Reflecting on Samantha

Last updated 2 July 2020. Changes are in blue.

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 last in a series of retrospectives, all written in January 2015.

To some, Samantha might have been a pawn for propaganda between the two superpowers of the Cold War. But to others, such as myself, she is a hero. She showed that even the youth can make a difference in this world. It is sad to note that only a few remember/know this story. We need someone like her, in these troubled days. It’s hard to believe that 25 years have passed since she died.

– 15-year-old me, 2010

The passage above came from the archived comments section of the Evening Magazine excerpt from 1985 detailing Samantha’s short life and death (the video is no longer available). Since then, the site dedicated to her legacy has gotten a makeover, more videos of/about her have emerged, people have talked about her in multiple Reddit threads, and her story was adapted for a fictional novel with mixed reviews.

The comment, along with a letter I wrote two years ago, has led me to yet again reflect on Samantha’s life, keeping in mind everything I have learned while preparing the retrospectives since January. This is closure on my part, realizing the circumstances of her significance while learning from it, in doing so letting go of a piece of my youth. Criticism perhaps, but more of hindsight.

Was Samantha’s story only the result of forces beyond her control?

There is no denying that the Soviet leadership in 1983 under Andropov saw her and her letter as an opportunity to pull off the peace trump card. With the stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev and the early 1980s recession (affecting not only the Soviet Union, but also US and the rest of the world), the Soviet Union could hardly compete in the arms race with the United States. It needed a respite from the rising tensions due to the war rhetoric.

However, this does not mean Andropov was the kind of man who would avoid violence and embrace peace: his Wikipedia article details his involvement in crushing the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1968 Prague Spring, in suppressing dissidence in the Soviet Union, and in insisting on the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Andropov had to sell out with regard to addressing Samantha’s fears of a nuclear war. Anyway, the Soviet leadership would not be able to maintain good PR as a result of Samantha’s letter and visit. Only a month later, it was in hot water for shooting down Korean Air Lines Flight 007.

Samantha’s background also helped explain her prominence. Her ordinariness (yes, that’s a word) was part of her appeal. She was not a prodigy, but was simply concerned. She wasn’t from the capital of the USA, she wasn’t even from the capital of Maine (though she lived near it).

Then again, she came from a white middle-class American family. Her father, Arthur, acknowledged that his daughter was of the middle class:

“Samantha’s questions are unflinching, and it will be as useful for presenting the American view as much as anything. When the Soviets get a load of Samantha they’ll be impressed with the independence and expressiveness of a middle-class American child” (Clara Germani, “Mr. Andropov, meet Samantha Smith from ‘Down East'”, The Christian Science Monitor, 1 July 1983).

If it were someone from a black, Asian or a Native American lower class background, I believe the appeal would have been less. However, even race and economic stature are factors Samantha had little control of.

Ultimately, looking at only the structural aspects would deny the agency and free will she had exercised in the two years since writing to Andropov. She could have just ignored her mother’s “Why don’t you?” when she asked why no one asked the then-new Soviet premier if his country would launch a nuclear war or not. After all, she got nothing but a form letter the last time she wrote to a world leader. When her letter was published on the Soviet newspaper Pravda, she could have just simply acknowledged it rather than writing to the Soviet embassy in the US asking whether or not Andropov would reply to her. Even in the first letter, her persistence in getting a reply is shown by the often-omitted postscript: “Please write back.” Yet, she is given less credit than she deserves.

The fact that Sam was able to explain the difference between the Soviet Union and the United States economically in clear terms is also surprising:

“Say you have a big popcorn popper, like at the movies, and you want to sell popcorn. You can’t just sell it on the street [in Russia]; you probably have to get permission.” (Clara Germani, “Mr. Andropov, meet Samantha Smith from ‘Down East'”, The Christian Science Monitor, 1 July 1983).

How does understanding a people help in bringing about peace?

Critics have faulted Samantha for believing that the “Russians are just like [Americans]”, saying that she should have realized that the Soviet leadership were “cruel, ruthless men who…are doing their best to extirpate them from the face of the earth” (AIM Report 1983).

I believe that a distinction must be made about the people and their leaders. The latter have a political obligation to the former, and that the ruled must keep the ruler in check. Samantha’s trip allowed her to see that the Soviet people wanted peace. The next steps should have been to show the people that their government was accountable to them, that the people should sway their leaders and not be swayed by them, and after doing so, to pressure the leadership to work towards genuine peace, not just rhetoric.

Had she survived the plane crash, would Samantha still have served as a goodwill ambassador through adulthood?

I have often thought about going to the past in a DeLorean to warn her and her father not to board the small plane and to stay there to ensure her safety. However, if there’s anything Back to the Future (here’s a link to my videos on the trilogy) taught me, it’s not to mess with time. Besides, we are no closer to time travel as we are to hoverboards.

Kidding aside, I don’t know. Samantha simply did not have the opportunity to reflect on her role as a goodwill ambassador and decide whether or not she would continue to be defined by that moniker for the rest of her days (a midlife crisis, maybe). She spoke of being tired of talking about peace all the time (Citizen Diplomats). But I believe she was just experiencing burnout. I think she pursued acting not as a result of a long-thought out decision but because of the need to escape from the role she was typecast-ed on.

Can something new still be said about Samantha?

Yes. Discussions about her need not be confined to her being a propaganda pawn, or to the circumstances of her death. Peacock (2008) compared and contrasted the Soviet and American images of the child and how these functioned in the Cold War, concluding with Samantha to show how her Soviet and American identities differed from one another (particularly p. 343-350). Gill (2012) used Samantha’s story to understand “how the question of truth remained a powerful weapon for everyday citizens and state powers until the very end of the Cold War” (p. 27-28; part about Samantha at p. 67-71).

Nothing has also been said about the influence of Catholic values on Samantha. (I think she was Catholic; her memorial service was held in a Catholic church in Augusta.) [UPDATE (25 November 2016): Victor Matrosov comments below this post that Samantha was not Catholic.]

Nonetheless, her belief in God merits further study and analysis. After all, Samantha “attended a Jewish synagogue and a number of churches.” (Clara Germani, “Mr. Andropov, meet Samantha Smith from ‘Down East'”, The Christian Science Monitor, 1 July 1983).

The often-quoted version of her letter omits the following lines: “God made the world for us to share and take care of. Not to fight over or have one group of people own it all. Please lets do what [He] wanted and have [everybody] be happy too.”

Do we still need her?

Yes. In times of conflict, which never seems to go away, people will look back at her outcry and plea for peace and understanding and echo them. Otherwise, her tragedy will always remind people of the ability to accomplish a lot in only a short period of time, and hopefully inspire them to do well in any endeavor (or put them at least in a philosophical quandary).