Sunday night Jane Smith left the airport where she was waiting for her husband, Arthur, and her daughter, Samantha, and she rode instead to the crash site. The plane, her husband’s plane, her daughter’s plane, “It was just a pile of ashes.” They were simply, suddenly, gone.
Later on, someone would find one thing unscathed on that charred piece of Maine earth: the script of a TV show Samantha was to star in. The script became the postscript to a life that ended at 13.
In the hours after their death, public figures and private friends said that Samantha Smith had “captured our imagination” or our “hearts,” or at least our attention. She didn’t do it by winning any gold medals. She wasn’t precocious. She wasn’t a child prodigy.
Samantha was just a kid who thought like a kid. She woke up one morning in Maine when she was 10 years old and “wondered if this was going to be the last day of the Earth.” She read about the arms race and thought, “It all seemed so dumb to me.”
And then she did something that only an unsophisticated kid might do, in the years before diplomacy breeds directness out of them, before cynicism and a sense of powerlessness set in. She wrote a letter to the Soviet leader.
“I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war,” she told Yuri Andropov. “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 time Andropov wrote back with an answer and an invitation. Come, said Andropov, “See for yourself. . . .” So she did.
In 1983, Samantha Smith went to the Soviet Union, accompanied by parents and photographers, tracked by commentators and columnists. Some complained that Samantha was a “tool” of Soviet propaganda. Some complained that she was a “dupe” of the Soviets. Others wondered if we were making too much of a fuss about her.
I was amused if not amazed at the adults who worried about this adventure. I could not imagine what we had to fear from a goodwill trip, from one 11-year-old American learning and saying good things about 11-year-old Soviets. There is little to fear from the Red carpet treatment.
As for the fuss over Samantha, I thought then and now that we often let children like Samantha voice our pleas for peace. We push the young forward, we hand them the pens or the microphones, we encourage them to say the things that adults edit out of their language because of their fear of sounding naive. Children do not worry about sounding “childish.”
When Samantha came home, she wrote about her experience: “I mean, if we could be friends by just getting to know each other better, then what are our countries really arguing about? Nothing could be more important than not having a war if a war would kill everything.”
Adults cannot say such things anymore. Adults must talk about SALT and START treaties, about Star Wars this and MX that, about parity and verification. Adults must be suspicious, cautious. At the Boston Roundtable discussions on peace policy last week, Marcus Raskin of the Institute for Policy Studies put his finger on it.
“At the present,” he said ruefully, “people are very committed to being non-Utopian. They don’t want to look like fools.”
So we ask children to express the fears that we share and the idealism that is, finally, our hope.
There is something sad about the search for a child to lead us. It is a kind of abdication of power. Two years after her trip to the Soviet Union, Samantha Smith said, “I feel really weird being asked about peace all the time.” Adults, after all, are supposed to figure it out.
It is lousy to write an obituary for a 13-year-old. I cannot imagine a pain greater than that of losing a child unless it is also losing the husband who could share that pain. The brief years of Samantha Smith’s celebrity were full of highs: talk shows, a book, a part in a TV serial, carrying a script from London back to Maine on a foggy, rainy Sunday night.
But now I remember what she told a reporter in May about her goals:
“When I am 16 I want to get my driver’s license. After that, who knows?”
Like countless other kids who lie in bed sometimes and think about bombs, Samantha Smith just wanted to grow up.