H-Diplo Article Review 898 on “Samantha Smith in the Land of the Bolsheviks: Peace and the Politics of Childhood in the Late Cold War.”

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H-Diplo Article Review
No. 898
13 November 2019

Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii

Margaret Peacock.  “Samantha Smith in the Land of the Bolsheviks:  Peace and the Politics of Childhood in the Late Cold War.”  Diplomatic History 43:3 (June 2019): 418-444.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhy092.

URL: https://hdiplo.org/to/AR898

 

Review by Jennifer Helgren, University of the Pacific

Margaret Peacock tells the story of Samantha Smith, the eleven-year-old American girl who wrote a letter to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov in 1982 to tell him she was worried “about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war” (418). Samantha’s letter expressed the fears of many in the world as tension increased between the Soviet Union and the United States. Although Andropov ignored letters from other girls who made pleas for the freedom of family members imprisoned in labor camps or asked for information about the attack on Korean Airlines Flight 007, Andropov responded to Samantha’s letter and invited her to visit the Soviet Union with her family. Samantha was one of a handful of girls whose stories grabbed international media attention during the Cold War. When the gymnast Olga Korbut visited the United States in 1972, the American media, as historian Ann Kordas explains, criticized the supposed robotic training that girl athletes received in the Soviet Union by printing stories about her desire for American fashion and pop culture.[1] By contrast, Peacock examines what it meant for an American girl to choose to visit the USSR. Peacock shows how media on both sides of the Iron Curtain shaped Samantha’s story and how American and Soviet citizens found their own meanings in her peace endeavors.

Peacock’s work builds upon a recent outpouring of historical scholarship on children, internationalism, and the Cold War. Marcia Chatelain, Sara Fieldston, Victoria Grieve, and Peacock’s own Innocent Weapons: The Soviet and American Politics of Childhood in the Cold War demonstrate how children, real and symbolic, shape political realities.[2] Whereas most of these authors focus on the early Cold War, “Samantha Smith in the Land of the Bolsheviks” traces girls’ political agency into the 1980s. And although few scholars successfully grapple with both the symbolic and the “flesh-and-blood child,” as historian Anita Casavantes Bradford calls the duality of children’s history, Peacock does.[3] She examines Samantha Smith as an individual working to make her world safer and as a symbol with different meanings in the United States and the USSR that were shaped by the political situation in each nation.

Peacock’s article brings fresh insights about the meaning of peace in the later stages of the Soviet-U.S. rivalry. A historian of Russia, the Soviet Union, youth, and the Cold War, Peacock has a firm grasp on the domestic politics of both the Soviet Union and the United States. She uses the Samantha Smith Foundation archives and conducts thoughtful analysis of media coverage of Samantha in both the United States and the USSR. The author successfully examines Russian language publications such as Pravda and the Foreign Broadcast Information Service Reports from the Russian news agency TASS as well as English-language newspapers and television broadcasts. Peacock mixes astute media communications analysis with a historically accurate picture of ordinary people in the late Cold War.

Peacock argues that “talking about Samantha became a shorthand for talking about peace in the 1980s” when people on both sides of the Iron Curtain were increasingly skeptical of political leaders’ overtures toward peace or their willingness to compromise (419). Peacock sets Samantha’s travels in the context of abandoned peace talks, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, America’s turn to hardline Cold Warrior President Ronald Reagan, and the roll out of Pershing missiles in Europe. Despite the tensions, Peacock shows there were ordinary people with hope, and Samantha and her letter became an international symbol of those hopes. Peacock reasons that Samantha’s visit has been remembered in the Soviet Union and largely forgotten in the United States because Samantha offered an opportunity to reinvigorate the Soviet dream. At a time when many ordinary Soviet people were disillusioned with party leaders and chafing under a deteriorating economy, they still longed for a Soviet-led peace that would protect the world’s children. In America, although many were suspicious of Andropov’s invitation and believed Samantha was being used as a political tool, some Americans were sympathetic. One remarked that tensions were so bad that the world had to rely on its children to act for peace.

Peacock probes the differences that age and gender made to political discourse. Peace itself appeared childish to many political conservatives and skeptics by the 1980s (442). As she explains, “Kids were the only ones who could speak for peace because peace itself had become a fantasy . . . something the young would discard once the hard realities of adulthood set in” (441). Therefore, a child’s plea was acceptable as naïve but genuine. Moreover, for both Americans and Russians, girls seemed like natural nurturers and peacemakers. In the Soviet Union, Samantha joined a repertoire of girl heroines like World War II guerilla fighter Zoya Kosmodemyanska who refused to reveal her identity and that of her comrades to Nazi torturers. When Samantha’s life was tragically cut short in an airplane accident just two years after her visit to the Soviet Union, her story froze in time at the moment of potential and possibility.

Peacock depicts open-hearted Soviet people who hoped to show Samantha, and the world, the best of their country, but she also interrogates the carefully constructed tour that Samantha experienced. Cameras snapped photos of Samantha’s visit to the Young Pioneer camp, Artek, where she donned their yellow neckerchief. Behind the scenes, Soviet youth had spent a week receiving lessons on how to interact with the American and the “enemy correspondents” that would accompany her (431). In a tour reminiscent of the famous kitchen debate between Vice President Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev over two decades earlier, Samantha visited a toy exhibition and was photographed playing with Soviet toys, a “symbol of consumerism and happy domesticity in the Soviet family” (433). In these media-captured moments, Peacock argues, the Komsomol and the Pioneers shaped Samantha’s story in such a way as to create a contrast between the energy, activism, and comfort of Soviet youth and the materialism, delinquency, and risk for corruption that they implied was part of childhood in the American capitalist system. They did so despite (or perhaps because of) their own fears about rising hooliganism, gangs, and other problems among Soviet youth.

Samantha, American critics complained, received only a sanitized picture of the Communist country, but the American media also shaped Samantha’s story. Seeing her as a pawn of Soviet efforts, but a media sensation nonetheless, news anchor Ted Koppel and comedian Johnny Carson invited her on their shows but asked her little of substance. This “international symbol of nuclear fear and grassroots peacemaking” was dismissed in America as a cute girl with little significance (436). American media largely glossed over her role as “a living critique of the dysfunction, impotence, and militarism of her time” (443). Americans focused instead on her emerging acting career.

Peacock is a lively storyteller who mixes complex historical themes with accessible prose. Her narrative about youth, gender, politics, and the hope of peace (as well as Samantha’s dismissal by those who did not believe peace possible or worth working for) should appeal to specialists interested in Cold War culture and politics. Peacock’s accessible writing is also appropriate for undergraduate classrooms and graduate seminars. Her work provides an entry point into some of the more complex themes in late Cold War politics. Her article will be of special interest to anyone who wants to understand how ordinary citizens—especially children—were mobilized for the symbolic Cold War.

 

Jennifer Helgren is Associate Professor of History at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. Her research traces the changing meanings of girls’ citizenship in relation to age, race, nation, and disability. Her publications include American Girls and Global Responsibility: A New Relation to the World during the Early Cold War (Rutgers University Press, 2017); Girlhood: A Global History (Rutgers University Press, 2010) with Colleen Vasconcellos; and several articles on U.S. girlhood.

© 2019 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License

 

Notes

[1] Ann Kordas, “Rebels, Robots, and All-American Girls: The Ideological Use of Images of Girl Gymnasts during the Cold War,” in Jennifer Helgren and Colleen Vasconcellos, eds., Girlhood: A Global History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010), 195-213.

[2] Marcia Chatelain, “International Sisterhood: Cold War Girl Scouts Encounter the World,” Diplomatic History 38:2 (April 2014): 261-270, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhu003; Sara Fieldston, Raising the World: Child Welfare in the American Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015); Victoria Grieve, Little Cold Warriors: American Childhood in the 1950s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); and Margaret Peacock, Innocent Weapons: The Soviet and American Politics of Childhood in the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

[3] Anita Casavantes Bradford, The Revolution Is for the Children: The Politics of Childhood in Havana and Miami, 1959-1962 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 2.