Politics & Policy

Greta Thunberg and Samantha Smith: Propaganda Poster Girls

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (left) and U.S. peace activist Samantha Smith (Carlo Allegri/Reuters/Wikimedia Commons)
Thunberg is only the latest in a long line of easily exploitable spokes-children.

As the world follows the activities of young environmentalist Greta Thunberg, it’s a good time to recall another young activist who was once at the center of the world’s attention — and to give a thought to the role of young people in matters of international concern.

Samantha Smith was a ten-year-old American who in 1982, at her mother’s suggestion, wrote to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov — a former KGB chief and agent who took part in the brutal takedown of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and, later, suppression of dissent in Russia — about her fear of nuclear war between the USSR and the U.S. “I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country,” she wrote.

Of course, Andropov wrote back quickly — and publicly — to let her know that the peace-loving people of the Soviet Union had no such intention. He invited her on a “fact-finding” mission to his country to prove it.

Smith’s trip fit neatly with the Nuclear Freeze and No First Use movements of the time — Andropov explicitly endorsed the latter in his response — and was covered exhaustively by an international press eager to make her the spokeschild of youth desperate to stop adults from destroying the world with nuclear weapons. Today, Greta Thunberg plays that role. She is the new spokeschild for young people who believe that they’re battling to save the earth from the cupidity of grownups.

Samantha was photographed everywhere in Russia: a sweet-faced girl in the regalia of the Soviet Young Pioneer. She smiled out at perhaps puzzled Russians from Soviet TV shows and posed in traditional Russian garb for the cover of the English-language publication Soviet Life.

Back home, she appeared on Nightline and other news programs. Ted Koppel said that her efforts were “one of the most effective exercises in diplomacy that we’ve seen in this country in quite a while.”

She remained busy as a public peace activist, including by making a speech at a well-publicized “children’s symposium” in Japan. There she recommended that the U.S. and Soviet leaders exchange granddaughters to discourage a nuclear conflict. She served as host of a Disney program about the 1984 election, in which President Ronald Reagan was seeking a second term.

Through all of this, critics complained loudly that she was being used as a propaganda tool by the Soviets and the American Left. Her backers countered that she brought a fresh, uncorrupted view that cut through the self-serving posturing of the two superpowers.

What happened to Samantha Smith? The story does not have a happy ending. After three years jetting around the world in the cause of peace, she died in a small commuter-plane crash in Maine on August 25, 1985.

Samantha’s politicization did not cause her death, of course. But it did launch her on a path that purely by horrible coincidence ended in one of the passenger seats on a Beechcraft 99 that crashed short of the runway near Lewiston, Maine. Without her letter and all that followed from it, she could have been just another 13-year-old at home, that night in August 1985, rather than a frightened passenger aboard a small plane trying to reach an airport runway in bad weather. She would be 47 now.

After Greta Thunberg’s much-publicized sailboat trip from Europe to New York, her TV appearances, her speech at the United Nations, her recent acceptance of the Right Livelihood Award, and her nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize, she faces applause and criticism, demonstrating that while the Cold War might be over, there’s still plenty of heat in the political conflict between the Left and the Right.

And today, the whole thing is playing out in the white-hot crucible of social media. Aside from the question of whether Thunberg can reduce the world’s temperature, some wonder whether she can stand the heat of the argument, or should have to.

In an interview aired on 3AW, an Australian talk-radio show, leading Australian family and adolescence psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg expressed his concern about Thunberg: “She’s now put herself at the centre of worldwide either Greta-phobia or Greta-mania, and I don’t think any 16-year-old girl should be.”

“I worry about her going the same as child TV stars, that they just burn out and potentially have a disastrous psychological outcome,” he said.

There’s no telling what the future holds for Thunberg. One can disagree with her mission, or even agree with the mission and oppose her role in it, and still wish her the best.

But it’s fair to ponder why we persist in drawing children into the world of adult troubles. The Russian boy Pavlik Morozov, 13, was supposedly martyred as a Hero of the Soviet Revolution for turning in his parents to the Bolsheviks. Saint Bernadette of Lourdes was 14 when the purity of her visions supposedly turned an ordinary spring into a healing fountain. Several early teen soldiers are still lionized in Mexico for their doomed bravery against American troops in the 1847 Battle of Chapultepec. Images of a youthful David, killer of Goliath, abound in European Renaissance art.

It’s as if we seek in the purity of youth a solvent to cleanse the conflicts of the adult world, and it’s not always to the benefit of the young people we hold up as symbols. Joan of Arc was only 16 when she fought in the siege of Orléans, and we made her a saint. Unfortunately, we burned her at the stake first.

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