PORTLAND – Twenty years ago this month, Samantha Smith took a highly publicized tour of the Soviet Union that put a human face on the decades-long nuclear arms race between two superpowers.
The goodwill mission brought celebrity to the 11-year-old girl from Maine, but its anniversary has been largely forgotten in these post-Cold War days of al-Qaida and Iraq.
Back in 1983, Smith’s voyage was tinged by debate, with some suggesting she was the unsuspecting pawn of propagandists from the Soviet Union and the U.S. government. But that view has waned as the Cold War receded into history.
To her admirers, Smith, who died in a plane crash in 1985, remains a testament to a child’s power to influence nations.
In the early 1980s, U.S. relations with the world’s largest Communist country were tense. 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.
That was the backdrop when Smith wrote to Communist Party chief Yuri Andropov expressing her fears about nuclear war.
“I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war,” she wrote. “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.”
Andropov wrote back several months later, assuring Smith that his country had no intention of starting a war with the United States.
“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,” Andropov wrote.
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.
In the 18 years since her death, the world has become a different place. Following the Soviet Union’s collapse, 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 until the mid-1990s, does not plan to meet until next summer.
“Nothing slowed down, the world just changed,” said Donna Brunstad, the foundation’s former executive director. “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.
“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.
“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.
Similarly, peace activists have made her a role model, making her statue outside the State House in Augusta a stopping point during peace rallies against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Time has tempered the debate over whether Samantha was exploited by government operatives from either of the countries.
Andrij Krockhmaluk of Richmond, a first-generation Ukrainian-American whose father, a journalist and publisher, was imprisoned by the Soviet government, believed at the time that Samantha’s visit was a public relations stunt by the Communist Party.
His view today is softer. “She was a lovable young lady and if she won over a few hearts, more power to her,” said Krockhmaluk, now 58.
If Samantha were alive today, she 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 lives in Boothbay Harbor. “She thought she wanted to be a veterinarian and a ballet dancer, even though she had never taken a ballet lesson.”