Monday, March 29, 2010

Small steps

The signing last week of the latest US/Russia version of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which had expired in December 2009, brings to mind the short, vivid life of Samantha Smith. In the summer of 1983, the 11-year-old from Manchester, Maine was the center of the world. Terrified by the prospect of nuclear war, she had written a letter the previous December to Yuri Andropov, new leader of the USSR, asking him to work for world peace. It wasn't long before the media in both countries had their proverbial field days with Samantha: Today show, Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, visit to the USSR, etc, etc.

One wonders why Samantha didn't write to Ronald Reagan first, or at least to George H.W. Bush, the Vice-President who summered just down I-95 in Kennebunkport. Her letter tells why, in part reading, "I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country." Clearly, Reagan's PR machine had done its job on Samantha, even before the Great Communicator really got going. March of that year 1983 saw both his first use of the phrase "evil empire" and the launching of the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Interestingly, it was in April that Andropov responded to Samantha. Perhaps he thought he had found his own Princess Leia in the new age of Star Wars.

Unfortunately, the age of Samantha didn't last. She herself was killed in a plane crash in Lewiston just two years later in 1985, returning from filming a show in London. Her Foundation, promoting student exchange and peace, lasted only 10 years. The low-brow TV series Lime Street, in which she starred (I guess the media was very successful in getting her to give up on peace with the USSR) and which indirectly caused her death, lasted 8 episodes.

I doubt there's a direct relationship between Samantha and START, but you never know. After all, President Bush signed START I, maybe inspired by a Maine youngster. Small steps work in diplomacy, if not in life.

The news of START II was pretty much buried by the healthcare triumph. But it is vitally important. Each side will be allowed "only" 1,500 or so weapons, down from over 2,000 each - still plenty to kill everyone many times over. And the treaty can say nothing about all the other nuclear powers, presumably covered by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty signed by most of the world's nations, yet mostly toothless. So the danger is always present. No one seems to care, except Obama.

Ominously, the Senate has yet to ratify the CTBT, after almost 20 years. The Senate also must ratify START II. Both require a two-thirds majority. Will the party of "No" take yet another small step towards its final "nucular" implosion?

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