In 1982, the US and USSR were still quite deep in the cold war. It may be hard to remember now, but we were still worried about nuclear attacks. Not in the naive way the folks in the 50s and 60s were ducking under desks or building bunkers. By the late-70s and early-80s, we were pretty much aware that any nuclear attack would be the end of civilization as we know it, and survival was unlikely. Or, more likely, not advisable.
I was 12, and while I was still more interested in listening to music -- there was a great new band out called Duran Duran -- and watching TV and doing normal pre-teen things, the threat of nuclear war was a constant thing in the back of my mind.
It didn't help that it seemed like the leaders of the USSR kept getting "colds" and then dying. Leonid Brezhnev was replaced by Yuri Andropov in November 1982, and most people in the US were very worried about his connection with the KGB. This was the time when President Reagan was talking about a program to launch missiles from space, dubbed Star Wars. The Soviets were fighting in Afghanistan, and tensions were high. Andropov was a new worry, and kept showing up on the news and in magazines.
Ten year old Samantha Smith, asked her mother, "If people are so afraid of him, why doesn't someone write a letter asking whether he wants to have a war or not?" Her mother replied, "Why don't you?" So she did.
Dear Mr. Andropov,And she received a reply!
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.
Dear Samantha,He invited this brave little girl to visit the USSR. And she went! Twenty-nine years ago today, July 7, 1983, she and parents flew to Moscow to spend two weeks as Andropov's guest, visiting Moscow and Leningrad and spending time in Artek, the Soviet pioneer camp.
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 her book, she explains how she and her parents were amazed by the friendliness of the people and by the presents they received. At a press conference in Moscow, she said the Russians were "just like us". While visiting the pioneer camp Artek, she insisted on staying with the Soviet children instead of the privileged accommodation the government offered her. She shared a dormitory with nine other girls, all of whom were fluent in English, which helped with communication. She spent her days swimming, talking and learning Russian songs and dances.
"Olga and the girls in my room dressed me in an Artek uniform and tied my hair up with the white chiffon bows that the Soviet girls like to wear. I wore the blue-and-white visitor's scarf because the red one is only for regular members."Soviet media followed her everywhere, and photographs and articles about her were published by the main newspapers and magazines throughout her trip and after it. Many Soviet citizens were quite fond of her.
Upon her return to the United States, she was celebrated as "America's Youngest Ambassador" by many, and was invited to visit Japan to meet with the Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, and to give a speech at the Children's International Symposium in Kobe. As part of her speech, she suggested that the Soviet and American leaders exchange their granddaughters for two weeks every year, with the idea that neither president would "want to send a bomb to a country his granddaughter would be visiting".
Sadly, Samantha and her father were returning home in August 1985, when their plane crashed, and they both perished. Americans and Soviets alike mourned for her. Vladimir Kulagin, who worked in the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., who read a message of condolence written by Mikhail Gobrachev.
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.
And President Reagan sent condolences to Smith's mother.
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. They also will cherish and remember Samantha, her smile, her idealism and unaffected sweetness of spirit.
Samantha Smith meeting cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova