Skip to comments.Remembering Samantha
Posted on 07/13/2003 4:45:42 AM PDT by NewHampshireDuo
AUGUSTA It is closing time at the Maine State Library, and suited employees and patrons rush to empty the building, without so much as a look at the little girl of bronze.
At the foot of the life-size statue is a bear cub holding an American flag and fresh carnations. Cupped in her outstretched hands is a dove. Plastic flowers grace her neck.
Who is this girl frozen in time? The base of the statue offers: Samantha Reed Smith, Maine's Young Ambassador of Goodwill.
Twenty years ago this week, the 11-year-old girl from Manchester took a highly-publicized VIP tour of the-then Soviet Union, capturing the hearts of two countries caught in a nuclear arms race.
It is a largely forgotten anniversary in these post-Cold War days of al-Qaida and Iraq, and one that is still tinged by debate.
To her admirers, Samantha is a testament to a child's power to influence nations. Others believe that she was the unsuspecting pawn of propagandists from the Soviet Union and the U.S. government, even though the United States never publicly backed the trip.
Samantha's mother, Jane Smith, disagreed but said last week that the U.S. State Department prepped the Smith family for the trip "even though they didn't want to be seen as endorsing it."
All parties, however, can agree that Samantha's visit only improved relations between the two countries and served as a precursor to glasnost, the official Soviet policy of "openness."
"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."
In 1983, U.S. relations with the world's largest Communist country had grown tense over a high-stakes game of tit-for-tat. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan to keep its pro-Communist government in power. President Ronald Reagan persuaded Congress to expand the U.S. defense program.
On July 7, Samantha flew to the Soviet Union with her parents, visiting Leningrad and Moscow by limousine and playing with Young Pioneers at a Communist youth camp near the Black Sea. Everywhere she went, she charmed hosts and reporters who dogged her every move, which included a toothy smile and unscripted sound bites.
After talking on the phone to the first female cosmonaut to orbit the Earth, Samantha recalled, "She kept saying, 'I kiss you, Samantha, I kiss you.'
"I didn't know it was the first woman in space. Geez, I thought it was just a kid who was calling."
She showed Soviets that American citizens didn't all want war. And she humanized the Soviets, even Communist Party chief Yuri Andropov, who invited her family to his country after she wrote him expressing worry about nuclear war.
Andropov referred to her as Becky Thatcher, the plucky girlfriend of Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain's novel. After reading his response to her letter, Samantha said she pictured Andropov, once a top KGB official, as a grandfather-type.
Samantha returned home to international but short-lived celebrity. On Aug. 25, 1985, after filming an episode for a new ABC television series with Robert Wagner, Samantha and her father, Arthur, were killed in a plane crash in the woods near the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport. Piloting errors and bad advice from an air traffic controller in Portland were cited as probable causes.
In the nearly two decades since her death, the world has become a different place. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Russia, the largest of the former Soviet states, has entered into an amicable if cautious co-existence with the United States.
Amidst this new world order, the Samantha Smith Foundation, established by her mother in October 1985, has grown increasingly dormant.
The board of the nonprofit group, which sponsored trips to the United States for about 1,000 children from the former Soviet Union up until the mid-1990s, does not plan to meet until next summer. It will consider then what to do with its small pot of donations.
"Nothing slowed down, the world just changed," said Donna Brunstad, the foundation's former executive director. "When that happened, we did not go out for grants any more."
She added: "I think the work that it was originally formed to do has been done."
Samantha's admirers say her story continues to inspire and hold lessons. They note that today's war-torn world still has the same themes that prompted Samantha to write Andropov and ask: "Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren't, please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war."
The buzzwords, like "nuclear warheads" and "evil," are the same as they were 20 years ago - except it is now the "Axis of Evil" rather than the "Evil Empire."
"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."
If she were alive today, Samantha would be 31. It is anybody's guess what she would be doing.
"Who knows?" said Jane Smith, who is retired from the real estate industry and is president of her local YMCA in Boothbay Harbor. "She thought she wanted to be a veterinarian and a ballet dancer, even though she had never taken a ballet lesson."
Before her death, Samantha seemed headed for stardom in Hollywood. Press reports had begun to label her "actress and peace advocate." Some just called her "celebrity."
Surely, she would have been a living icon in the former Soviet states, where there is a diamond, a rose and a mountain named after her.
But for future generations of young people in Maine, Samantha will be the statue outside the state library.
Her image, however, holds special intrigue for some children and some adults, who go inside the library to find out more, according to reference librarian Elaine Stanley.
"They want to know who she is and what she's all about," Stanley said.
Here is the text of Samantha Smith's December 1982 letter to Soviet President Yuri Andropov and excerpts from Andropov's reply in April 1983: Dear Mr. Andropov: My name is Samantha Smith. I am 10 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 aren't, 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.
Sincerely, Samantha Smith
I received your letter, as well as many others coming to me these days from your country, and from other countries of the world.
It seems to me - and I take it from your letter - that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling in some way Becky - Tom Sawyer's friend from the well-known book of your compatriot Mark Twain. All kids in our country - boys and girls alike - know and love this book.
Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union endeavor and do everything so that there be no war between our two countries, so that there be no war at all on Earth. This is the wish of everyone in the Soviet Union. That's what we were taught to do by Vladimir Lenin - the great founder of our state.
America has - as well as we do - a frightful weapon which can instantly annihilate millions of people. However, we do not want this weapon to be ever used. This is why the Soviet Union solemnly declared to the world that it will never - but never! - be the first to use nuclear weapons against any country.
We want peace, we have a lot to do: to grow grain, to build, to invent, to write books and to make space flights. We want peace for ourselves and for all people of the planet, for our own kids and for you, Samantha.
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Well, that would have destroyed the whole "feel good" tenor of the article, wouldn't it? I don't specifically remember this, any more details?
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