It’s a little after 7:00 PM on December 27th, 1979 in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Five armored vehicles climb up a steep, winding road in the darkness. In the last vehicle sits Colonel Oleg Balashov, a squad leader in the highly-trained Soviet special forces here to assassinate radical Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin, part of a larger plan to take control of Afghanistan and establish a pro-communist regime.
Colonel Balashov closes his eyes and goes over the plan in his head. After traversing the serpentine path up the hill, the squad will reach the heavily guarded gate of the Tajbeg Palace.
But just as he thinks about the opposition he might face at the gate… there’s a deafening explosion. Afghan troops have spotted the approaching Soviets and begin hurling grenades. Balashov’s eyes shoot open, and he and the three other men in the vehicle ready their weapons. Colonel Balashov gives his men a glance, and they nod back: they’re ready.
Colonel Balashov and his men leap out of their vehicle and immediately face incoming fire.
All around them, the ground trembles with explosions. But through a haze of dust and smoke, the Soviet special forces fight their way forward, reaching the fortified gate. With practiced efficiency, Colonel Balashov and his men rush and overtake the gate’s guards, then continue on foot to storm the palace and complete their mission.
Forty-three minutes later, the body of Hafizullah Amin is one of the many corpses lying inside the ruins of the palace. But this is only the beginning of a bloody war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, one that will stretch on for nearly a decade.
Ideological differences between the United States of America and the Soviet Union sparked the beginning of the Cold War in 1947, and for the next thirty years, tensions between the powers only escalated further as the superpowers engaged in a nuclear arms race. But in the late 1960s, relations began to improve, ushering in a period of cooperation known as detente. But this era of relaxed tensions comes to an abrupt end when the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan in December 1979 putting the two countries again on a dangerous collision course.
But just a few years later, an American schoolgirl will strive to change the trajectory of the Cold War when the leader of the Soviet Union responds to her plea for peace on April 25th, 1983.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is April 25th, 1983: Samantha Smith Becomes ‘America’s Youngest Ambassador’.
It’s late November 1982; nearly three years after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
On a quiet Sunday afternoon at her home in Maine, Jane Smith reads the latest issue of Time magazine. She sighs softly as she eyes the Soviet figure pictured in its pages.
For close to two decades, Leonid Brezhnev has been the leader of the Soviet Union and a key contributor to the ongoing tensions of the Cold War. But earlier this month, Brezhnev died.
And now, another man has stepped into his shoes: Yuri Andropov.
Jane closes the magazine and studies the stern face of the man on its cover. The chilling fear of a nuclear war between the two superpowers weighs heavily on Jane’s mind. She wonders aloud if Andropov will find a way to make peace.
But her musing grabs the attention of her ten-year-old daughter, Samantha. Samantha has watched several news programs about America and the Soviet Union. She doesn’t always catch everything that the reporters say. But she has understood this: nuclear war means the end of the world, and it's becoming more and more likely.
Samantha gazes at her mother's magazine. Yuri Andropov is a new, unfamiliar face now at the helm of the Soviet Union. The reporters have said that they don’t know much about him, and that scares Samantha. So when she hears her mother wondering aloud if Andropov might forge peace, she gets an idea.
Samantha tells her mother to write Andropov a letter asking him if he plans to start a war. Jane can’t help but smile at her daughter's innocence. She tucks a loose strand of hair behind Samantha’s ear and tells her that she might feel better if she wrote the Soviet leader a letter herself.
So Samatha does. Her letter begins: “Dear Mr. Andropov…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?... This question you do not have to answer but I would like it if you would. Why do you want to conquer the world or at least our country?”
The letter is signed: “Samantha Smith, Manchester, Maine USA… PS: Please write back.”Jane grins at her daughter’s work but can hardly imagine that just a few months later, Yuri Andropov will write back and that their correspondence will be splashed across newspapers in America, and thousands of miles away in the Soviet Union.
It's April 25th, 1983; Samantha is in her usual seat on the school bus back home. The children talk loudly as the driver starts the engine. And before Samantha knows it, it’s time for her to get off. She waves goodbye to her friends and hurries to the open doors of the bus. Every day when returning from school, she is greeted by her pet dog.
But today she’s met with a very different scene. The yard in front of Samantha’s house is filled with reporters setting up camera stands and scribbling in their notebooks.
It’s not Samantha’s first encounter with the press. Earlier that month, she caught a reporter’s attention after a Soviet newspaper published an article about American citizens who had written to Andropov. The article featured Samantha’s letter. But Samantha has never experienced this much media attention.
So when she climbs off the last step of the school bus, the reporters stop what they are doing and rush forward, eagerly talking over each other. Dozens of cameras and microphones are pointed at Samantha. Word has gotten out that the new leader of the Soviet Union has written back to the little girl, and the world wants to know what he said.
Samantha herself barely knows. She got the letter from Andropov just before school, and she only had enough time to skim through it. But inside her home now, away from the media’s prying eyes, she revisits the letter, soaking in its meaning.
In the first few lines, Andropov compares Samantha to Becky, Tom Sawyer’s companion in the famous American novel — he says the two share qualities of honesty and courage. He reminds Samantha that the Soviets and Americans have worked together before when they fought against Nazi Germany in the Second World War. And Andropov assures her that the Soviet Union will not be the first to start a war, writing “We want peace for ourselves and for all peoples of the planet. For our children and for you, Samantha.”And then Andropov ends his letter by inviting Samantha to the Soviet Union to see for herself that its people only want peace and friendship.
Samantha and her family will accept the invitation. And a few months later, their visit to the Soviet Union will spark a media frenzy. It will be hailed as one of the most significant acts of diplomacy between the Americans and the Soviets in years. The world will watch as this young and unexpected ambassador will try her hand at making peace between the warring countries.
It’s early July 1983 at the Artek camp for children near the Black Sea in southern Crimea.
Artek is one of the many camps run by the Young Pioneers — a popular youth organization in the Soviet Union. Today, the camp is abuzz with activity. Groups of boys and girls sit huddled around wooden tables, each child writing a letter promoting a message of world peace that will soon be put into bottles, and scatter into the Black Sea.
The children are all dressed in identical uniforms — blue caps, short-sleeved white shirts, blue skirts for the girls, blue shorts for the boys, and everyone wears spotless white socks that stretch up to their calves. Most importantly of all, a three-cornered red scarf is neatly tucked under every shirt collar. But this is more than just a decorative splash of color. It’s a proud signal of the camp’s communist ideological leanings. But one child wears a very different colored scarf. A light blue one. She is Artek’s American visitor, Samantha Smith.
Samantha and her parents are spending two weeks in the Soviet Union as Yuri Andropov’s special guests. Artek is one of the stops on their busy itinerary. This is Samantha’s second afternoon in the camp, and finally, the pace of the trip is beginning to slow. Samantha looks around the room and all the Soviet children are occupied by their writing exercise.
Samantha lets her mind wander. Who knew that writing a letter herself would bring her here. She and her family first arrived in Moscow, where they were taken on a whirlwind tour of the city’s historical landmarks. Samantha's gracious hosts showered her with gifts and flowers. And then when she arrived at Artek, a group of over two thousand campers put on a lively performance in her honor.
Everywhere she goes, Samantha is greeted with warm smiles, a stark contrast to the icy relations between America and the Soviet Union.
But Samantha’s train of thought is interrupted by a tap on her shoulder. It's her friend Natasha Kashirina, a thirteen-year-old Soviet girl staying at Artek. She was chosen to accompany Samantha during her stay at the camp because she’s fluent in English. Now, Natasha tells Samantha to hurry — it’s time to deliver their letters.
Samantha stands up and rolls her paper into a thin scroll. Then everyone puts their letters inside a long-stemmed glass bottle that the camp counselors seal with wax. Then, Natasha and Samantha join the crowd rushing toward the seashore where a cruise boat waits.
On board, the children throw their arms around each other and sing a traditional Russian song. They sway from side to side and bow their heads in a series of rehearsed motions. Samantha tries her best to follow along glancing at Natasha trying to mimic her movements, until the time finally comes for the bottles to be thrown into the sea.
Samantha watches as the bottles bob up and down and wonders which one is hers. Inside she wrote: “Hopefully, we will have peace for the rest of our lives.”As the boat heads back to shore, Samantha squeezes her eyes shut and hopes that her note will reach people who can take its sentiment to heart.
After her visit to Artek, Samantha heads to the bustling city of Leningrad. There, her family is escorted to the Czar’s palaces, a museum, and a ballet show, before taking a midnight train back to Moscow.
Back in the Soviet capital, speculation is high that Andropov himself will meet his young pen pal. An entourage of journalists follow Samantha, anxious to capture her every movement. But Andropov does not meet her. Instead, he sends a deputy to the Smiths’ hotel, bearing more gifts and an apologetic message saying he’s busy.
On July 21st, the family prepares to fly back to America. But the morning before they leave, Samantha appears at a final press conference. From a large velvet-backed chair, the young girl peers at the dozens of microphones pointed at her. One of the journalists asks her what she would tell her American friends about the trip. And Samantha breaks into a smile as she responds:
“Samantha: That Soviet people are really nice people. They’re just almost just like Americans.”
As the car pulls away, Samantha waves goodbye to the reporters gathered to bid her farewell. Cameras flash as they take pictures of all the gift-wrapped boxes traveling with her. The family needs sixteen extra suitcases to take them all home.
But Samantha’s most treasured experience from the trip is her friendship with Natasha. The two girls have grown close — they both like the sea, dislike cafeteria food and think boys are pests. Samantha wants Natasha to visit America, and though it takes years, she will.
Less than a decade after her visit to the Soviet Union, the Cold War will come to an end, and Natasha visits America, eventually settling down in California. But it won’t be a happy reunion for the two girls, now women. Samantha Smith will not live long enough.
It’s August 25th, 1985 at the Augusta State Airport in Maine where Jane Smith waits to pick up her daughter and husband.
It’s been two years since Samantha’s memorable visit to the Soviet Union. In this time, Samantha has attended a diplomatic symposium in Japan, interviewed presidential candidates for a news channel, and even written a book. Her future looks bright. And for the last two weeks, Samantha and her father have been in England, where Samantha was filming for a television series.
But Jane is ready for them to come home. The last leg of their journey is a flight from Boston to Maine. But the plane is late. Jane paces and looks down at her watch.
A single airport employee stands at the front of the room. Jane watches as she steps out from behind the counter and walks toward her with a worried look on his face. Jane's chest tightens. The employee says that there’s been a tragic accident; the flight from Boston to Maine has crashed. There were no survivors.
The employee keeps talking, explaining that the plane crashed near the city of Auburn. But Jane can’t hear anything - the only thought running through her head is that her daughter and husband are gone.
A few days later, a memorial service is conducted for Samantha and her father. A children’s choir sings “We Are The World” as hundreds of mourners pay their respects. Many others line up outside; some watch the service from a small TV placed on the church lawn. And a Soviet diplomat is also in attendance. He relays a personal message from Mikhail Gorbachev, the now leader of the Soviet Union. It reads: “You should know millions of mothers and fathers and kids back in Russia share this tragic loss. The best thing would be if we continued what Samantha started with goodwill, friendship, and love.”
Though Samantha Smith lived in the public eye for only two short years, her legacy will last far longer. In the Soviet Union, a monument and commemorative stamp are made in her honor. Over the years, Samantha becomes the inspiration and namesake behind a wide array of discoveries and creations around the world. A Russian astronomer will name an asteroid after her, a Danish composer will write concerto in her memory, and a peace garden will bear her name in Michigan, among many other memorials.
In Maine, state law will make the first Monday of each June “Samantha Smith Day,” and her mother, Jane, will create “The Samantha Smith Foundation.” For the next decade, this organization will honor Samantha’s diplomacy by fostering student exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union — continuing the work that changed Samantha’s life and turned the young girl into an unlikely ambassador for peace after the Soviet Union responded to her letter on April 25th, 1983.
Next on History Daily. April 26th, 1986. A safety test goes wrong at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, causing the worst nuclear disaster in history.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Rhea Purohit.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.