Prodigies: Samantha Smith

Episode Summary

Samantha Smith (1972-1985) was known as the girl who broke through the Iron Curtain. Her enthusiasm for letter writing made her unofficially America’s youngest ambassador, or “the pint-sized peacemaker.”

Episode Notes

Samantha Smith (1972-1985) was known as the girl who broke through the Iron Curtain. Her enthusiasm for letter writing made her unofficially America’s youngest ambassador, or “the pint-sized peacemaker.”

History classes can get a bad rap, and sometimes for good reason. When we were students, we couldn’t help wondering... where were all the ladies at? Why were so many incredible stories missing from the typical curriculum? Enter, Womanica. On this Wonder Media Network podcast we explore the lives of inspiring women in history you may not know about, but definitely should.

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know–but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Educators, Villains, Indigenous Storytellers, Activists, and many more.  Womanica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures. 

Womanica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Grace Lynch, Maddy Foley, Brittany Martinez, Edie Allard, Lindsey Kratochwill, Adesuwa Agbonile, Carmen Borca-Carrillo, Taylor Williamson, Ale Tejeda, Sara Schleede, and Alex Jhamb Burns. Special thanks to Shira Atkins. 

Original theme music composed by Miles Moran.

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Episode Transcription

This month we’re highlighting Prodigies: women who achieved greatness at a young age. 

Today’s Womanican was known as the girl who broke through the Iron Curtain. Her enthusiasm for letter writing made her unofficially America’s youngest ambassador, or  “the pint-sized peacemaker.”

Please welcome Samantha Smith. 

Samantha Reed Smith was born on June 29, 1972 in the small town of Houlton, Maine near the US- Canada border. Her mother was a social worker and her father was a professor at the nearby University of Maine. 

Samantha, at only ten years old, had become familiar with the tragedies of recent history. She had studied World War II and the dropping of the bomb in Japan. She also watched the news, and a TV program about the dangers of the Cold War. 

With all of this on her mind, Samantha expressed her worries to her mother. Jane, her mother, presented her with a November 1982 issue of Time Magazine with then-Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov on the cover. 

Jane proposed that she write a letter to Andropov. Samantha quickly took her mother up on the suggestion and promptly mailed it. The letter read:

“Dear Mr. Andropov, My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worried 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 to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight. Sincerely, Samantha Smith.”

After mailing the letter, Samantha carried on in her everyday life until she found out that an excerpt of her letter with comments from Andropov had been published in the official paper of the Soviet Communist party. Equipped with this information, she became frustrated that he had not replied directly to her. But she was still determined. Samantha proceeded to write a letter to the Soviet ambassador to the United States asking why she hadn’t received a direct response from Andropov. 

About a week later, on April 26, 1983, Andropov wrote Samantha a substantial letter. In it, he compared Samantha to the character Becky from Tom Sawyer because of her courage and honesty. He explained that the Soviets were doing all that they could to prevent a war and that they had hopes of peace. At the end of the letter, he invited Samantha to come visit his country during the summer. 

Andropov wrote: “And see for yourself: In the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples.” 

Samantha took Andropov up on his offer. The summer of 1983, she spent two weeks touring the Soviet Union. She made the most of her trip. She visited Lenin’s grave, attended the Bolshoi ballet, met the first woman to go into space Valentina Tereshkova, and spent time with Russian children at the Artek summer camp in Crimea. 

Both the American and Soviet press were all over the coverage of Samantha’s trip. When she returned to the U.S., she was featured on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In Carson’s interview with Samantha, she told him that she was shocked by how American the airport seemed when she arrived. 

Though word of Samantha’s letter and trip spread far and wide, it did little to influence Soviet and American policies or to change the trajectory of the Cold War. Nevertheless, her budding relationships with people on the other side of the Iron Curtain was an important part of“humanizing the enemy.” 

Not all of Samantha’s actions were seen as benevolent. Many critics saw her trip as propagandistic and an empty distraction from the real and difficult problems of the Cold War. Even President Ronald Reagan was skeptical and when asked whether he would like to invite a Russian girl to visit the United States, he declined.

He justified his decision by explaining that while he believed the people behind the Iron Curtain wanted peace, their wants and desires were not connected to actions of the hostile Soviet Union. 

In December 1983, Samantha traveled to Japan. She had been invited to meet Japan’s prime minister and as to speak at the Children’s International Symposium for the 21st Century. At the symposium, Samantha proposed the idea of a granddaughter exchange program with the notion that a president wouldn’t send a bomb to a country his granddaughter was visiting. 

Though some of her ideas were clearly naive, Samantha became an icon. In 1985, she published a book entitled “Journey to the Soviet Union,” which told the story of her famous trip.

In 1984, Samantha was given a minor role on the TV sitcom Charles in Charge. That paved the way for a more significant role on the ABC series Lime Street in 1985. Sadly, her time on the show was short lived. 

On August 25, 1985, Samantha and her father Arthur, were on a return flight from filming a Lime Street episode when something went wrong. The plane was flying too low, and clipped the tops of some pine trees. Eventually, it crashed, killing the passengers – including Samantha and Arthur. 

In a statement made by Samantha’s mother days after the crash, she said “I hope Samantha and Arthur have helped us realize how important each one of us can be. Samantha couldn't accept man's inhumanity to man. She stood fast in the belief that peace can be achieved and maintained by mankind.”

All month, we’re highlighting prodigies. For more information find us on Facebook and Instagram @womanicapodcast. 

Special thanks to Jenny and Liz Kaplan, who invited me to guest host.

Talk to you tomorrow!