious evidence they could find, feeding official paranoia.

For two years, KGB agents had been scouring the world for evidence of what the Soviet leadership believed were U.S. preparations for all-out nuclear war against the U.S.S.R.

The Soviets certainly made no secret of their fears at the time. One key document, released by the Library of Congress, describes how Andropov repeatedly warned that the U.S. was approaching the “red line” leading to nuclear war when he met with veteran U.S. diplomat Averell Harriman in June 1983.

But President Reagan was unsure if the Soviets were really convinced that the U.S. was preparing a sneak attack on them, or were merely ” huffing and puffing,” as Reagan asked his ambassador to the U.S.S.R. in 1984.

There was skepticism in Washington about Andropov’s sincerity. Three days after the end of Able Archer 83, the CIA issued a Top Secret Joint Net Assessment of U.S. and Soviet strategic forces that assured senior administration officials that the balance of forces “is probably adequate to deter a direct nuclear attack on the United States.” It did not acknowledge the possibility of nuclear war through miscalculation.

With all of this uncertainty and suspicion swirling in the air,?Time?magazine put Andropov on the cover?that month. Samantha Smith, a 10-year-old from Manchester, Maine, saw it and wondered?why someone didn?t just flat-out ask the Soviet leader if he was thinking about waging war. ?Why don?t you write to him?? her mother replied. So,?she did:

Dear Mr. Andropov,

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.


Samantha Smith

?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.

?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.?

?Excerpts from Samantha’s letter were published in the Soviet newspaper “Pravda”, and said, in reference to her question about why Andropov might want to conquer the world: “We think we can pardon Samantha her misleadings, because the girl is only ten years old.? Samantha was?pleased that “Pravda” had printed her letter, but couldn’t understand why no attempt was made to answer her questions. ?Samantha Reed Smith turned out to be a difficult person to patronize. She penned another letter, this one to Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, inquiring whether Andropov planned to answer her directly. ?I thought my questions were good ones,? she added, ?and it shouldn?t matter if I was ten years old.? ?A week later the Soviet Embassy called Samantha at home to say that a reply from Yuri Andropov was on its way.?On April 26 she received a response from Yuri Andropov.

Andropov responded with an uncommonly warm letter comparing Samantha to Mark Twain?s Becky Thatcher, while including some educational material designed to assure his young pen pal that Soviets viewed armed conflict as a last resort. He asserted that the Russians? grievous loss of life in World War II made them fearful of total war, and that the Soviet Union ? unlike the United States ? had pledged never to use weapons of mass destruction first.

The letter, typed in Russian on creamed coloured paper and signed in blue ink, was dated April 19, 1983, and was accompanied by an English translation.

Dear Samantha,

I received your letter, which is like many others that have reached me recently from your country and from other countries around the world.

It seems to me?I can tell by your letter?that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling Becky, the friend of Tom Sawyer in the famous book of your compatriot Mark Twain. This book is well known and loved in our country by all boys and girls.

You write that you are anxious about whether there will be a nuclear war between our two countries. And you ask are we doing anything so that war will not break out.

Your question is the most important of those that every thinking man can pose. I will reply to you seriously and honestly.

Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are trying to do everything so that there will not be war on Earth. This is what every Soviet man wants. This is what the great founder of our state, Vladimir Lenin, taught us.

Soviet people well know what a terrible thing war is. Forty-two years ago, Nazi Germany which strove for supremacy over the whole world, attacked our country, burned and destroyed many thousands of our towns and villages, killed millions of Soviet men, women and children.

In that war, which ended with our victory, we were in alliance with the United States: together we fought for the liberation of many people from the Nazi invaders. I hope that you know about this from your history lessons in school. And today we want very much to live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbors on this earth?with those far away and those near by. And certainly with such a great country as the United States of America.

In America and in our country there are nuclear weapons?terrible weapons that can kill millions of people in an instant. But we do not want them to be ever used. That’s precisely why the Soviet Union solemnly declared throughout the entire world that never?never?will it use nuclear weapons first against any country. In general we propose to discontinue further production of them and to proceed to the abolition of all the stockpiles on earth.

It seems to me that this is a sufficient answer to your second question: “Why do you want to wage war against the whole world or at least the United States?” 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.

I invite you, if your parents will let you, to come to our country, the best time being this summer. You will find out about our country, meet with your contemporaries, visit an international children’s camp?”Artek”?on the sea. And see for yourself: in the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples.

Thank you for your letter. I wish you all the best in your young life.


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.

April 26, 1983 Samantha suddenly summoned to the headmaster’s office, who told her, “Go home. You received a letter From Mr. Andropov. ” Yuri wrote that the Soviet Union no one is going to fight. The Soviet people want peace, and to Samantha convinced of this herself, left in the summer is coming to the USSR, and verify this personally.

The Letter to Samantha from from Yuri Andropov.

When Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov responded to this letter by inviting its author to visit the USSR, Samantha Smith ?became an overnight celebrity in the United States. ?It was 1983, and renewed fears of a Cold War heating up had a lot of people very concerned. ?This was the year of massive anti nuclear protests in Western Europe and the U.S., as well as the airing of ABC’s made-for-TV blockbuster,?The Day After, which contained graphic scenes of nuclear holocaust. ?The problem for the “nuclear freeze” proponents was that President Ronald Reagan had scrapped the concept of?detente?— “peaceful coexistence” — with the Soviet Union, adopting in its place a much harder line in dealing with the USSR, which he described as an “evil empire” in a March 8, 1983 speech to a National Association of Evangelicals convention at the Sheraton Twin Towers in Orlando, Florida.

Reagan was going forward with predecessor Jimmy Carter’s plan to deploy Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe, a response to the existence of 243 Soviet triple-warhead SS-20s poised to strike that region in the event of war. ?The president described his intentions in a speech before the British parliament in the summer of 1982 — to consign the Soviet Union to the “ash-heap of history.” ?This would be accomplished, he believed, by isolating the USSR economically and engaging it in an arms race that would force the Russians to negotiate a?reduction?in the number of existing nuclear warheads, which Reagan preferred to a freeze in the production of new weapons. ?Reagan was a nuclear abolitionist who abhorred the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction as a deterrent to nuclear war. ?Despite his adherence to a “Zero Option” plan calling for the removal of all nuclear missiles from European soil, many Americans in 1983 viewed him as a rigid Cold Warrior who might go too far in his lifelong desire to destroy Communism.

Into this tense and confrontational situation stepped little Samantha Smith. ?She visited the Soviet Union with her parents in July 1983, touring among other places the city of Leningrad and a youth camp on the shores of the Black Sea. ?The major American networks covered the visit with nightly reports, and Ted Koppel interviewed Samantha on ABC’s?Nightline. ?Though she did not meet Andropov, who was ill, Samantha was provided with a letter from the general secretary, excerpts of which she read on national television. ?Andropov portrayed the Soviet Union as a nation committed to peace. ?The Russians were “just like us,” Samantha declared at a Moscow press conference, implying that Americans had nothing to fear if only the leaders of the two superpowers would be reasonable.

In the United States, some people branded her as a patsy for the communists and claimed that Soviet propagandists were merely using her for their own purposes, but Samantha?s enthusiasm and contagious optimism charmed most Americans and millions of other people around the world.

Samantha Smith (center) visiting the USSR upon the invitation of General Secretary of the Central Committee of CPSU Yuri Andropov in all-Union Artek pioneer camp on July 1, 1983.

The U.S. government allowed the Smiths to go, but they didn?t technically sponsor it or approve it. After all, this was a private citizen being hosted as a guest of a rival nation, and it cast the Russians in a good light. However, for the sake of security, the State Department did prep the family in the two and a half months prior to their trip. (Meanwhile, Samantha appeared on numerous TV shows to discuss the upcoming journey, including?Nightline?and?The Tonight Show.)

On July 7, 1983 Samantha and her parents flew to Moscow, beginning a whirlwind tour and media extravaganza. She was shuttled around in a limousine and saw the sights in Russia?s two biggest cities, Moscow and Leningrad, and learned about the country?s history, its people, and how Communism worked. But Samantha?s favorite part was the familiar world of summer camp. She stayed for a few days at the Artek Young Pioneers Camp (similar to a Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts retreat), where she swam in the Black Sea and hiked with Russian girls her age (all of whom, for the sake of convenience, spoke English).

Every news and TV outlet in the Soviet Union covered the girl?s comings and goings, and Russians gathered along the streets to see her and cheer her name. At one of many press conferences, Samantha was handed a telephone. She listened and then hung up after hearing the voice on the other end repeat the words, ?I kiss you, Samantha, I kiss you!? She had no idea that the person on the phone was cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first women in space and a national hero. ?I thought it was just a kid who was calling,? Samantha later said.

The American girl?s only regret: She never got to meet personally with Yuri Andropov. His handlers had told her that he was too busy. In fact, he was too sick-he suffered from renal failure and was dying. They spoke by phone during the trip; Andropov died in early 1984.

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.?

Though Smith was?unable?to meet Andropov?made her an international celebrity. Over the course of the next two years, Smith became a goodwill ambassador, delivering speeches about how countries could develop better communication and relationships. She participated in a children’s symposium in Japan, and even interviewed presidential candidates for the Disney Channel. Here she is answering questions on?The Today Show?and?The Phil Donahue Show:


Samantha published a book called?Journey to the Soviet Union, appeared on TV, and gave speeches promoting peace around the world. Invited to the Children?s International Symposium in Japan, she even called for a ?granddaughter exchange,? in which Soviet and U.S. leaders should send their granddaughters to live with one another for two weeks every year, mirroring her trip. ?The president wouldn?t want to send a bomb to a country his granddaughter was visiting.?

She became so famous that she started to get offers from the entertainment world. In 1984 she hosted and election special for kids on the Disney Channel called?Samantha Smith Goes to Washington?where she interviewed George McGovern and presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. In 1985 she was cast on Lime Street, an ABC drama starring Robert Wagner as an international insurance fraud investigator; Samantha played his daughter.

Samantha and her Parents.

In August 1985, just after filming the fifth episode of the series, Samantha and her father were aboard a six-passenger plane flying into Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport, near their home in Maine. Bad weather, piloting errors, and incorrect directions from an air traffic control tower caused the plane to crash in a field. There were no survivors. Samantha was 13 years old.?The body Samantha and her father were buried near Houlton, where she was born.

Condolences came from the highest levels of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. governments. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent a personal letter to Samantha?s mother, Jane Smith. So did President Ronald Reagan. ?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,? he wrote. ?They also will cherish and remember Samantha, her smile, her idealism and unaffected sweetness of spirit.?

Investigation of the disaster showed that the entire responsibility for the incident was?pilot error. After the tragic death of Samantha Smith, her life, smile and the memories of her, in one form or another, have?been immortalized in the US and the USSR, and in the Soviet Union to a much greater extent.

“Samantha Smith” in Cyrillic, built in 1986 and named in honour of Samantha in Yalta Sea Port.

1985 USSR stamp with “Samantha Smith” in Cyrillic

The Russians memorialized Samantha in a number of different ways: A postage stamp was issued in her honour and a great diamond discovered in Siberia was named after her, as were a new breed of flower, an asteroid discovered by a Russian astronomer (3147 Samantha), and the Young Pioneer Camp she?d visited in 1983.

In the United States, elementary schools in Sammamish, Washington, and Jamaica, New York, were named for her. By decree of the Maine state legislature, the first Monday of June in Maine is Samantha Smith Day. A lifesize bronze statue of Samantha holding a dove, with a bear cub at her feet holding and American flag, now stands at the Maine state library. The bear is a symbol for Russia; the dove is a symbol for peace.

Andropov?s place was taken, after about a year, by Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who understood that the Soviet system couldn?t sustain its current path. He found a willing partner for negotiations in Ronald Reagan, who despite the Left?s caricature of him, had been talking about arms reductions since 1976. The two men ultimately agreed to make the world safer by vastly reducing their nations’ lethal arsenals.

They were in agreement about something else, too, or someone else.

?Everyone in the Soviet Union who has known Samantha Smith will forever remember the image of the American girl … who dreamt about peace, and about friendship,? Gorbachev said when she died.

In 1986 Jane Smith started the Samantha Smith Foundation. Its mission was to send American children on friendly exchange trips to Russia. More than 1,000 children?went before Smith laid the organization to rest in 1995. After Gorbachev?s Glasnost freedom reforms in the late 1980s, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the director of the foundation, Donna Brustad, told a reporter, ?I think the work that the foundation was originally formed to do has been done.?

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