On April 25, 1983, Yury Andropov, the Secretary General of the Communist Party Central Committee invited Samantha Smith to the Soviet Union in response to her sacramental “Mister Andropov, are you going to vote to have a war or not?” letter.
Such an unprecedented act of a cute American ten-year-old had broken the ice in the toughened relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War. Forever the “Goodwill Ambassador” for grown-ups, and a role model for children of both countries, she lifted the fringe of the iron curtain to reveal that the alleged enemies were people and brothers.
Samantha Smith saw the portrait of Andropov, the newly-appointed Communist Party leader on the cover of Time magazine. It was the era when Ronald Reagan labeled the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire," the Soviet Union was involved in the war in Afghanistan, and both countries engaged in extensive efforts in the area of nuclear arms proliferation. Even the young Soviet boys entertained themselves by building nuclear-proof bunkers out of lead plates from used accumulators. To make things worse, Andropov began his tenure by reinforcing the KGB, and by violent dissident suppression.
On seeing the general fear and uncertainty, Samantha asked her mother, “If people are so afraid of him, why doesn't someone write a letter asking whether he wants to have a war or not?” Her mother replied, “Why don't you?” And Samantha did, “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?..”
In April, 1983, a news reporter for United Press International gave Samantha a phone call to inform her: the copy of Samantha's letter had been noticed in 'Pravda,' the official state newspaper of the Soviet Union. Immediately, American reporters almost buried her under a load of questions, the major one being: “Did the Russians use you to plot their propaganda strategies?” and “Who is her curator in the CIA?”
Later, the personal reply from Andropov came. In his letter to Samantha, he compared her to Becky Thatcher from “Tom Sawyer,” and called Samantha "courageous and honest." He assured her, “we want peace – we have a lot to do: grow crops, build houses, make inventions, write books, and fly into space. We want peace for us, and every other nation on the planet. For our children and for you, Samantha.” He invited her and her family to visit the Soviet Union in the summer, and see that he meant it.
Samantha never got the chance to see Andropov in person – when she arrived in the Soviet Union in July of 1983, he was very ill – but she did have a phone conversation with him.
While in the Soviet Union, Samantha visited Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), and Artek, the major Soviet pioneer camp on the Crimean Peninsula. At a press conference in Moscow, she admitted that Russian people were "just like us." In Artek, Samantha refused to occupy the privileged accommodations, and just stayed with nine other girls in a regular camp room, swimming, dancing, and singing like all other Soviet pioneers. In her book, "Journey to the Soviet Union," Samantha shared her admiration and delight over the communication with her Soviet peers. They had long discussions, varying from contradictory political issues, to American and Soviet clothing styles and music trends.
Practically her every step received extensive media coverage, both in the States, and in the Soviet Union. The reports of Samantha’s journey appeared regularly on TV in the Soviet major news broadcast "Vremya" (the Time). Samantha’s pictures in a pioneer tie and a cap in the middle of the Soviet landscape were on every page. So warm was Samantha’s reception, and so happy she looked on every picture, the American authorities feared that the Soviets had brainwashed her.
Samantha was so friendly, cute, and outgoing, both Soviet and American sides, in turn, suspected her of just being a propaganda tool.
Nevertheless, Samantha’s visit was a cultural and political breakthrough. She introduced the human factor into the relationships between the two superpowers, and helped make it clear that ordinary people are the same everywhere, and war is the last thing on their minds. This is why Samantha’s death three years later in a plane crash was seen by both nations as a great tragedy. There was talk about a set-up by either country’s secret services, but the evidence confirmed the responsibility for the accident was on the pilot alone.
A diamond, a flower, a mountain, and a ship were named after Samantha. Artek has an alley in Samantha’s honor, and a twin life-size monument to her was erected both in her home town of Manchester, Maine, and in Moscow. The Moscow version, however, had been destroyed by looters. In October 1985, Samantha's mother established the Samantha Smith Foundation to sponsor a student exchange program between the United States and the Soviet Union.