Samantha Smith, the 13-year-old “ambassador” to the Soviet Union, dies in a plane crash. Smith was best known for writing to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov in 1982 and visiting the Soviet Union as Andropov’s guest in 1983.
In late 1982, Smith, a fifth-grader at Manchester Elementary School in Manchester, Maine, wrote a plaintive letter to Soviet leader Andropov. She said that she was “worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to have a war or not?” A few months later, Smith’s letter was reprinted in Russia and it was announced that Andropov was writing a response. Smith received his letter in April 1983. Andropov assured Smith that he did not want a nuclear war with the United States or any other country. Calling Smith a “courageous and honest” little girl, Andropov closed the letter with an invitation for her to visit the Soviet Union. In July, accompanied by her parents, Smith embarked on a two-week trip. She was a hit in the Soviet Union, and although she did not get to meet with Andropov, she traveled widely and spoke to numerous groups and people. In the United States, some people branded her as a patsy for the communists and claimed that Soviet propagandists were merely using her for their own purposes, but Samantha’s enthusiasm and contagious optimism charmed most Americans and millions of other people around the world. During the next two years, Smith became an unofficial U.S. goodwill ambassador, speaking to groups throughout the United States and in foreign nations such as Japan. On August 25, 1985, while traveling with her father, their small plane crashed and both were killed.
Smith’s legacy lived on, however. Her mother began the Samantha Smith Foundation, which has as its goal bringing people from different nations and cultures together to share their experiences. In particular, the foundation established a student exchange program with the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, news of Smith’s death was met with great sadness. The Russian government responded by issuing a stamp in her honor and naming a mountain after the young girl.