Maine's Samantha Smith Has a Red-Letter Day When Andropov Becomes a Pen Pal
After she’d been interviewed by Ted Koppel and Jane Pauley and Diane Sawyer, after CBS had whisked her to New York on a chartered plane, after Sen. William Cohen (R.-Maine) had telephoned his congratulations, after the calls from reporters in France, England, Australia, Bulgaria and Germany, Samantha Smith began to get a tad jaded. Sitting in her Manchester, Maine kitchen, sipping coke and nibbling on an apricot Fruit Roll-Up, the 73-pound 10-year-old was having second thoughts. “I’m sort of tired of it,” she said. “Everybody asks the same questions again and again. Why don’t they just pass things along to each other?” The phone, which had barely stopped ringing since Samantha’s plea for peace had been answered by Soviet Communist Party boss Yuri Andropov, rang again. Her father answered it and turned to ask her if she wanted to fly to California to appear on The Tonight Show. “Yeah!” she exclaimed eagerly, her ennui erased by thoughts of the trip. “This is terrific!”
With each interview Samantha grew more deft in explaining how her fear of a nuclear war had grown “watching the news. I wanted to find out about the dangers. I was worried.” After questioning her mother, Jane, a home care and child welfare program specialist for the Maine Department of Human Services, Samantha decided to write to the newly appointed Soviet leader. “I thought I’d get to know him better if I wrote to him and he wrote back,” she explains. Last November she composed her handwritten letter on 8 x 11 note pad paper, addressing the envelope “Mr. Yuri Andropov, The Kremlin, Moscow, U.S.S.R.” While congratulating Andropov on his new job, she asked, “Why do you want to conquer the whole world, or at least our country?” Her father, Arthur, 42, a writing instructor at the University of Maine in Augusta, offered little hope that the missive would be answered. “I thought it would disappear, never to be heard from again,” he says.
He was wrong. On April 11 Pravda reprinted portions of Samantha’s letter, and two weeks later the spunky fifth grader received a reply. In a typewritten, unsigned letter on three pages of cream-colored stationery, forwarded from the Soviet Embassy in Washington, Andropov called Samantha “a courageous and honest girl” and compared her to Becky Thatcher, the heroine of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. Then he answered her questions on war. “Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union endeavor and do everything so that there be no war between our two countries,” he wrote. He also promised that the Soviets would “never—but never!—be the first to use nuclear weapons against any country.”
The State Department and many academic Sovietologists quickly pegged the Kremlin letter as a clever PR gambit. “It’s nothing but a propaganda play,” says Harvard history professor Richard Pipes. “It was meant to have human appeal—Andropov the gentle grandfather.” Samantha, however, is less skeptical: “I believe he doesn’t want to conquer the world.”
Samantha, meanwhile, has conquered the media—and her own shyness. Before the letter’s arrival, she was “too bashful even to try out for a school play. She doesn’t even like to go to the ladies’ room alone in a restaurant,” says her mother. Now she handles strangers with understated aplomb. “I’ve been constantly surprised and proud,” Jane Smith, 38, says. “She’s enjoyed it all.” When an “artist” called from San Francisco and offered to construct her portrait in jelly beans, Samantha was nonplussed. “Let him do it,” she said, “as long as I can eat the picture.” Her only real disappointment has come in the reaction of classmates at Manchester Elementary School. “The kids keep saying, ‘I saw you on TV, I saw you in the paper,’ ” Samantha says. “But no one says I’m any good.”