Holding a letter in your hand is like holding a bundle of words ready to leap out the envelope and excite, delight, anger, shock or surprise you. That folded piece of paper could hold so many secrets, so much news, intriguing questions, or answers, for that matter. I think we’ve all agreed that nothing is quite like a letter.
There have been letters that have shaped history, that have inspired, that have explained, that have conveyed emotion. Letters that will be remembered forever.
In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. was sent to Birmingham City Jail for performing peaceful protests against segregation.
Whilst in jail he got hold of a newspaper where he read the criticism of his fellow clergymen, Jewish and Christian leaders. They opposed racism, but they disagreed with him over his action. So he began to write his famous letter, addressed to his critics, A Letter From Birmingham Jail.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
― Martin Luther King Jr., A key quote from the letter.
He wrote so poetically and rhetorically, perhaps one of the most persuasive and influential letters in history. He was trying to show everyone the reality of racism and segregation in America and how action was so desperately needed. That, unless action was taken, there would no change.
Moving on to America some twenty years later. It’s 1982 and there’s massive tension between the USA and the USSR, the Soviet Union.
An American ten-year old girl has been reading the newspaper and she’s worried about what’s going on. She takes the brave move of writing a letter to the newly elected Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, asking the questions that is on everyone’s minds. Will there be nuclear war?
Here is her bold message:
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.
And here is his surprising 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 people 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 people.
Thank you for your letter. I wish you all the best in your young life.
Dear friend, Friends have been urging me to write to you for the sake of humanity. But I have resisted their request, because of the feeling that any letter from me would be an impertinence. Something tells me that I must not calculate and that I must make my appeal for whatever it may be worth.
It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state. Must you pay the price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success? Any way I anticipate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you.
Your sincere friend