Here’s a curious event I wasn’t aware of until recently — that of Samantha Smith. To summarise the Wikipedia article, in November 1982 Yuri Andropov became the General Secretary of the Soviet Union Communist Party, ie. the head of state of the USSR. The Cold War was still on so as expected US media portrayed him in a very negative light and people were afraid of him.
When Samantha saw him on the cover of Time, she asked her mother, “If people are so afraid of him, why doesn’t someone write a letter asking whether he wants to have a war or not?”. “Why don’t you?”. Here’s what she wrote:
Dear Mr. Andropov,
My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten 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.
The letter itself is a great indication of the type of rhetoric that must have been going in the US media at the time. Not that this was only fearmongering. The world did come very very close to a nuclear war around the same time as you can find out by reading about the man who saved the world. Five months later, after Samantha queried the Soviet representative in the US, Andropov did reply.
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 near by. 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 never—never—will it 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.
Of course there is a whiff of propaganda in the answer (inventing and flying into space, workers and peasants and so on) but it’s not entirely terrible. And you can construe his invitation as opportunity for further propaganda, but I think that’s beside the point.
Samantha did take him up on his offer. Naturally her visit became a media circus, with every action being reported on in the US. She did go to the children’s camp and chose to live in the same quarters as them renouncing her fancier accommodation. Unfortunately Andropov was too ill to meet her — he was to die shortly being the head of state for less than two years.
In 1985, shortly after her 13th birthday, Samantha tragically died in a plane crash. She did manage to write a book about her journey to the USSR. Perhaps many readers may think that the whole thing sappy and trite, that the girl was manipulated and an unwitting propaganda tool, that focusing too much on events like this glorifies superficial feel-good solutions. Maybe this is all true to an extent. But I still think her visit was very important because she did meet Soviet children at a very tense time. The key message of her report back on her visit is that they’re “just like us”.
There’s a dilemma in travelling to very closed dictatorships like Burma, North Korea, Zimbabwe and so on. It’s bound to be an interesting experience for an adventurous traveller but how much is your visit supporting the regime, how much is it being used to normalise the oppressive state?
There’s a legitimate debate to be had and I might post on this in more detail later. But briefly, I think if the visit will normalise the people of the country more than it will normalise the state, it’s a net positive. If it’s the other way around it’s a net negative. So, for instance people visiting Burma are supporting the military junta financially to an extent — however they are free to interact with real people there, to spend money at real, local (non-government) businesses and so on. This I’d definitely support.
On the other hand, you can only go to North Korea with a government guide and your interactions will be limited to government-approved venues. In that case I think it’s doing more harm than good to visit, interesting as such a visit would be.
There’s a reason I tend to err on the side of visiting (and against boycots/embargoes etc). It’s pretty well-documented that one of the major driving forces in conflict is the othering of the other side. We can do infinitely more to someone who’s in the outgroup. Even though someone supporting (say) sanctions may intend for it to only affect their opinion of the state and not the people, I don’t think it’s possible*. Anything that has the effect of breaking this down, even if it’s “just” a sappy visit by a ten year old is probably doing more good than harm.
*I’m obviously bypassing altogether the issue of actual tangible harm to the people from things like economic boycotts.