Girl Scout Samantha Smith made national headlines in November 1982, but not for selling cookies.
That month was one of the lowest points in Cold War history. Leonid Brezhnev, who had led the Soviet Union since 1964, died on November 10. US-USSR negotiations about nuclear weapons had stalled, partly because of Brezhnev’s physical and mental decline.
The USSR political system did not have a line of succession, and observers were unsure who would lead the USSR now. Would he ease or inflame the Cold War? After two days, former KGB chief Yuri Andropov emerged victorious. A former spymaster seemed unlikely to pursue peace.
(End of the Soviet leadership lesson.)
In Maine, a fifth-grader named Samantha Smith saw newspaper and magazine headlines about Andropov and the arms race. Samantha, a Junior Girl Scout, decided to take action. She wrote a letter to the new Soviet leader.
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 it if you would. Why do you want to conquer the world or at least our country? 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.
The letter did arrive in Moscow. The leading Soviet newspaper, Pravda, published it, as part of an article on concerned citizens.
After five several months without a direct answer, Samantha wrote to the USSR Ambassador to the United States. Had Andropov received her letter?
A reply from the Kremlin arrived in April 1983.
He reassured Samantha that his country did not want war.
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. …
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.
Andropov invited Samantha to visit the USSR.
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.www.mainememory.net
Samantha and her parents spent two weeks there in July 1983. They visited Lenin’s tomb, watched the Bolshoi Ballet, and she spent three days at Artek, a summer camp for children of her own age.
Two Weeks in the USSR
She did not, however, meet Andropov. Scholars now know that Andropov spent most of his 15-month term undergoing dialysis, slowly succumbing to kidney failure.
Samantha quickly became a media darling in both countries, although cynics said she was being used as a a propaganda tool.
After her trip, Samantha was interviewed by reporters, civic groups, even talk-show host Johnny Carson. Her poise before a camera led her to be cast as Robert Wagner’s daughter in “Lime Street,” a new US television series filming in London.
Tragedy and Legacy
Her father accompanied her on trips to London for the show. They were on their way home when their airplane crashed in August 1985. There were no survivors. Samantha was 13.
Jane Smith established the Samantha Smith Foundation to continue her daughter’s efforts to promote friendship between youth in the United States and Soviet Union. The foundation grew largely dormant after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Jane was also the keynote speaker for Kennebec Girl Scout Council’s celebration of the 75th birthday of Girl Scouts. After her presentation, Jane unveiled a new USSR postage stamp created in her daughter’s honor.
While Samantha’s story has faded in the United States, she remains extraordinarily popular in Russia.
By the late 1980s, each child growing up in the Soviet Union would know her name and her charming smile. Indeed, to this day, Samantha Smith remains a name that is widely recognized by ordinary Russians born during the Soviet period and has not left the realm of politics.Matthias Neumann, “Children Diplomacy During the Late Cold War.”
The Artek camp remains in use, with a monument and an annual Samantha Smith session.
©2022 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian
Camp photos from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Soviet Art/USSR Culture