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A Little Girl Taught Us a Lesson About Peace:

When entire nations are defined by severe war rhetoric, civilians become faceless people. Mothers and fathers and children become part of the wicked masses. Thinking, breathing, loving people are forgotten. With the clear logic of a child, Samantha showed us that it doesn't have to be that way.
Published on Tuesday, October 15, 2002 by the Zanesville Times Recorder (Ohio)

A Little Girl Taught Us a Lesson About Peace:
Have We Forgotten It?

by Maggie Downs

I was a post-Bay of Pigs invasion, pre-Berlin Wall falling baby.

My world was fairly black-and-white.

Americans = good. Pinko commies = bad.

Nuclear crisis seemed close at hand. "Star Wars" was not just a movie, but a strategy to reduce the threat of nuclear attack. Living in a military family, I knew my ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) as fluently as my ABCs.

Indeed the Soviet Union seemed to be every bit the "evil empire" that Ronald Reagan claimed it to be. I was frightened into good behavior by KGB satellites that were hovering overhead to see if I was trading spy secrets and eating all my peas. I thought people from the Kremlin were lurking around every corner. And the Soviets themselves seemed to be menacing people who lived in the cold, gray world of Siberia, said "Nyet" with cold, gray faces and wore funky fur hats.

Then a little girl in Manchester, Maine, changed the world when she wrote a letter to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. It said simply:

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 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.

Sincerely, Samantha Smith

A few weeks later, Samantha received a response. In it, Andropov called nuclear missiles "terrible weapons" and vowed the Soviet Union would never use them first against any country. He explained, "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."

He also extended the following invitation:

"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."

In July 1983, Samantha visited the country at the expense of the Soviet Union. She toured Moscow, Leningrad, Red Square and spent several days at the Soviet youth camp, while U.S. and Soviet media followed her every step.

This media coverage was the first time I saw Soviets for who they really were.

Real people.

I saw art and museums and a rich history. I saw children laughing and playing, teaching Samantha Russian songs and dances. I saw the citizens who truly wanted better relations between the two nations, and I saw how the arms race directly affects the people of a country.

When she returned, Samantha wrote a book about her experience, "Journey to the Soviet Union." She also made many appearances and speeches, including one at the Children's International Symposium in Japan, where Samantha suggested Soviet and U.S. leaders exchange granddaughters for two weeks every year.

A president "wouldn't want to send a bomb to a country his granddaughter would be visiting," she explained.

Beyond being a role model for the great things children can accomplish, Samantha was much more for me. In two weeks, this little girl fostered understanding where many thought none was possible.

Now as we're warned about an "axis of evil" and instructed to hate a "homicidal dictator," I'm more frightened than I was back in the days of the "evil empire." Because now I know another generation is growing up with skewed perceptions of other countries, the way I once stereotyped the Soviets.

When entire nations are defined by severe war rhetoric, civilians become faceless people. Mothers and fathers and children become part of the wicked masses. Thinking, breathing, loving people are forgotten. With the clear logic of a child, Samantha showed us that it doesn't have to be that way.

Though Samantha died at age 13, she made a lasting impact on the world. A life-size statue of Samantha standing next to a bear cub, the symbol for both Maine and Russia, was placed in her state's capital. The Soviet government named a diamond, a flower, a mountain, a ship and a planet after the girl and issued a stamp in her honor.

Most of all, Samantha taught everyone a valuable lesson: All over the world, people desire the very same thing.

To wake up the next day.

 mdowns@nncogannett.com

address: address: http://www.commondreams.org/views02/1016-04.htm