Friday marked the 30th anniversary of a correspondence that focused the world’s attention on Samantha Smith, a fifth-grader from Manchester, Maine, who in eight sentences placed the folly of stockpiling nuclear warheads in human perspective. It’s a good time to honor her straightforward approach to diplomacy and her ability to express simple truths about war and peace in a way that bridged cultures, language barriers and ideologies.
Amid an escalation of Cold War tensions and “evil empire” rhetoric fed by accelerated U.S. and Soviet military spending, Smith, 10, wrote a letter to new Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov to express her fears about nuclear war. After congratulating Andropov on his new job, Smith moved directly to her concerns.
“I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war,” she wrote. “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.”
Pravda, the Soviet newspaper, published excerpts of Smith’s letter, but Andropov did not provide what she thought was an adequate response to her questions. So she wrote again, this time to Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States. That letter elicited a direct response from Andropov, which Smith received on April 26, 1983. Soviet authorities had made the letter public the previous day.
In it, Andropov wrote, “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 … We want peace for ourselves and for all peoples of the planet. For our children and for you, Samantha.”
The Soviet leader also invited Smith and her family to visit his country, an offer the Smiths accepted during the summer of 1983. She referred to that experience in a December 1983 speech in Kobe, Japan, where she advocated for an “international granddaughter exchange” designed to help citizens of nations in conflict interact with each other on the same personal level that she did with Andropov.
Eerily, Smith told the crowd in Japan that she was looking ahead to 2001 because that year “and the years that follow are going to be just great.”
“If we start with an International Granddaughter Exchange and keep expanding it and expanding it, then the year 2001 can be the year when all of us can look around and see only friends, no opposite nations, no enemies and no bombs,” she said.
Smith did not live to see 2001, as she and her father died in an airplane crash near Auburn on Aug. 25, 1985.
Terrorist attacks like those that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, and at the Boston Marathon earlier this month reveal that the threats to peace and safety that frightened an optimistic, intelligent young girl in 1983 have become more complex — and, perhaps, the world more cynical. Nevertheless, the principles and vision conveyed by the Smith’s message retain value because they affirm the notion that hope can triumph over fear — and that direct communication can help perceived enemies overcome their differences.