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 the fifth in 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.
Today’s retrospective presents different views of Samantha Smith – her life, the context, and the circumstances behind her letter to Yuri Andropov and subsequent popularity – both in favor and against. These interpretations are from people with different levels of prominence and influence (from world leaders, commentators, and ordinary people). This isn’t an attempt to cover all views, mainly only English ones. If I may have missed one article, if you translated one non-English opinion, or if you wish to share your views on the matter, feel free to comment on this post.
Bridge between two peoples and capability to influence events
After Andropov replied to Samantha’s letter in 1983, the Chicago Tribune published a letter to the editor by Stuart Oliver of Oakland, where he wrote that Samantha’s letter and Andropov’s reply could signal the start of a new relationship between the two superpowers, particularly people-to-people. He even asked her to write another letter, this time to Soviet children, urging them to write to US President Reagan about their feelings on war and peace.
When Samantha died in 1985, then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev wrote to Jane Smith, Samantha’s mother, that the Soviet people would remember Samantha as the American girl who yearned for peace and friendship between the peoples of the USA and the USSR. Reflecting 30 years after Samantha’s trip to the Soviet Union at the invitation of his mentor Yuri Andropov, Gorbachev said (in the article by Lena Nelson, webmaster of SamanthaSmith.info):
“I was very concerned at the time with what was happening,…and once I assumed the post of the General Secretary I immediately set out to renew contacts at the highest level. During his second presidential term, Ronald Reagan too understood that it was best to go down in history as someone who stood for peace, rather than for war.”
Once, during one of the summits, Gorbachev recalls telling Reagan: “Mr. President, I have a feeling that our people have a better grasp of the situation and are able to come to an understanding sooner than you and I can. If this continues, they will fire us.”
In 1996, attorney Edgar Heiskell III (also a family friend of the Smiths and was a member of the Advisory Board of the Samantha Smith Foundation) said that Samantha demonstrated the ability of individuals have the ability to influence world events, “[serving] as a catalyst to the whole dialogue between the Soviets and the Americans, which led to the Reagan-Gorbachev summit.”
This was also a point raised by Josie Huang, writing twenty years after Samantha’s trip to the Soviet Union, adding that both Samantha’s admirers and critics could agree to this and that her visit “served as a precursor to glasnost, the official Soviet policy of ‘openness’.” Huang then mentioned the opinions of different people, all positive with some negative ones tempering through time:
“The public images of the Soviet Union and United States began to improve dramatically” after her visit, said Andrew Kuchins, head of the Russian and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. “She might have unexpectedly been a harbinger of things to come.”
“I think her legacy was not just for good relations between the United States and the Soviet Union” but for peace in general, said George Mitchell, the former U.S. Senate majority leader from Maine, who promoted better relations with the Soviets after Samantha’s death.
“While adversaries of change and issues have changed, there is still a hope and desire to have peace among people and not just in this country,” Mitchell said.
Comparisons to Samantha’s work have been made to Seeds of Peace, a program that brings teenagers from Israel, Palestine and other hot spots in the world to work out conflicts in Otisfield.
Indeed, John Wallach, the late founder of Seeds of Peace, liked to call Samantha part of Maine’s peace heritage, along with Mitchell and former U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie.
Similarly, peace activists have made her a role model, making her statue a stopping point during peace rallies against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Everyone – from students at Samantha Smith Elementary School in Sammamish, Wash., to high-powered leaders of humanitarian groups and people who remember her exploits – calls her an inspiration.
“I look at Samantha Smith as the child who says the emperor’s not really wearing any clothes,” said Tandy Ratliff, a 32-year-old mother of two from South Portland who, inspired by Samantha, traveled to the Soviet Union as a teenager.
“She was saying the Soviet Union’s not really evil and everybody else said, ‘Maybe, she’s right.'”
There is still debate about whether Samantha was exploited by government operatives from either of the countries.
That was the mindset of Andrij Krockhmaluk of Richmond, a first-generation Ukrainian-American whose father, a journalist and publisher, was imprisoned by the Soviet government.
Krockhmaluk was certain Samantha’s visit was a public relations stunt set up by the Communists to showcase an “openness that didn’t exist” and overshadow the oppression faced by peasants.
But time has tempered his opinion. “She was a lovable young lady and if she won over a few hearts, more power to her,” said Krockhmaluk, now 58.
Kuchins, who was a graduate student when Samantha visited the Soviet Union, agreed: “At the time, I shared the cynical view that she was being used principally by the Soviets for propaganda. But on the other hand she’s so cute and attractive and it was such a nice story, who cares? She transcended the propaganda.”
Bonnye Good wrote in a Suite.io article in 2012/2013 that Samantha’s letter could not have come at a better time, “as both American and Soviet leaders privately exhibited interest in lessening the Cold War’s chilling effects during the 1980s, but public rhetoric heightened concerns that war could happen.” She added that, “unexpectedly benefiting public relations”, the heartfelt sentiment in Samantha’s letter warmed the impressions the citizens of the USA had on that of the USSR and vice-versa. Finally, she concluded that Samantha’s story served as a reminder that children willing to keep track of world events and ask important questions could accomplish beneficial work.
Propaganda stunt and childish delusion for peace
Citizen Diplomats by Gale Warner and Michael Shuman, published in 1987, recounts criticisms of Samantha and the Soviet Union’s motives behind the letter.
But even as millions of people on both sides of the Cold War…falling in love with Samantha, others were plainly irritated by this…squeak who had dared infiltrate the adult world of diplomacy. [Even]…the staff writers of People Magazine were scrambling to get to [Manchester]…and find out the names of Samantha’s dog and cats, scores of [editors]…chastised the American people for being duped into believing that…[Andropov’s] message might be sincere.
While no editorialists went so far as to suggest that Samantha…was devious,the Soviets were castigated for taking advantage [of]…Samantha’s naiveté. U.S. News and World Report ran a story by [Nicholas] Daniloff bluntly headlined: “Samantha Smith: Pawn in Propaganda [War]”. Opined the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Although the letter surely [provided] Samantha with an enormous thrill, it nevertheless was a [manipulative] and exploitative thing to do to an innocent ten-year-old.” A [Japanese] newspaper cartoon portrayed Samantha as Little Red Riding Hood and Andropov as the Wicked Wolf.
The entire correspondence. went a prevailing theory, had [been orchestrated] by the Soviets to help lull the American people into [believing] that the Soviets desire peace, while designs to take over the world pro…apce within the Kremlin. Some speculated that the letter and [invitation] were the results of months of planning: KGB agents snooping at Maine had profiled the Smiths. decided that Samantha had just the combination of poise, pulchritude, and peaceful rhetoric. and then…word to pluck her letter from the pile. Others took a less extreme…saying that the Soviets had probably had nothing so grandiose in…when they first printed Samantha’s letter in Pravda, but, noting…Western press’s response to the letter’s publication, had smelled a…public-relations move, and were simply lucky to have picked a [child]…capable of handling the media blitz. (p.16)
After Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down in September 1983, the AIM Report criticized Samantha’s visit to the Soviet Union for failing to “accurately” understand the mentality of Soviet leaders (This criticism is similar to Claren 2003, detailed later):
The little Maine schoolgirl, Samatha Smith, was invited to the Soviet Union after the Kremlin propagandists decided to use her letter to dictator Yuri Andropov to demonstrate how the Soviet Union loves peace. Young Samantha’s red carpet tour was given extensive media coverage in this country even though the American reporters in the USSR understood very well that it was all carefully orchestrated to serve the ends of Soviet propaganda. The message was that the Russians are just like us. This is phoney understanding. The tours of the New England newspaper editors and Samantha Smith did nothing to help them understand the mentality that led to the Korean Airlines massacre. Indeed. the opposite was true. What we need is greater understanding that the Soviet Union is ruled by men who are not just like us. They are cruel, ruthless men who don’t share our [Judeo-Christian] values. On the contrary, they are doing their best to extirpate them from the face of the earth. Talking to them will never alter that. Ostracizing them and neutralizing their propaganda machine might.
After the publication of Journey to the Soviet Union in early 1985, Susan Stobaugh of The Boston Phoenix wrote that there was “something wrong with adults who think any child has a contribution…to complex issues of foreign relations,” writing sarcastically:
If one needed further proof that Smith hasn’t much to contribute to the debate on foreign affairs, simply look at her book’s descriptions of life inside Russia. I bet there are a lot of Jewish kids or peasant kids or just plain kids in that country who’d be delighted to know that talent is the ticket into the posh Soviet resort where Smith spent a week. Naturally, it has noting to do with whether your parents are high muck a mucks in the Communist Party. And that Yuri Andropov, he’s a nice guy, too. He told Samantha that Russians want to cooperate with all their neighbors, with those far away and those nearby. I know that will be good news to the Afghanis. I’m sorry Father Popieluszko [of Solidarność in Poland] isn’t alive to hear it (links supplied).
In Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First (excerpt available here), Mona Claren (2003) criticized Ellen Goodman’s article from 1985 praising Samantha’s directness in writing to Andropov, “before diplomacy breeds directness out of them, before cynicism and a sense of powerlessness sets in” (Goodman’s words). Claren argued that many American wishful thinkers failed to shed this “childish sense of directness” and recognize the necessity “to protect oneself with weapons against those who have evil intentions,” instead “preferring to call self-delusion and childishness ‘idealism’.” She also dismissed the notion that the Cold War occurred because of “misunderstandings” between the two sides, but because “the Soviets were aggressive and predatory, and the United States (along with its allies) sought to thwart it” (compare with the AIM Report from two decades earlier, detailed earlier).
Finally, Claren contrasted Samantha with that of Irina Tarnopolsky:
Samantha Smith had one more imitator, but this one did not get worldwide attention and acclaim. Irina Tarnopolsky, age twelve, heard about Andropov’s correspondence with the American girl, and was inspired to write a letter of her own to the Soviet leader. She wrote to Yuri Andropov pleading for him to release her father from prison. Yuri Tarnopolsky, a research chemist who taught at Krasnoyarsk, had applied for an exit visa for himself, his wife, and their daughter. Permission was refused and Tarnopolsky was dismissed from his position as a professor. Tarnopolsky then joined other Soviet Jews in agitating for freedom of emigration. He also smuggled out a book of poetry which was published in France. At this, he was arrested and sentenced to three years in a labor camp for “slandering the Soviet system.” He was also accused of “parasitism” by the KGB — for being out of work.
Irina never became an international celebrity.
In reviewing Elliot Holt‘s You Are One of Them, Jesse Baron of the New York Observer wrote briefly of Samantha, “By the time of her death, Ms. Smith had already started to seem like a younger Rachel Corrie, naïve and overprivileged, with good intentions but no clue.”
Some ordinary Americans also wrote letters to the Smiths warning them against the Soviets’ motives. Citizen Diplomats recalls one such letter, from a “Mrs. John Smith,” with no return address:
You lovely, sweet people must wake up and smell the coffee! You are all as gullible as two-year-olds taking candy from strangers. The Russians say the word ‘peace’ and you grab at it, and at them, like candy. Yes, they want peace – but how? Under their terms! They want to dominate the world and that includes us. Doesn’t that frighten you? They will never change. They have used you poor people and my heart aches for you because you have been so blind (p. 25).
Role in ending the Cold War?
With the end of the Cold War coming only a few years after Samantha’s letter, opinion on her role in it is similarly mixed. In April 2014, RchrdStvr posted in the Science Philosophy Chat Forums, “By opening the door to discussion, an act of diplomacy Reagan refused to consider, 10 year old Samantha brought out the human side of Andropov and effectively ended the cold war.” Replies to the topic, however, have ranged from pointing to other reasons (i.e. the Soviet Union not being able to keep up with the arms race) to the lack of both research and analysis with the argument.
Several comments in the Yahoo! feature (archived here) placing Samantha side by side with other “unlikely foreign ambassadors” such as Dennis Rodman (to North Korea), Sean Penn (to Haiti), and George Clooney (to Darfur) dismissed the possibility Samantha may have contributed in ending the Cold War:
Comment A: I never saw Smith as having anything to do with ending the cold war.
B: Samantha Smith helped end The Cold War? Please!
C: This chick had absolutely zero to do with the “thawing” of the Cold War. The “thawing” occured for one reason, and one reason only…..Ronald Reagan. These Liberal pinheads are revolting.
D: She had nothing to do nor did anyone else have anything really to do with ending the Cold War. We outspent the USSR in the arms race, that’s the only reason.
E: This is feel good stuff, this girl had NOTHING to do with the end of the cold war.
F: We all know who really helped to thaw the Cold War. Ronald [Reagan] and his no-nonsense hardball style diplomacy, and Gorbachev trying to bribe Russians with just enough freedom to satisfy them, yet keep himself in power.
G: Samantha Smith’s letter did absolutely nothing to thaw the cold war. What it did was to briefly catapult her into the spotlight that indirectly led to her own death and that of her father. Yes, the death of any little girl is tragic. No, she left no legacy on the world stage, however the media might want to make it sound that way.
Samantha on herself
A year after her Soviet Union trip, Samantha said, “I never thought it would result in all this….I hope it’s done some good for our country. Otherwise, it’s been a lot of fun traveling.”
In April 1985, Gale Warner asked Samantha and her parents their opinions on the issues raised above. These were eventually documented in the chapter about her in Citizen Diplomats. Regarding accusations that she was a propaganda pawn, Samantha said:
Well, I think they were using me. but it was propaganda for peace. I mean, what were they doing it for, so that they could have a war? It doesn’t exactly fit together. So it was propaganda for peace, to get me over there so I could see what it was like, and come back and tell people how nice it was. (p. 17)
Recounting when people ask her whether the whole thing was set up, she replied:
Well, of course they did. I mean, what are they going to do, show me the grossest parts of all, or just let me wander around on my own. Of course not. If I had a new friend come over to my house, I wouldn’t take them down in the basement where it was all cluttered. Here [is] an invitation from the Soviet premier, and what are they supposed to do, tell me to get lost or something? I’m sure they’re going to say, here are some tickets, go have a good time, ‘bye. (p. 19, italics not mine, but from source text)