Even at age 10, Samantha Smith already knew important things about the world. She’d studied World War II and the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. She listened to newscasters speak in dire terms about missiles and the Cold War, and she watched a science program about what would happen to Earth’s ecosystems if nuclear war broke out. One morning the Maine schoolgirl woke up wondering if this very day might be the last one for all of humanity.
After Samantha confessed her fears to her mother, Jane Smith brought out the November 22, 1982 issue of Time magazine that featured Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov on its cover. The new Russian leader had just taken power, and Jane suggested her daughter write him a letter. Samantha did so, asking bluntly, “Are you going to vote to have a war or not? … I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country.” The letter was posted in December 1982, and Samantha continued the normal course of her life.
Until the Soviet newspaper Pravda (the official paper of the Communist Party) published excerpts of the letter several months later, with comments from Andropov himself.
Upon learning that her writing had appeared in the paper, Samantha wrote a second letter, this time to Soviet ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin, wanting to know why Andropov hadn’t responded directly to her. On April 26, 1983, the Soviet leader did so—and invited Samantha and her family to visit the U.S.S.R. “You will find out about our country, meet with your contemporaries… and see for yourself: in the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples,” Andropov wrote in Russian, accompanied by an English translation.
So began the unlikely adventures of Samantha Smith, dubbed “America’s Youngest Ambassador” by the press, as she took up Andropov’s offer and visited in July of 1983. While her visit to the Soviet Union had little impact on the policy decisions of Andropov and President Ronald Reagan, nor did it turn the course of the Cold War, it offered proof to citizens of both nations that the other was, in fact, human.
Samantha in Zagorsk, during her 1983 trip to the Soviet Union. (Alamy )
1983 was a perilous moment in the Cold War—just