Communicator of the Month: Samantha Smith

Our Communicator of the Month series showcases individuals whose voices have made a lasting impact on our country. In 2023, we recognize 12 Proponents of Peace who were dedicated to resolving conflict and envisioned a world without violence. Whether they advocated for civil education classes or found the common link between the civil rights and peace movements, the efforts of these activists mitigated hostile conditions in many of the world’s most divided countries — including our own. Their cooperative processes led to negotiation, reconciliation and growth — and are still teaching us how to connect back to our shared humanity, even in times of strife.

“Well, I just hope we can have peace, and I hope it’ll do some good.” Samantha Smith

June 29, 1972 — August 25, 1985

Like children all over America during the Cold War, 10-year-old Samantha Smith of Manchester, Maine, was terrified of the prospect of a nuclear war. Looking for comfort, she wrote a letter to the newly appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov. In the letter, Smith inquired about the likelihood of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States:

“Dear Mr. Andropov,” she wrote, “I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to have a war or not?”

To her surprise, Andropov responded and reiterated the Soviet Union’s declaration to not be a country that initiated the use of nuclear weapons against any country. Andropov concluded the letter by inviting Smith to visit the Soviet Union so she could see for herself that civilians in the Soviet Union are for peace.

Incredibly, Smith accepted his invitation, and she and her family traveled to the Soviet Union in 1983. On her two-week trip, she visited countries throughout the Soviet Union as well as an international children’s camp called Artek Camp Morskoi. Her trip was heavily documented by the press and much of it was televised. “Some people have the wrong impression about the Soviets,” Smith told the reporters. “[They] want peace like I do.”

Throughout the next two years, Smith became a goodwill ambassador and appeared on many television programs, including “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” She also interviewed Democratic presidential candidates for the Disney Channel. During her interviews, Smith reiterated that Russian children are similar to the kids she knew in the United States.

In December 1983, Smith attended the International Children’s Symposium in Kobe, Japan. She gave a speech during the gathering in which she suggested the creation of a program called The International Granddaughter Exchange. Through this potential program, leaders would exchange granddaughters for two weeks every year, with the idea that a leader would not want to bomb a country that “his granddaughter was visiting.”

“If we start with an International Granddaughter Exchange and keep expanding it and expanding it, then the year 2001 can be the year when all of us can look around and see only friends, no opposite nations, no enemies, and no bombs,” she said.

Her message of peace resonated with people in both countries. The trip was proof that people might make assumptions about a country and its people from negative news stories, when in fact, they were like-minded individuals who shared and appreciated similar values.

Tragically, Smith did not live to see the end of the Cold War and the eventual peace that she hoped for. In 1985, at the age of 13, Samantha and her father were killed in a plane crash.

Smith exemplifies that only one person — even a child — can make a profound difference in the world. The principles that Smith lived for — from peace to nuclear disarmament — are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago. As we see veiled, and even more explicit, threats of nuclear attack during the current war waged by Russia in Ukraine, we should all remember the values Smith lived for during her tragically short life.

In Smith’s home state of Maine, the first Monday in June is officially Samantha Smith Day. Schools across the state hold activities to help children understand other cultures and remember Smith’s vision for a peaceful world.