Nearly 40 years ago, a kid from Maine wanted to know why the U.S. and the Soviet Union would ever want to go to war, or use nuclear weapons on each other. Instead of only asking her parents or teachers, however, she decided to ask the people directly in charge of such matters.
That 10-year-old kid was Maine native Samantha Smith, and in November 1982, she wrote a letter to the leader of the Soviet Union, wondering exactly that. She knew how to ask a simple question that cut to the heart of the matter — just as many kids today may be asking similar questions about the Russian invasion of Ukraine that is unfolding before our eyes.
Smith was born in Houlton in 1972, and grew up there and in the Kennebec County town of Manchester. An intelligent and inquisitive child, she was encouraged by her parents to write a letter to the leader of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, after Smith asked them why the world was so worried about the tensions between the U.S. and Russia.
She sent her letter in November 1982, asking Andropov why he might want to start a war with the U.S. or the rest of the world. Russian newspapers published it initially, but then, nearly six months later in April 1983, Andropov himself responded. In his letter, he said the Soviet Union had no desire for war and hoped to eventually abolish the use of nuclear weapons. He compared Smith to the character of Becky in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and invited her personally to visit the Soviet Union and attend a children’s camp on the Black Sea.
Almost overnight, Smith became headline news. Some in the U.S. questioned whether the Soviets were using Smith as an instrument of propaganda, but in her appearances on “The Tonight Show” and “Nightline” and on nightly news broadcasts, Smith came across as a precocious young activist for peace, hoping to bridge the Cold War gap between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
Smith went to Russia for two weeks in July 1983, visiting Moscow and what is now Saint Petersburg before spending several days at Artek, a state-sponsored summer camp. When she returned, the town of Manchester held a parade in her honor, and she appeared on numerous TV shows telling her story and advocating for peace.
After her history-making peace missions, Smith began appearing on television, including hosting a TV special about the 1984 presidential elections. In December 1983, she attended the Children’s International Symposium in Japan, where she suggested that Soviet and American leaders exchange granddaughters for two weeks every year, saying that a president “wouldn’t want to send a bomb to a country his granddaughter would be visiting.” She also started an acting career, appearing on episodes of “Charles in Charge” and the series “Lime Street.”
But Smith’s rise to fame was not meant to be. Her young life was cut short in August 1985, when she and her father Arthur were killed during a failed landing of a Bar Harbor Airlines flight at the Lewiston-Auburn Regional Airport. All six passengers and two crew members were killed. Smith was 13.
More than 1,000 people attended her funeral in Augusta, and messages of condolence were sent by both President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. A statue of Smith was erected in Augusta, and her mother, Jane, founded the Samantha Smith Foundation, which for nearly a decade organized a summer exchange program between U.S. and Russian youth. Today, the Samantha Smith Fund at the University of Maine still sponsors yearly scholarships for students who wish to study abroad.
After the Soviet Union fell in 1991, relations between the U.S. and Russia thawed dramatically. But in more recent years they’ve soured again, especially since the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine in 2014, and the Russian interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Now, with the invasion of Ukraine, the world seems to have slid backward into a situation that much more closely resembles the world Smith lived in — strengthening old alliances between the U.S. and Europe in the process, and inspiring a global outcry against Russian aggression.
It’s hard to imagine a plucky Maine kid writing a letter to Vladimir Putin, and receiving such a response from him, let alone an invitation to visit Russia. It’s hard to imagine a 10-year-old even writing a letter at all.
But kids — even if they prefer TikTok to pen and paper — still ask questions about the scary things going on in the world, whether climate change, war, racism or the pandemic. Adults do too, even if they are sometimes less able to distill those questions down to the fundamentals, as Smith was able to.
War is still a specter that haunts every corner of the world, and is a horrific reality. And kids are still kids, with the potential to see beyond the noise, violence and chatter, and simply ask why it has to be this way — like Samantha Smith did, 40 years ago.