Dear Mr. Andropov,
My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old.
Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying 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.
When Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov responded to this letter by inviting its author to visit the USSR, Samantha Smith of Readfield, Maine became an overnight celebrity in the United States. It was 1983, and renewed fears of a Cold War heating up had a lot of people very concerned. This was the year of massive antinuclear protests in Western Europe and the U.S., as well as the airing of ABC's made-for-TV blockbuster, The Day After, which contained graphic scenes of nuclear holocaust. The problem for the "nuclear freeze" proponents was that President Ronald Reagan had scrapped the concept of detente -- "peaceful coexistence" -- with the Soviet Union, adopting in its place a much harder line in dealing with the USSR, which he described as an "evil empire" in a March 8, 1983 speech to a National Association of Evangelicals convention at the Sheraton Twin Towers in Orlando, Florida.
Reagan was going forward with predecessor Jimmy Carter's plan to deploy Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe, a response to the existence of 243 Soviet triple-warhead SS-20s poised to strike that region in the event of war. The president described his intentions in a speech before the British parliament in the summer of 1982 -- to consign the Soviet Union to the "ash-heap of history." This would be accomplished, he believed, by isolating the USSR economically and engaging it in an arms race that would force the Russians to negotiate a reduction in the number of existing nuclear warheads, which Reagan preferred to a freeze in the production of new weapons. Reagan was a nuclear abolitionist who abhorred the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction as a deterrent to nuclear war. Despite his adherence to a "Zero Option" plan calling for the removal of all nuclear missiles from European soil, many Americans in 1983 viewed him as a rigid Cold Warrior who might go too far in his lifelong desire to destroy Communism.
Into this tense and confrontational situation stepped little Samantha Smith. She visited the Soviet Union with her parents in July 1983, touring among other places the city of Leningrad and a youth camp on the shores of the Black Sea. The major American networks covered the visit with nightly reports, and Ted Koppel interviewed Samantha on ABC's Nightline. Though she did not meet Andropov, who was ill, Samantha was provided with a letter from the general secretary, excerpts of which she read on national television. Andropov portrayed the Soviet Union as a nation committed to peace. The Russians were "just like us," Samantha declared at a Moscow press conference, implying that Americans had nothing to fear if only the leaders of the two superpowers would be reasonable.
Veteran observers of Cold War politics, like U.S. News & World Report correspondent Nicholas Daniloff, suggested that Samantha might have become the unwitting pawn of the Soviets. Certainly, her visit was a propaganda coup for the Kremlin, milked for all it was worth by the state-run Soviet media. The Reagan administration was already on the defensive, as the Soviets deftly attempted to undermine the solidarity of the NATO alliance with regard to the placement of American intermediate missiles in Western Europe. Some criticized the administration for its apparent indifference to negotiation. In fact, Reagan wanted to open a dialogue with his Soviet counterpart as soon as possible; he wrote a letter to Leonid Brezhnev shortly after taking up residence in the White House, suggesting that they begin a dialogue, but Brezhnev died soon thereafter. His successor, Andropov, passed away in February 1984. The next general secretary, Konstantin Chernenko, died in 1985. An exasperated Reagan wondered how he was supposed to open that dialogue if the Soviet leaders kept dying on him.
Neither the nuclear freeze protests or the Soviet Union's nuclear intimidation and propaganda campaign succeeded in preventing the placement of Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe. Soviet officials walked out of the Geneva arms control talks in protest, but they were back at the negotiating table in 1985, and two years later the INF Treaty -- the Zero Option in action -- was signed, eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons. As for Samantha Smith, America's youngest heroine lost her life in a plane crash on August 25, 1985.
Strangely enough, Nicholas Daniloff -- the correspondent who wrote a skeptical piece in U.S. News & World Report on Samantha's visit to the Soviet Union -- himself became a pawn in the Cold War. He was arrested by the Russians in 1986 and charged with espionage. Since Daniloff's arrest occurred one week after the FBI seized a Soviet spy posing as a UN attache', it was obvious that the Kremlin wanted a trade. At first the Reagan administration refused, pointing out that to engage in a swap would be tantamount to admitting Daniloff was a spy, which he wasn't. Reagan went so far as to summon Eduard Shevardnadze to the White House and berate the Soviet foreign minister for forty five minutes on the subject of the falsely accused journalist. Then it was learned that Daniloff had in fact acquired confidential Soviet documents for a story he was writing. The administration finally did cut a deal -- the captured Soviet spy was expelled in return for the release of Daniloff and several Russian dissidents.