Samantha Smith’s worldwide legacy is remembered in her hometown

4 years ago

HOULTON, Maine — Thirty-five years after her passing, family and friends reflected on Houlton native Samantha Smith, who became one of the first American civilians to visit the Soviet Union as part of a diplomatic trip to foster peace between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Smith, who was born in Houlton in 1972 and later moved to Manchester in 1980, became known worldwide when in 1982 at the age of 10 she wrote a letter to Yuri Andropov, then the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In her letter she asked him whether the two countries were going to have a nuclear war, and expressed her hope there would be peace.

“God made the world for us to share and take care of,” she wrote. “Not fight over or have one group of people own it all.” 

But to Smith’s and her family’s surprise, Andropov responded that the USSR also desired peace, and invited her and her family to visit the Soviet Union. They accepted, visiting Moscow, Leningrad and the Artek Youth Pioneer Camp.

Smith’s life was tragically cut short on Aug. 25, 1985, when she and her father, Arthur, died in a plane crash while flying from Bar Harbor to Lewiston. Four other passengers and the pilot also perished in the crash.

Hammond resident Diane Hines, who along with her husband Glenn were close friends of the Smith family when Samantha’s father taught at the now defunct Ricker College in Houlton. Hines recalled how the family was forever transformed after their trip.

“The Smiths just felt like they were a regular family,” said Hines. “They never felt the same after the trip to Russia.”

The family’s trip received wide media coverage in both countries. Smith became widely known as a peace activist and a budding child actress in the television show, Lime Street, appearing alongside Robert Wagner.

Under a new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union instituted reforms and went on to meet with President Ronald Reagan in several diplomatic talks. By the end of the decade, the Cold War between the two nations was all but over. 

Regarding Smith, who would have turned 48 in late June, Hines said: “If they could find the perfect girl to go and represent the United States, she was pretty much there. She had the looks, and the smile and the delight.”

The Cold War ended more than 30 years ago, but looking at headlines today, it would be easy to think that tensions between the United States and Russia never dissipated — with economic sanctions, allegations that Russia interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and now recent reports by American intelligence officials claiming Russian spies paid bounties to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan to kill American soldiers — a revelation which is likely to further worsen relations. Russia has also recently sparked controversy by claiming to have developed a vaccine for COVID-29, despite not having completed all the clinical trials for it.

While the two nations have many disputes today, the beginning of the 1980s also saw the United States and Soviet Union as two nations that seemed they would never reconcile their differences. 

Asked what she thought Smith would think of the current tensions between the United States and Russia, Hines said the situation is different than it was in the 1980s. 

“President Reagan was hawkish to the Soviet Union. Trump seems to admire Putin. Very different relationship,” she said. “I doubt Putin would invite a little girl and her family to visit for weeks and wine and dine them.”

“I think her main point was that we need to realize that people around the world are people, and we all have a lot of the same wishes,” said Jane Smith, Samantha’s mother, regarding her daughter’s legacy. “We desire to live a happy life, have a family that’s healthy and happy and be kind to one another.”

She also cautioned that even though the Cold War may be over, the threat of nuclear war remains very real, with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists setting the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight — a sign that relations between nuclear-weapon countries are eroding. 

“People have kind of forgotten about the nuclear problem because we have all these other problems right now,” she said. “There’s a lot of scary stuff going on.”