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Samantha's legacy: kid-to-kid diplomacy. Foundation formed by her mother sponsors US-Soviet youth exchanges

By Bunny McBrideSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 30, 1987



Hallowell, Maine

I now know how easy it could be for the people of all the world to learn to live together in peace - if only the adults of the world would give the children a chance to meet each other. Teen-age participant in Soviet-US youth exchange

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sponsored by Samantha Smith Foundation

Children, with fewer ``no's'' in their vocabulary, can be real hope-providers for adults.

On Aug. 18, 10 Soviet youngsters will arrive in the United States for a peace-building tour. These teen-agers will be the guests of the Samantha Smith Foundation, which recently set up permanent headquarters in the small 18th-century river town of Hallowell. Their two-week journey will include stopovers in Washington, Boston, and Alford Lake Camp in Maine.

A year ago, 20 teens from Maine were in the Soviet Union, visiting Camp Artek and other locations. Their trip, too, was sponsored by the foundation.

Samantha Smith, the Maine schoolgirl for whom this program is named, won Soviet hearts in 1983 when she and her parents toured the Soviet Union at the invitation of Yuri Andropov, then the party chief. Andropov initiated the visit in response to a letter Samantha wrote him expressing her fears of nuclear war. Almost overnight, Samantha Smith became a symbol of the yearning to halt the nuclear arms race. That symbol became all the more stirring when Samantha and her father were killed in a plane crash in 1985.

Some contend that the Soviets have used the innocence of Samantha and now of these children as a propaganda tool to enhance the peace rhetoric of their nation.

Jane Smith, Samantha's mother, has her own view on this. ``In a sense, Samantha was used as propaganda by both countries. But I'm not sure how different propaganda is from public relations. We're using the kids to build international understanding, and it works because they are so open. We don't want them to be a show, but we want people to know that Soviet kids are interacting with our kids and getting along.''

Five months after the death of her daughter and husband, Mrs. Smith established the foundation, using unsolicited funds that had been sent to her by hundreds of people who had been touched by Samantha's innocent peace initiative. The foundation, which received additional start-up funds from several sources, including the Rockefeller Family Fund and the Charles Revson Foundation, works primarily to coordinate Soviet-American youth exchanges.

It is an organization ablaze with optimism. Through kid-to-kid diplomacy, the foundation aims to help reshape the ways Soviet and American citizens view each other, and thereby help thaw out the cold war and arms escalation that have existed between the two countries for nearly four decades.

One of the 20 Maine children who toured the USSR last summer, sponsored by the foundation, commented: ``The Soviet Union is not as it looks in textbooks. I got a totally different picture being there. Rather than seeing it as a bunch of old buildings and a war memorial, it is a place where people live, and that makes it a lot more like home to me.''

Smith, a quietly determined woman, believes Americans lack an accurate, balanced view of Soviets. She offers this example: ``After our first visit to the Soviet Union, a friend of mine came to visit. I took her upstairs to show her the stuffed animals that Samantha had received as gifts in the Soviet Union. ... She looked at the animals, was sort of thoughtful, and then said, `You know, I just don't think of the Soviets as having stuffed animals for children.'

``That really stuck with me. I think that [image] is a large part of the [Soviet-American] problem. For so many years all that we saw of the Soviets was a bunch of old men frowning down on a parade of missiles and tanks. But that's changing.''

Reciprocal exchanges such as this are just one example of a movement known as ``citizen diplomacy.'' Feeling that the relationship between the superpowers has become too critical to be left to bureaucrats, a growing number of individuals are taking Soviet-American communications into their own hands.

The idea is not new, but it has grown significantly wider in scope since 1958, when President Eisenhower helped establish People to People International, a pioneer facilitating organization for citizen exchange. The Institute for Soviet-American Relations, a clearinghouse for citizen diplomacy, publishes a handbook called ``Organizations Involved in Soviet-American Relations.'' The 1986 edition lists 232 private groups.

``Citizen Diplomats,'' a new book by Gale Warner and Michael Shuman, with a foreword by astronomer Carl Sagan, profiles eight of these citizen diplomats, ranging from Samantha to a Midwest farmer to billionaire Armand Hammer. In the foreword, Dr. Sagan writes, ``Every bilateral exchange of opinion, every shared nonbureaucratic experience brings the quarrelsome nation states closer together.''

The Samantha Smith Foundation is unusual among citizen diplomat organizations in that it focuses on tomorrow's leaders - children. And it is unique in that Samantha left it with an unusually open door to the Soviet Union.