In the volatile environment of Cold War foreign relations, there were several tense escalations and periods of increased communication with moves toward rapprochement. These ups and downs often occurred during times of leadership changes on either side, and there was no exception to that trend in the early 1980s when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died and was succeeded by Yuri Andropov. When Andropov took over, the Western media did its normal thing and debated whether this would lead to another escalation of tension or a chance to talk and bring tensions down a bit. While there was some back and forth in the debate, much of the media coverage was negative and predicted a threat to stability under Andropov. Enter Samantha Smith.
Samantha and her letter
Samantha Smith was a ten-year-old American schoolgirl when Andropov succeeded Brezhnev. Given the negative news she was seeing about the path which Andropov would likely take the Cold War, Smith wrote a letter to the new Soviet leader asking if he was indeed planning on escalating the conflict. Smith’s letter was published in Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party. Eventually Andropov wrote back to Smith, ensuring her that the Soviets wanted only peace, and invited her and her family to the Soviet Union. Smith was now “America’s Youngest Ambassador”.
Smith immediately became famous in both countries and was interviewed on major news networks. In July 1983, Smith and her parents flew to Moscow where they spent two weeks as Andropov’s guest. Although she never got to meet Andropov due to an illness that forced him out of the public eye, Smith and her family visited Moscow and Leningrad, and she stayed at a children’s camp in Crimea called Artek. Overall, Smith got the impression that the Soviets were “just like us.” Similarly, Smith was well regarded by most Soviet citizens. She returned to the United States in late July and continued her work as an ambassador for peace for the next few years, even speaking at a Children’s International Symposium in Japan.
Sadly, Smith and her father were killed on August 25, 1985 when their small plane crashed on approach to its Maine destination. Naturally, speculation abounded about the nature of the crash, especially in the Soviet Union. However, it was determined that there was no foul play and Smith’s death was mourned by people in both the United States and the Soviet Union, with prominent individuals from both countries – Reagan and Gorbachev – writing letters to Smith’s mother.
Samantha's 1985 Soviet Union Stamp
In the years following her death, Smith was honored with monuments in Moscow, stamps in the Soviet Union, a Danish viola concerto, a diamond found in Siberia, a mountain in the former Soviet Union, and more. Also, in Maine, the first Monday in June each year is legally designated as Samantha Smith Day. Although her time as “ambassador” was short, her impact was significant and she did much to bring the everyday people of the United States and the Soviet Union together, recognizing that they had more common ground than differences.