The girl who tried to bring peace between the US and the Soviet Union

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Samantha Smith liked letters.

In the summer of 1977, the schoolgirl from Manchester, Maine, had written to the queen of England, congratulating her on 25 years on the throne. 

She got a reply from the queen’s lady-in-waiting, thanking her for taking the trouble.

By April 1983, Samantha, now 10, was worried as Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union raised the threat of nuclear confrontation, as author Lena Nelson explains in “America’s Youngest Ambassador: The Cold War Story of Samantha Smith’s Lasting Message of Peace” (Down East Books).

On the suggestion of her mother, Jane, Smith picked up her pen again and wrote to the new leader of the Soviet Union, General Secretary Yuri Andropov. 

“Congragulations (sic) on your new job,” she wrote.

Worried about the possibility of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the US, young Samantha Smith wrote to new leader of the Soviet Union, General Secretary Yuri Andropov.
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

“I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a Nuculear (sic) war . . . Are you going to vote to have a war or not?”

Ending her letter, “PS Please write back,” Samantha headed to the post office with her father, Arthur, sending her letter to the Kremlin in Moscow, even though, as Nelson writes, she was “surprised that the stamp for a letter going to the Soviet Union cost forty cents instead of the usual twenty cents.”

From that moment, the Smiths’ life would never be the same.

When word reached the family that her letter had been published in the Russian state newspaper, Pravda, local, national and international media were suddenly on the family doorstep, demanding to know more about the girl they called “America’s Youngest Ambassador.”

Smith proudly holds the letter she received back from Andropov, telling her of his desire for peace.
Bettmann Archive

“There were TV crews from England, Australia, Germany, and Bulgaria. A photographer traveled from Paris to take pictures of the family on their front porch. The Soviets sent their TV crew as well — after receiving special permission to travel to Manchester,” writes Nelson. 

“When the US crews heard that the Soviets were coming to film Sam, they wanted to come film the Soviets filming.”

By April 25, a letter had arrived from Andropov himself, telling her of his desire for peace across the world and inviting her and her family over to Russia.

“Although skeptical about the Soviet leader’s true intentions, Jane and Arthur thought that the message sounded genuine,” writes Nelson.

Smith is greeted by Russian Young Pioneers as she arrives in the Soviet Union in July 1983.
Getty Images

Soon, every TV network was fighting for an interview.

She appeared on “Nightline” with Ted Koppel and flew to Los Angeles for an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” (and landed a trip to Disneyland as part of the deal).

In July, the family embarked on a 2-week visit to the Soviet Union, visiting Moscow, Leningrad and the Soviet pioneer camp of Artek.

She flew to Japan to speak at the Children’s International Symposium for the 21st Century in Kobe, even learning a little Japanese for her talk, and reported from Washington, DC, for the Disney Channel, interviewing presidential candidates.

The Soviet Union issued a stamp honoring Samantha in 1985, the year of her untimely death.

There was a cameo role in an episode of a new TV show, “Charles In Charge” with “Happy Days” actor Scott Baio — and even a part in a new ABC series, “Lime Street,” alongside “Hart to Hart” star Robert Wagner. 

“Sam had no idea who Robert Wagner was,” writes Nelson.

But tragedy struck on Aug. 25, 1985.

“Samantha shone like a brilliant beam of sunshine at a time when relations between our two countries were clouded.”

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev

After a trip to London, England to film an episode of “Lime Street,” Samantha and her father were on the last leg of their journey home as the plane prepared to land at the small regional airport in Auburn-Lewiston, Maine.

The aircraft’s approach was too low and too fast in the fog and light rain. As it clipped some poplar trees, just under a mile short of the runway, it hit the ground, nearly upside down, and finally came to a halt in a ravine.

All eight people on board were killed, including Samantha and her father.

Samantha tours Red Square in July 1983 with parents Jane and Arthur.

She was just 13.

The following day, Jane Smith read out a statement outside her house.

“Samantha couldn’t accept man’s inhumanity to man,” she said.

“She stood fast in the belief that peace can be achieved and maintained by mankind.”

On Aug. 27, meanwhile, a Western Union telegram arrived at her house, sent from Santa Barbara, Calif. “Nancy and I are profoundly saddened at the news of your great loss. A beloved husband and only daughter gone with shocking suddenness,” it read.

In July, the family embarked on a 2-week visit to the Soviet Union, visiting Moscow, Leningrad and the Soviet pioneer camp of Artek.

“Samantha – her smile, her idealism, her unaffected sweetness of spirit. Nancy joins me in sending you our deepest sympathy. May God bless and console you. Ronald Reagan.”

There was also a telegram from the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

“Samantha shone like a brilliant beam of sunshine,” he wrote, ”at a time when relations between our two countries were clouded.”

Samantha’s work wasn’t in vain.

Smith takes a tour of the Novodevichy Convent in Moscow.

 In October 1985, two months after the plane crash, Jane Smith established the Samantha Smith Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting a greater understanding between the peoples of the United States and the Soviet Union. 

The politicians upped their game as well.

A month later, and almost three years since Samantha Smith wrote to the Kremlin, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met in Geneva, Switzerland, agreeing to intensify discussions between the superpowers.

America's Youngest Ambassador: The Cold War Story of Samantha Smith’s Lasting Message of Peace by Lena Nelson

“The Soviet and American leaders walked toward each other, their hands outstretched, and began the dialogue that would end the Cold War,” writes Nelson.

In December 1986, a full-size bronze statue of Samantha Smith was dedicated by the Maine State Library and Museum, across from the state capitol building. On a gold plaque, there is the story of her short but spectacular life. 

“Samantha’s untimely death at age 13 in an airplane accident was mourned by adults and children worldwide,” it reads. 

“Maine is proud of her native daughter and we remember the message she taught us: One child can play a powerful part in bringing peace to the world.”

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