Here’s another repost from June 2018, a post inspired by my childhood in the 1980s. This one is about the late Samantha Smith, who made history by writing to Yuri Andropov and getting invited to visit the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Samantha was nine days younger than me, but sadly, she died in a plane crash in 1985. Little did I know, when Samantha was alive, that I, too, would one day go to what was once the Soviet Union. The 80s were an interesting time to be a kid.
I was born on June 20, 1972. Nine days later, Samantha Smith was born. Samantha Smith would change the world during her 13 years of life. I’m about to turn 46 (and now I’m 49) and I’m still wondering what my purpose is.
A few weeks ago, I suddenly remembered Samantha Smith, who was ten years old when she wrote a moving letter to former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. She was concerned about the threat of nuclear war. In the early 1980s, everyone was talking about nukes and the so-called “red button”. Like so many of her peers, Samantha was scared. But she had guts and initiative. So, in November 1982, she wrote:
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.
This was not Samantha’s first letter to a world leader. In fact, she’d even written to another leader when she was five– Queen Elizabeth II– to express her admiration. Samantha’s letter was printed in the Soviet paper, Pravda, but she did not receive a reply from Andropov right away. Undaunted, Samantha wrote another letter, this time to the Soviet Union’s Ambassador to the United States.
Mr. Andropov was very moved by Samantha’s letter. He wrote back to her in April 1983, affirmed that the Soviet Union did not want to wage a nuclear war, and invited her to visit the Soviet Union at a time when Americans were not often allowed to go there.
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.
In the summer of 1983, Samantha visited Russia, where she caused quite a sensation. She spent two weeks in Moscow as Mr. Andropov’s guest and had the opportunity to visit Artek, which was a big Soviet pioneer camp. During the Soviet era, young children were involved in the Young Pioneers, which was a massive youth organization. She also went to Leningrad (St. Petersburg), where she was presented with many gifts. Smith and her parents were amazed by how friendly the people were.
So many years later, I was watching Samantha Smith on old YouTube videos. There are many comments from Russians who remembered and admired her. She truly was a heroine to many Russians and Americans alike, although there were some skeptics out there who felt she was being used as a Soviet propaganda pawn.
When Samantha and her parents came home to Maine, they were treated to a warm welcome involving a red carpet and limousine. Samantha was interviewed by many famous people, including Ted Koppel and Johnny Carson. In 1985, she even tried her hand at acting when she was cast as a regular in a TV show called Lime Street.
Tragically, on August 25, 1985, Samantha Smith and her father, Arthur, died in a plane crash. They were returning home on Bar Harbor Airlines Flight 1808 after having filmed a segment for Lime Street. The pilot was attempting to land the plane when it hit some trees 4007 feet shy of the runway. The airplane crashed, killing the six passengers and two crew members aboard. Although some in the Soviet Union thought she might have been a victim of foul play, an investigation revealed that the pilots were inexperienced and the rainy weather conditions contributed to the difficulty in landing the plane.
Samantha Smith’s visit inspired goodwill all over the world, especially in the United States and Russia. In fact, in 1986, a Soviet child named Katya Lycheva even spent time in the United States. A 1987 storyline on The Golden Girls was even inspired by Samantha’s story, although it was ditzy Rose Nylund who wrote the letter, not a ten year old girl.
I wonder what would have become of Samantha Smith had she been able to grow up. I wonder what she would think of our current political situation. I think of what it was like for me, 23 years ago, moving to what was once a Soviet country and finding out that the people over there are much like we are. She could have had a wonderful career, spreading world peace and goodwill. Some people are never meant to grow old, yet still manage to change the world.
When I was watching videos on YouTube last night, I also thought of Ryan White, who was another one of my contemporaries. He contracted AIDS after having been given a tainted blood infusion to treat his hemophilia. Ryan White was kicked out of school and harassed by his peers for having AIDS. In those days, a lot of small minded people thought of it as a disease God sent to punish gay people. It didn’t help that Ryan was from a small town in Indiana, where there were many ignorant people who thought he was gay simply because he had what was then considered a “gay” disease.
White went on to influence the world, even making friends with Elton John and Michael Jackson, both of whom were at his funeral when he died in April 1990. I vividly remember watching Lukas Haas play White in a TV movie about his life. White was himself in the film with a minor role. So was Sarah Jessica Parker.
While we’ve come a long way in the fight against AIDS since Ryan White’s day, we’re still really struggling with world peace. I just started reading another book about the Holocaust. It’s a story about a Jewish Dutch woman who watched as her country was overtaken by Nazis. I have to confess, reading her comments about what happened before Hitler completely took over gave me chills. So much of it is familiar today. Maybe it’s not quite as extreme now as it was in the 40s… or maybe it just doesn’t seem as extreme to me as it might to someone with brown skin, living in America’s Heartland. The one thing that gives me hope is that the world eventually came to its senses somewhat, after World War II. I hope it doesn’t come to war to make the powers that be in the United States regain their senses…
Well, those are my deep thoughts for today. The 1980s were fascinating. I’m glad I was around to see them.