Text and Photos by Patrick Carkin
Samantha Smith and her mother, Jane, try to get some relief from the sun during a Manchester, Maine celebration on July 23, 1983
Editors note: This is not going to the typical essay about protests. There arent going to be any photos of angry demonstrators or of police standing by waiting to arrest anyone who commits civil disobedience. The only purpose of this article is educate people about a young girl who lived to the age of thirteen and yet was still able to make a difference in this world. The photos you see below are not even my best work. I was only about fourteen years old, not much older than Samantha, when these were taken and still learning how to use a camera. I present them now simply as dedication to Samanthas memory and her message of peace to the world.
In 1983 Samantha Smith, a 10 year old school girl from the small town of Manchester, Maine, wrote a letter to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov asking for peace.
Dear Mr. Andropov,
My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you arent please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight.
At first Samantha heard nothing back. Then Sam found out that portions of her letter had been published in the Communist newspaper Pravda. A few weeks later she received this letter:
Samantha Smith Manchester, Maine USA
Dear Samantha, I received your letter, which is like many others that have reached me recently from your country and from other countries around the world.
It seems to me - I can tell by your letter - that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling Becky, the friend of Tom Sawyer in the famous book of your compatriot Mark Twain. This book is well known and loved in our country by all boys and girls.
You write that you are anxious about whether there will be a nuclear war between our two countries. And you ask are we doing anything so that war will not break out.
Your question is the most important of those that every thinking man can pose. I will reply to you seriously and honestly.
Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are trying to do everything so that there will not be war on earth. This is what every Soviet man wants. This is what the great founder of our state, Vladimir Lenin, taught us.
Soviet people well know what a terrible thing war is. Forty-two years ago, Nazi Germany, which strived for supremacy over the whole world, attacked our country, burned and destroyed many thousands of our towns and villages, killed millions of Soviet men, women and children.
In that war, which ended with our victory, we were in alliance with the United States: together we fought for the liberation of many people from the Nazi invaders. I hope that you known about this from your history lessons in school. And today we want very much to live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbors on this earth - with those far away and those near by. And certainly with such a great country as the United States of America.
In America and in our country there are nuclear weapons - terrible weapons that can kill millions of people in an instant. But we do not want them to be ever used. Thats precisely why the Soviet Union solemnly declared throughout the entire world that never - never - will it use nuclear weapons first against any country. In general we propose to discontinue further production of them and to proceed to the abolition of all the stockpiles on earth.
It seems to me that this is a sufficient answer to your second question:
Why do you want to wage war against the whole world or at least the United States? We want nothing of the kind. 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 - there is something that we are occupied with: growing wheat, building and inventing, writing books and flying into space. We want peace for ourselves and for all peoples of the planet. For our children and for you, Samantha.
I invite you, if your parents will let you, to come to our country, the best time being this summer. You will find out about our country, meet with your contemporaries, visit an international childrens camp - Artek - on the sea. And see for yourself: in the Soviet Union - everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples.
Thank you for your letter. I wish you all the best in your young life.
Andropovs letter immediately lit a media firestorm. Would Samanthas family accept the invitation? Were they being used as dupes for the Communists? What other words of wisdom did she have for the world? Time, Newsweek, public radio, People magazine, NBC TV, and the Soviet press showed up at the Smith household with all these questions and more. And then Sam headed to New York for even more interviews on the Today Show with Ted Koppel and Jane Pauley and then to Burbank, California to be on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Much to everyones surprise, this was just the beginning of Samanthas life as a public figure. She was, at that point, only 11 years old.
On July 7, 1983 Samantha left the confines of her small Maine town and flew to Moscow at the expense of the Soviet Union. For two weeks she toured the country: Moscow, Leningrad, Red Square, met with the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, ate a burger and fries with the U.S. ambassador, and spent several days at the Soviet youth camp Artek on the Black Sea. Through it all the U.S. and Soviet media followed her every step.
Samanthas trip was not without its critics, however. In my own home town of Richmond, Maine, where many Russians reside who had fled the Soviet Union during Stalins reign, people spoke out against this childs message of peace. They accused the Soviets of using Samantha and that the entire affair was not worthy of so much attention. These criticisms were certainly not limited to a small town with Russian immigrants. US News and World Report ran an editorial entitled, Samantha Smith - Pawn in Propaganda War.
Samanthas parents responded to these concerns about propaganda. I suppose there might be something in that, Arthur Smith, Samantha's father, responded. At the same time, it doesnt take too much to realize they have a lot to lose too. You cant hide the economic conditions of a country, even from the back seat of a limousine. Both Arthur and Jane, Samanthas mother, commented that the Soviet citizens they met realized that the arms race was taking food out of Russian mouths and that they wanted better relations with the U.S. They also pointed out that talking about problems in the Soviet Union was not taboo - food shortages were widely discussed.
In retrospect, Samanthas wisdom and the choice to go to the Soviet Union was indeed the true path to peace and understanding. I cannot help but add my own personal military experience on this matter. As a U.S. Army Intelligence Analyst near the end of the Cold War it became quite clear that the Soviet Union was closer to a paper tiger than a genuine threat. I distinctly remember sitting in an Army classroom discussing Soviet weapons capabilities and reaching a consensus with my classmates that the Soviets had substandard weapons and methods of battle. This view was later confirmed when I met up with other prior service people who served in military intelligence. Although I wasnt aware of this when I served, there was in fact a deep division within the U.S. intelligence community. A small but highly educated group of people within the military was attempting to convince the U.S. government that we had been over estimating the Soviet strength and threat for decades. As one intelligence officer told me, We could follow a Soviet convoy just by looking out for broken parts left by the side of the road from their poorly made tanks and APCs. Quite simply, the massive threat that Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush made us believe in was a complete lie. Samantha Smith, although she didnt know it, was part of the unveiling of the truth that allowed us to rip the cover off of the ignorance and hatred of the time.
As a teenager I was immediately drawn to Samantha's story when she first wrote Yuri Andropov. I began to collect local news articles about her and just never stopped until she died. When she flew back to Maine after touring Russia I, along with hundreds of other Mainers, met her at the Augusta Airport.
Samantha and her parents leave the Augusta, Maine Airport on July 22, 1983.
For some reason my mother and I just decided to follow her home! At the time I was a novice photographer and I really wanted to photograph and meet her. So, my mother pulled up to Samantha's house and I got out and joined the hordes of media people who were lined up at the back door of the Smith house. Given my obvious age, the reporters immediately looked at me strange. The only people invited to the house were family and press. I remember one person asking me, "Why are you here?" I think my response was something like, "I see so many kids my age complaining about how bad this world is. Samantha actually decided to do something about it." Within a few minutes Jane, Samantha's mother, noticed my presence and quickly invited me into the house to talk to Samantha and take photos of the gifts that they had brought back with them from Russia.
A few days later the town of Manchester, Maine held a massive parade with Samantha as the guest of honor. I just had to be there to see Samantha. That was the second and last time I ever talked to her.
As before, the media followed her every step that day. Photos and video of her accepting the key to Manchester and stating, Im awfully glad to be home, were shown on TV networks and newspapers all over the U.S. and the rest of the world.
Samantha didnt stop after her tour of Russia. She wrote a book called Journey to the Soviet Union in which she wrote, I dedicate this book to the children of the world. They know that peace is always possible. She then went to Japan and met with the prime minister and spoke at an international childrens symposium. She also hosted a special for the Disney channel during the 1984 presidential campaigns to educate kids about the candidates, politics and the government. Then Samantha headed to Hollywood where she starred in the short lived series Lime Street playing Robert Wagners daughter. It certainly seemed as if nothing could stop her. Had she lived she would have been successful at anything: TV or movie star, diplomat, politician, humanitarian, activist, whatever she would have chosen as her path.
On August 25, 1985 Samantha and her father, Arthur, were flying back to Maine after filming a segment of the Lime Street show in London. On approach to Auburn, Maine the plane missed the runway by 200 yards and crashed into the nearby woods. Everyone on board, including six other passengers and crew, died.
The next day one of the hosts of the Today Show quoted James Taylors song,Fire and Rain:Sweet dreams and flying machines, in pieces on the ground. Samantha was thirteen years old.
On August 28 I attended the funeral along with several hundred others. Most of those who went had never met Samantha. They were just everyday people. But the crowd was not without people of position and fame.
Vladimir Kulagir, first secretary for cultural affairs from the Soviet embassy in Washington, spoke and expressed both his personal sadness and that of the entire Soviet Union. He commented, Everybody who knew Samantha in the Soviet Union will forever hold in remembrance the images of an American girl, who like millions of Soviet boys and girls, wish for peace and friendship with the peoples of the United States and Soviet Union . . . Samantha was like a small but very powerful and brilliant beam of sunshine which penetrated the thunderstorm clouds which envelope between our two countries. Lets hope that Samantha will be a symbol of the future in Soviet-American relations. The best message and memory to Arthur and Samantha would be if we continue what they started and reach over borders with goodwill, friendship and love.
Actor Robert Wagner, while not a speaker, also attended and personally expressed his sadness to the media and public.
Ironically, absolutely no one from the U.S. government spoke at the funeral or even attended. It was as if she were being dismissed even in death as a propaganda tool. Remembering Ronald Reagan and thinking of how he referred to the Soviet Union as the evil empire, I cannot help but think of how wise Samantha was. While Reagan acted as a small child having a temper tantrum, Samantha, acting as the mature adult, helped lead us to more peaceful relations.
Arthur Smith, Samanthas father, answers questions from the press after coming back from Russia on July 22, 1983.
Despite the faux pas of the U.S. government, grief over Samanthas death was expressed from all over the world. Luis Passaiacqua, a retired professor from the University of Puerto Rico, wrote these eloquent words in her honor:
On August 25, Sunday, about midnight, a star fell from heaven, and shone no more. It was one of those brief, passing bright stars which for an instant enlighten the darkness and then disappear. Its name was Samantha. Samantha Smith.
I never knew her. I shall not forget her. You, too, must not forget her. Because you and I owe her something. We owe her an answer. I am not talking about you and I in a singular sense - I, who write this; you who read it. It is a collective I and you I am talking about: The Puerto Rican and the Burmese; the Congolese and the Hungarian. And yes, I also speak of the Jew and the Palestinian; the white and the black. But above all I speak of the North American and the Russian you and I.
Samantha asked all the Is and all the yous of Humanity. In her brief life - fie on three generations - we never answered her.
Samantha heard the North American promise they would never start a nuclear war; she also heard how the voices from the Kremlin forswore that neither would they. And then, with the clear and simple logic of her eleven years she asked, they why do you both go on making missiles and aiming them at each other?
My parents generation (your great-grandparents, Samantha) the one that started the race heard her. And it gave no answer. My generation (your grandparents, Samantha) the ones which refines and targets it towards the ultimate precipice. And neither did it answer.
Not that we did not want to answer you, Samantha. Not that we did not know the answer. We just did not dare, Samantha.
We did not dare because, had we answered you, had we told you the truth, had we admitted to you that which your innocence already felt, that there was no reason, then the absurdity of everything those three generations had done would become obvious. The crystal clear water of your innocence would have dissolved the clay foundations of a civilization sculptured with the chisels of hatred, suspiciousness and discord. With only one why? you exposed all the vain futility of three generations. Only a childs eyes were able to pierce the veil of self-deception, to reveal the nakedness of the Emperor in that old fairy tale. Only the understanding of a young girl, yours, Samantha, could transcend the veil of our folly, thus revealing the nakedness of our clumsy ambition.
Now, when you hear me no longer, you may answer. There is no reason, Samantha. There are none before; none today; never will there be one. It is just that no one dares stop it. There is neither greatness nor daring in our three generations, Samantha. They are niggardly, suspicious, and fainthearted. That is why no one dared answer you.
But your generation has a banner which you gave it: There is no reason. And underneath it, they must tread a path which you opened for them: the path towards friendship, honesty, compassion and understanding. Perhaps it will be your generation, Samantha, which will give us back our reason, and fashion out of world peace, a monument to the memory of a girl named Samantha Smith.
Samanthas fame and influence did not end after her death. Within months the Soviet Union issued a stamp with her image on it. The first Goodwill Games in Moscow were dedicated to her memory. The Russians even named a diamond after her. And in Maine a statue was erected in front the State Library which depicts her releasing a dove while a bear, both a symbol of the Soviet Union and Maine, clutches at her leg.
One of the largest tributes was the Samantha Smith Foundation started by Jane, her mother. The foundation was able to continue Samanthas vision by sponsoring youth groups from the U.S. and Russia to visit each others countries. (The most recent reference I could find to the foundation was in 1995. It is unclear as to whether or not the organization still exists or not. No internet or phone search indicated that it did.)
Even with all the hoopla, all the memorials, with all that Samantha had accomplished, she was still just a regular girl, like a teenager youd find in almost any country of the world. She was starting to date boys, she giggled, she went to rock concerts and, at one time, stated she just wanted to be a veterinarian. Despite her great actions, she just wanted to live in a world at peace so that we could go on with our lives and not have to worry about a nuclear war that would destroy us all. Ellen Goodman wrote in a column about Samantha, I remember what she told a reporter . . . about her goals. When I am 16 I want to get my drivers license. After that, who knows? Like countless other kids who lie in bed sometimes and think about bombs, Samantha Smith just wanted to grow up . . . Here comes something naive, idealistic and utopian from a certifiable adult: Kids are like that [everywhere].
Samantha at her house on July 22, 1983, the day she arrived back from Russia.
While the threat of war between the United States and Russia has since dissipated, we have still not learned our lessons. We continue to bomb people, most of whom are innocent civilians, in the name of failed foreign policies, hypocrisy and veiled hatred.
Remember Sam. Remember her and do your part to make a difference in this world. If not for yourself, at least do it for your children and your childrens children. To paraphrase Luis Passaiacqua, we have no excuses for not stopping the madness.
In memory and honor of Samantha Smith, 1972-1985.