Thursday, July 08, 2010

Peace Ambassador During the Cold War

The story of Samantha Reed Smith is both amazing and tragic. She became a symbol of hope and friendship during the Cold War era and she managed to obtain an answer about the nuclear threat, straight from the ultimate source within the Kremlin.

Few realised back then that what she learned from her source was a correct view on Soviet strategic intentions, a view that was recently backed-up by declassified interviews with Soviet policy makers and high ranked Soviet military. An achievement even the CIA could not match. The amazing thing about her is that she was only 10 years old and her source was Soviet President Yuri Andropov.

The early 1980's brought a new rise in tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. After years of so-called d├ętente, a new build-up of strategic nuclear weapons started in both East and West. In November 1982, ten year old American Samantha Smith took the bold decision to write a letter to the newly appointed Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. Driven by the fear for a global war, she wanted to ask Yuri Andropov whether he had peaceful intentions or that he wanted war, as some media wrote. Here's her actual letter to the Soviet Leader:

"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 "

The Soviet newspaper Pravda published her letter but she did not receive any reply. Therefore, she wrote to Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin, asking him whether Andropov would answer or not. And he did!

On April 26, 1983, she received a response from President Yuri Andropov himself, in which he explained that the people of the Soviet Union wanted to live in peace and would never ever be the first to use nuclear weapons or start a new World War.

He also invited her to visit the USSR, meet children of her own age and visit an international children's camp. She attracted massive media attention in the USSR and the US, and she became known as America's youngest ambassador.

On July 7, 1983, Samantha flew to Moscow with her parents. During the two week trip, she visited Moscow and Leningrad, and went to the Artek pioneer camp. She was struck by the friendliness of the people and told on a Moscow press conference that the Russians were "just like us". Five months later, she visited Japan as child goodwill ambassador. Others followed in her footsteps, including eleven year old Katya Lycheva from the Soviet Union, who visited the United States. Samantha also became a media celebrity, hosted a special on Disney Channel, wrote the book "Journey to the Soviet Union", interviewed politicians and co-starred with Robert Wagner in the television series "Lime Street".

Two years later, on August 25, 1985, tragedy struck when Samantha Smith and her father died in a plane crash. Their small Beechcraft 99 crashed just before landing, killing all six passengers and two crew on board.

She was mourned by millions of people at home and in the Soviet Union. Vladimir Kulagin from the Soviet Embassy, who attended the funeral, read a personal message of condolence from Mikhail Gorbachev, and President Reagan sent his condolences in writing to her mother.

The Soviet Union issued a commemorative stamp, built a monument in Moscow and even named an asteroid to her. Manchester, her hometown in Main, honored her with a statue and the first Monday in June of each year is officially named "Samantha Smith Day" in Maine. In 1985, Samantha's mother also founded the Samantha Smith Foundation, which fostered student exchanges between the the US and the USSR.

"When Samantha Smith was killed in a plane crash, millions of people all over the world grieved as if for their own child. For, in a way, she was a child of the world - a symbol of childhood itself, a guardian of our dreams and hopes for children everywhere" (from Citizen Diplomats: Pathfinders in Soviet American Relations)

The Samantha Smith website brings the story of this little girl that, in her own way, brought East and West a bit closer and sparked a glimmer of hope, something many diplomats and politicians could not achieve back then. On her website, you can see Andropov's letter, read about the foundation, view many images (use "next page" at the bottom of each page) and visit her Youtube channel with videos about her visit to the USSR and interviews . The US Embassy in Russia also has a tribute page on Samantha. Her innocently naive, yet noble initiative resulted in a written statement from the Soviet leader that the Soviet Union would never start a nuclear war. It might sound naive but, as the records have shown, it was true. Her noble intentions to bring people together should be an example to all of us, never to be forgotten.

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