© 2022 Maine Public
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Exhibit Honors 'America's Youngest Ambassador' on 30th Anniversary of Her Death

AUGUSTA, Maine - Thirty years ago this week, 13-year-old Samantha Smith of Manchester, Maine, died in a plane crash. Smith had gained international fame several years earlier for writing a letter to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov expressing her worries about a nuclear war.

Andropov responded to the letter, and Smith would later make a two-week visit to the Soviet Union, where she became known as "America's Youngest Ambassador." To honor Samantha Smith on the 30th anniversary of her death, the Maine State Museum in Augusta has opened a new exhibit.

Smith was just 10 years old when she wrote  to Yuri Andropov. When the Soviet leader wrote back, his young pen pal was cast into the international spotlight, interviewed here by Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline in 1983.

"What did you write to him, and then what did he write back?" Koppel asked.

"Well, I asked him, 'Why do you want to conquer the world?' " Smith said. "And he wrote back to me and said, 'I want nothing of the kind.' "

Watch Ted Koppel's interview with Samantha Smith:


Andropov invited Smith to visit the Soviet Union, and she accepted. Maine TV station WCSH produced a report about her trip that aired on the Phil Donahue daytime talk show.

Audio from WCSH report: "Samantha's arrival in Moscow was the start of her VIP treatment of the Soviet government. She was met by three high ranking members of the Soviet ministry, who were to stay with her and her parents throughout their tour."

"She was so open and had no guile, and just won everybody over," says Laurie LaBar, a curator at the Maine State Museum in Augusta. LaBar has created a new exhibit, which  includes never-before published photos on just three days of Smith's two-week trip - when she visited Artek children's camp in the Crimea.

"Because it's not the anniversary of her trip, it's the anniversary of her death, I wanted to focus on the kid as much as I could, within the context of the trip," LaBar says.

It was at camp Artek, LaBar says, that Smith could unwind and be a kid. One photo shows Smith beaming as she descends the passenger stairs from her plane upon arrival. In another image, she joins campers doing calisthenics. But it's three photos of Smith playing on a beach along the Black Sea that are most striking to LaBar.

"These activities, the secrets being told and trying to scare a kid with a crab and that type of activity is replayed on every beach all summer long everywhere in the world," she says. "It's just kids being kids and they're the same. It's hard to imagine in this idyllic scene that there were two sets of people who were contemplating whether or not they were going to blow each other up. And that's the context for this."

The exhibit is small - it includes a dozen photos, all donated by Russian photographer Vladimir Mashatin who followed Smith during her trip, as well as a traditional Russian dress and headpiece she wore. But it's prominently placed in the museum's entrance lobby, and LaBar hopes that visitors will take away a realization that individuals can effect change, even at a very young age.

"I think that people started to realize on both sides that our nations weren't just our politicians," LaBar says, "that is wasn't just the generals and it wasn't just the head of the government, that there were actually millions of people who were a lot like us. And I think that is one of the things that was most important about her trip."

After Smith returned home to Maine, Phil Donahue invited her on his show and asked whether she still worried about nuclear war.

"Are you less scared?" he asked.

"Yeah," she said.

"Really?" Donahue pressed.

"I don't think I'm scared anymore at all," she said.

"Why?" he asked.

"Well, I went to Russia, and the Soviets and me got to know each other, and they're just really nice people to me."

Over the next two years, Smith continued her role as an unoffical peace ambassador. She spoke at a symposium in Japan. She interviewed U.S. presidential candidates for the 1984 election.

She also became an actress. On August 25th, 1985, she and her father were returning to Maine from a TV shoot in London on a small commercial plane. It crashed just short of the Auburn airport, killing everyone on board - six passengers and two crew members.

Laurie LaBar says Smith's legacy continues, not only in the U.S. but in Russia, where an exhibit in Moscow is also honoring her on the 30th anniversary of her death.

Watch interviews with Samantha Smith by the Today Show's Bryant Gumbal and talk show host Phil Donahue: