What could have been had Samantha Smith lived?

Samantha Smith (1972-1985) was known as “America’s young ambassador for goodwill” for bridging the two sides of the Cold War through her 1982 letter to then-Soviet leader Yuri Andropov (1914-1984) where she asked him whether his country would launch a nuclear war, his April 1983 reply assuring her that the country would not and inviting her to come to the Soviet Union to “see for [herself that] in the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples,” which she and her family accepted and undertook in July 1983. This post is a first of a series of retrospectives, which will run until August 2015, the 30th anniversary of her death, along with her father Arthur and six others, in a plane crash in August 1985.

Samantha may not have lived to use a smartphone or a tablet, but at least she was able to play on what appears to be a Nintendo Game and Watch. She probably got it in Japan in 1983 during her visit there. (Photo from the Disney Channel special she hosted in 1984).

There have been guesses on what could have happened to Samantha Smith if not for that fatal plane crash in August 1985. In the interview for Citizen Diplomats (1987) in April 1985, she said, “If my acting career doesn’t follow me, I’ll probably become a free-lance photographer.” She herself said to a reporter a month later, “When I am 16, I want to get my driver’s license. After that, who knows?” Before her letter was published on the Pravda, she wanted to be a veterinarian (also from Citizen Diplomats).

In a USA Today article from 2003, her mother Jane said “She thought she wanted to be a veterinarian and a ballet dancer, even though she had never taken a ballet lesson.” Reflecting on the 30th anniversary of Samantha’s trip (in 2013), former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said that Samantha could have been an active participant in social change. Elliot Holt’s novel You Are One of Them has a character based on Samantha who is suggested to have defected to Russia instead of dying. Other people have thought that Samantha could have (1) become a US President, a Senator, as a politician or diplomat (2) become an activist for nuclear disarmament, (3) fade in obscurity before re-emerging as an adult “with more solid, realistic ideas on maintaining as peaceful a world as possible,” and (4) even join of the Communist Party of the USA (eventually becoming as the US’s first Communist president).

Alternate history writers have also speculated on this, not only changing Samantha’s fate but also the larger context in which she lived. A search in Google yielded the following results:

  • 1983: Doomsday: This alternate universe assumes that an officer other than Russian colonel Stanislav Petrov is stationed in the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow in September 26, 1983. Petrov assumed that the early warning system was faulty. Thus, when the system showed that the United States had launched missiles toward the Soviet Union, he decided not to report it to his superiors. In the Doomsday timeline, the officer at watch assumes the opposite and reports the matter to the higher-ups. The Soviets then launch their entire nuclear arsenal, prompting the Americans to launch theirs as well, leading to what Samantha feared – a nuclear holocaust. However, the Smiths survive and move (back) to Houlton along with what remained of Maine’s state government. Samantha eventually rises into positions in the now-named Aroostook government before becoming its President.
  • 1983 USA in 1873This timeline has the United States sent back from September 3, 1983 to a random date in 1873. DTF955Baseballfan describes that she either (1) gets kidnapped by her stalker, escapes, and brings to light the dangers of stalking, or (2) becomes a role model, appearing as herself in some television shows like Full HouseEventually, DTF955Baseballfan notes that they “leave her with probably a career in journalism, but she was young enough any of a variety of things would be open to her. I can see her doing a number of different careers, depending on what sparks her interest.”
  • A Mirror Reflection: It is unclear when this timeline deviates, but the Soviet Union still exists (this time, as a democratic socialist republic). Here, Samantha gets to interview teacher and astronaut Christa McAuliffe (the space shuttle Challenger accident is butterflied away), continues to be involved in the nuclear disarmament and peace movements, starring in nine seasons of Lime Street, and eventually be appointed by US President Barack Obama as Ambassador to the Soviet Union. (She goes by the name “Samantha Reed Smith-Collins”.)
  • Dirty Laundry: In this timeline by Andrew T, Don Henley fails to include his song “Dirty Laundry” on his 1982 album I Can’t Stand Still. It flops because of this, sending Henley into retirement. On the other hand, Samantha livesLime Street airs an hour later instead of going head-on against The Golden Girls and 227 and becomes a hit. (In reality, Lime Street is cancelled after only a few episodes, with tough competition and Samantha’s death as contributing factors.)
  • Gorbachev MkII: It is also unclear when this timeline, by LacheyS, diverges from reality. Anyway, this timeline has Samantha re-arranging her schedule on Lime Street in August 1985 to allow her to return to the Soviet Union and meet Katya Lycheva. (In reality, Katya visited the US in 1986, after Samantha’s death.) Samantha returns again in October 1987 to endorse Lomonosov State University’s decision to endorse scholarships in Soviet studies for US citizens. She last appears in the timeline in September 1988, where she is present in the audience of an address by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev regarding Soviet relations with the US.
  • Rabbit Stew (1979-2012)This collaborative timeline starts with US President Jimmy Carter being killed in May 1979. Samantha still goes to the Soviet Union and pursues an acting career, Bar Harbor Airlines flight 1808 still crashes in Auburn, but she survives with minor injuries. She then appears in some films and concerts oriented at different advocacies.

Common themes among these alternate universes have Samantha become socially-relevant, have her assume political positions, with an acting career on the side.

Tips in Writing a Samantha Smith “What-if”

Unless the larger context is radically changed or the deviation takes place much earlier than August 1985 (as with 1983: Doomsday), the following issues should be considered in the short-term:

1. How should Bar Harbor Airlines Flight 1808 be addressed?


The crash site is marked by a sign listing the passengers who died on that fateful night of August 25, 1985. (Source)

Some have decided to address the plane crash that killed her: Dirty Laundry has Lime Street filmed in a soundstage in Hollywood instead of in location in Virgina and England (presumably allowing her to ride another plane in Maine instead of Bar Harbor), Gorbachev MkII has her not going home in August 1985, while Rabbit Stew retains the crash, only it does not kill her.

2. Does Lime Street become a hit or miss?

A Mirror Reflection and Dirty Laundry presume that Lime Street becomes a success. But Andrew T, author of Dirty Laundry, notes that “it was pretty bad — kind of a Greatest American Hero knockoff without the magic suit (or Connie Selleca).” (I would pass judgment though until I finally get to watch all episodes. I have not found it in the Internet.) However, Samantha’s acting was praised, even if the show was not.

3. How should the whole stalking dilemma be addressed?

At the time of her death, Robert John Bardo was stalking Samantha. He had traveled all the way to Manchester, Maine just to meet her, only to be caught by the authorities after asking for directions. Due to this, and the fact he eventually ended up killing Rebecca Schaeffer, Bardo would have been a credible threat. AlternateHistory.com user d32123 commenting: “This guy probably would have killed her if the plane crash didn’t.” Only 1983 USA in 1783 addresses this, by sadly having her be kidnapped. She does escape however.

Final words

While Samantha did not live to the 21st century, she had her own vision of the year 2001. Before an audience in Japan in December 1983, she said:

But, today, we are not here to look back on the summer or to look backward at all. We are here to look ahead. I spent the last several weeks picturing myself in the Year 2001, and thought of all the things that I would like the world to be eighteen years from today. First of all, I don’t want to have these freckles anymore, and I want this tooth straightened, and I hope I like the idea of being almost thirty. Maybe it’s because I have traveled a lot and maybe it’s because I’ve met so many wonderful people who look a little different from the way I look – maybe their skin, or their eyes, or their language is not like mine – but I can picture them becoming my best friends…Maybe it’s because of these things that I think the year 2001 and the years that follow are going to be just great… (source)

My computer of 2001 will transfer good food, good shelter, and good clothing to the people who need them, and all of it will come from places and countries where these things are plentiful so that it won’t hurt what my teacher explains is “the balance of trade.”

In my 2001, there’s an abundance of everything, and lots of ways to harvest it and transport it to people in need. By the way, my computer is made up of microchips and wires and electric gizmos from probably 158 different countries. It’s a very friendly international computer, and I hope you’ll join me in 2001, to help push all the buttons (source).