Samantha Smith, a fifth grader from Maine who became “America’s Youngest Diplomat”
In 1982, in one of the coldest moments of the Cold War, a fifth-grader from Manchester, Maine named Samantha Smith wrote a letter to Soviet Union leader Yuri Andropov. “I was worried about Russia and the United States entering a nuclear war,” she wrote. “Would you vote to go to war or not? If not, please tell me how you would help not to go to war. Note: please write back.”
“It’s a little hard to understand the news, because they put it in adult terms,” Samantha said, as she explained to CBS News at the time.
But when Andropov actually wrote, he made national news.
I went on Nightline with Ted Koppel:
Coppell: “You have a pen pal over there, Samantha. What did he write to you?”
Smith: “Well, I asked him why he wanted to conquer the world. And he wrote me again and said he wanted no such thing.”
In his letter, Andropov invited Samantha and her parents to visit the Soviet Union, where she was treated like a star.
Lori LaBar, curator of the Maine State Museum in Augusta, showed Roca Polaroid photos taken by Samantha to the crowds. She said, “There are a couple of pictures here where you just see there are paparazzi all over the place” – all busy taking pictures to her.
During their two-week trip, Samantha becomes one of the Cold War’s most unlikely peace ambassadors. The reason for the Kremlin’s invitation of Samantha to the Soviet Union has been a matter of speculation.
“That was one of the fears that people in the United States had about her going, that she would be a tool for the Soviets, a propaganda trick,” said LaBar. “I don’t think anyone was ready for Samantha, honestly, because she was so guiltless. I think that charmed everyone.”
In the Artek camp in Crimea, Samantha was welcomed by thousands of Soviet children, few of whom had ever met an American. In the camp tradition, she throws a bottle with a message of peace into the Black Sea.
“Which I thought was a wonderful summation of her entire journey,” LaBar said in an editorial cartoon by Don Wright, of the Miami Herald, depicting Samantha Smith jumping from one country’s nuclear warhead to another.
Back home in Maine, Samantha is greeted with a show, and charms Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show”.
Johnny Carson: “Do you know what the Bolshoi means?”
Carson: “Yeah, great, or big. That’s all it means.”
Smith: “I thought you didn’t know Russian.”
Today at Manchester Primary, the very school Samantha attended 40 years ago, students learn about her mission for peace.
One student, Mika, said, “You communicated with love and kindness, and you made the world a better place.”
Another, Hunter, said, “It makes me feel that even kids my age can make a big difference in the world.”
“I think she still wants to be a normal 11-year-old,” said Jessica Dwyer, a classmate and close friend of Samantha’s. She said Samantha never brags about what a big deal she will become… except for that time she appeared as a guest on the sitcom “Charles in Charge.” “Scott Baio’s reason, of course!” I laughed. “I mean, my only request was that you re-sign it. And you did!”
Sadly, Samantha Smith’s life ended just two years after her trip to the Soviet Union. In 1985, he came home from filming a TV series, The small plane she and her father were in crashes, killing all eight on board. She was 13 years old.
Roca Dwyer asked, “How did your 13-year-old brain process that she was dead?”
She replied, “It took me a long time to accept that.” “And I’ll share this, I haven’t shared it with a lot of people: I always thought she and her dad got off the plane and were in a tree, living this wonderful life. And I think that was just my way of keeping her memory alive.”
Today, there is a statue of Samantha in Augusta – a memorial to the girl who is nicknamed “America’s Youngest Diplomat.”
Listen to “Mobituaries” episode “Samantha Smith: Death of a Peacemaker”
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Story produced by Mary Lou Tell. Editor: Mike Levine.