The pressure was building. As the world stood on the sidelines at the height of the Cold War, both superpowers battled for ideological supremacy, each backed by their growing arsenal of nuclear weapons. Tensions kept rising. Mutually assured destruction was almost a given. But then came a letter to the Soviet General Secretary from an unlikely penpal, a 10-year old American girl. It seems that both nations weren’t that unalike after-all.
School Children ‘Duck & Cover’ Drills
The threat of nuclear war was felt in everyday life. Both American and Soviet children regularly practiced ‘Duck & Cover’ drills and putting on their gas masks. After school one day, Samantha Smith, a 10-year old Maine schoolgirl, confessed her fears of war to her mother. Her mother suggested she write to the new Russian leader, Yuri Andropov. In December 1982, she sent the following letter to the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Dear Mr. Andropov,
My name is Samantha Smith. I am 10 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 it if you would. Why do you want to conquer the world or at least our country? God made the world for us to share and take care of. Not to fight over or have one group of people own it all. Please let's do what he wants and have everybody be happy too.
The Soviet leader replied a few months later. His reply was written in Russian, accompanied by an English translation, below.
I received your letter, which is like many others that have reached me recently from your country and from other countries around the world.
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. This is what every Soviet man wants. This is what the great founder of our state, Vladimir Lenin, taught us.
Soviet people well know what a terrible thing war is. Forty-two years ago, Nazi Germany, which strove for supremacy over the whole world, attacked our country, burned and destroyed many thousands of our towns and villages, killed millions of Soviet men, women and children.
In that war, which ended with our victory, we were in alliance with the United States: together we fought for the liberation of many people from the Nazi invaders. I hope that you know about this from your history lessons in school. And today we want very much to live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbors on this earth — with those far away and those nearby. And certainly with such a great country as the United States of America.
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 it would never 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.
Thank you for your letter. I wish you all the best in your young life.
A Global Goodwill Ambassador
In July 1983, Samatha and her family went behind the Iron Curtain. Her visit to the Soviet Union was covered by the media from both countries. On her trip, she paid her respects at Lenin’s grave, saw the Bolshoi Ballet, and met the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova. She was called a ‘Goodwill Ambassador’, telling reporters that “some people have the wrong impression about the Soviets...[They] want peace like I do.” She became a symbol of peace around the world.
As the Cold War simmered in the latter part of the 1980s, Samantha wasn’t around to see the peace she’d dreamed of. In August 1985, Samantha and her father were killed in a plane crash.
With their stark simplicity and bold colours, peace propaganda posters were a part of the texture of everyday life in the Soviet Union. Shop our peace themed posters below or explore the collection here.