In November 1982, two days after the death of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, former head of the KGB Yuri Andropov was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. His KGB past raised some international eyebrows, and Andropov was preoccupied with the idea that the U.S. was planning a nuclear attack to overthrow the Soviet government.
With all of this uncertainty and suspicion swirling in the air, TIME magazine put Andropov on the cover that month. Samantha Smith, a 10-year-old from Manchester, Maine, saw it and wondered why someone didn’t just flat-out ask the Soviet leader if he was thinking about waging war. “Why don’t you write to him?” her mother replied. So, she did:
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.
Although the letter received much publicity, and even ran in the Soviet newspaper Pravda, Smith never received an answer. Undeterred, she wrote again, this time to the Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. “I thought my questions were good ones and it shouldn’t matter if I was 10 years old,” she wrote. The squeaky wheel finally got the grease, and Samantha received a phone call from the U.S. Embassy, telling her to watch the mail for a reply from Andropov soon. She received it on April 26, 1983:
It seems to me—I can tell by your letter—that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling Becky, the friend of Tom Sawyer in the famous book of your compatriot Mark Twain. This book is well known and loved in our country by all boys and girls. You write that you are anxious about whether there will be a nuclear war between our two countries. And you ask are we doing anything so that war will not break out. Your question is the most important of those that every thinking man can pose. I will reply to you seriously and honestly. Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are trying to do everything so that there will not be war on Earth. In America and in our country there are nuclear weapons—terrible weapons that can kill millions of people in an instant. But we do not want them to be ever used. That's precisely why the Soviet Union solemnly declared throughout the entire world that never—never—will it use nuclear weapons first against any country. In general we propose to discontinue further production of them and to proceed to the abolition of all the stockpiles on earth. It seems to me that this is a sufficient answer to your second question: "Why do you want to wage war against the whole world or at least the United States?" We want nothing of the kind. No one in our country—neither workers, peasants, writers nor doctors, neither grown-ups nor children, nor members of the government—want either a big or "little" war. We want peace—there is something that we are occupied with: growing wheat, building and inventing, writing books and flying into space. We want peace for ourselves and for all peoples of the planet. For our children and for you, Samantha. I invite you, if your parents will let you, to come to our country, the best time being this summer. You will find out about our country, meet with your contemporaries, visit an international children's camp—"Artek"—on the sea. And see for yourself: in the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples.
Samantha took the Soviet leader up on his offer, and in July 1983, she paid a visit to Artek. Though Smith was unable to meet Andropov due to his failing health, her two-week trip—much of it televised—made her an international celebrity.
Over the course of the next two years, Smith became a goodwill ambassador, delivering speeches about how countries could develop better communication and relationships. She participated in a children's symposium in Japan, and even interviewed presidential candidates for the Disney Channel. Here she is answering questions on The Today Show and The Phil Donahue Show:
In the interview, Bryant Gumbel asks Smith if she will continue to be a public figure. “I don’t know. It depends on what happens next,” she said.
Sadly, we didn’t get the chance to see what would come next for Smith. In 1985, the small commuter plane she was on crashed less than a mile from the runway at the Auburn/Lewiston Municipal Airport in Augusta, Maine, killing everyone on board. Smith was just 13. The Russian government issued a postage stamp as a tribute and named a mountain in her honor.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2021.