Soviet leader Yuri Andropov writes letter to U.S. fifth-grader Samantha Smith On this day in 1983, the Soviet Union releases a letter that Russian leader Yuri Andropov wrote to Samantha Smith, an American fifth-grader from Manchester, Maine, inviting her to visit his country. Andropov’s letter came in response to a note Smith had sent him in December 1982, asking if the Soviets were planning to start a nuclear war. At the time, the United States and Soviet Union were Cold War enemies. President Ronald Reagan, a passionate anti-communist, had dubbed the Soviet Union the “evil empire” and called for massive increases in U.S. defense spending to meet the perceived Soviet threat. In his public relations duel with Reagan, known as the “Great Communicator,” Andropov, who had succeeded longtime Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, assumed a folksy, almost grandfatherly approach that was incongruous with the negative image most Americans had of the Soviets. Andropov’s letter said that Russian people wanted to “live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbors on the globe, no matter how close or far away they are, and, certainly, with such a great country as the United States of America.” In response to Smith’s question about whether the Soviet Union wished to prevent nuclear war, Andropov declared, “Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are endeavoring and doing everything so that there will be no war between our two countries, so that there will be no war at all on earth.” Andropov also complimented Smith, comparing her to the spunky character Becky Thatcher from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain. Smith, born June 29, 1972, accepted Andropov’s invitation and flew to the Soviet Union with her parents for a visit. Afterward, she became an international celebrity and peace ambassador, making speeches, writing a book and even landing a role on an American television series. In February 1984, Yuri Andropov died from kidney failure and was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko. The following year, in August 1985, Samantha Smith died tragically in a plane crash at age 13. 1859 Ground broken for Suez Canal At Port Said, Egypt, ground is broken for the Suez Canal, an artificial waterway intended to stretch 101 miles across the isthmus of Suez and connect the Mediterranean and the Red seas. Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French diplomat who organized the colossal undertaking, delivered the pickax blow that inaugurated construction. Artificial canals have been built on the Suez region, which connects the continents of Asia and Africa, since ancient times. Under the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, a channel connected the Bitter Lakes to the Red Sea, and a canal reached northward from Lake Timsah as far as the Nile River. These canals fell into disrepair or were intentionally destroyed for military reasons. As early as the 15th century, Europeans speculated about building a canal across the Suez, which would allow traders to sail from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea, rather than having to sail the great distance around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. The first serious survey of the isthmus occurred during the French occupation of Egypt at the end of the 18th century, and General Napoleon Bonapartepersonally inspected the remains of an ancient canal. France made further studies for a canal, and in 1854 Ferdinand de Lesseps, the former French consul to Cairo, secured an agreement with the Ottoman governor of Egypt to build a canal. An international team of engineers drew up a construction plan, and in 1856 the Suez Canal Company was formed and granted the right to operate the canal for 99 years after completion of the work. Construction began in April 1859, and at first digging was done by hand with picks and shovels wielded by forced laborers. Later, European workers with dredgers and steam shovels arrived. Labor disputes and a cholera epidemic slowed construction, and the Suez Canal was not completed until 1869–four years behind schedule. On November 17, 1869, the Suez Canal was officially inaugurated in an elaborate ceremony attended by French Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III. Ferdinand de Lesseps would later attempt, unsuccessfully, to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. He died in 1894. When it opened, the Suez Canal was only 25 feet deep, 72 feet wide at the bottom, and 200 to 300 feet wide at the surface. Consequently, fewer than 500 ships navigated it in its first full year of operation. Major improvements began in 1876, however, and the canal soon grew into the one of the world’s most heavily traveled shipping lanes. In 1875, Great Britain became the largest shareholder in the Suez Canal Company when it bought up the stock of the new Ottoman governor of Egypt. Seven years later, in 1882, Britain invaded Egypt, beginning a long occupation of the country. The Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936 made Egypt virtually independent, but Britain reserved rights for the protection of the canal. After World War II, Egypt pressed for evacuation of British troops from the Suez Canal Zone, and in July 1956 Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal, hoping to charge tolls that would pay for construction of a massive dam on the Nile River. In response, Israel invaded in late October, and British and French troops landed in early November, occupying the canal zone. Under pressure from the United Nations, Britain and France withdrew in December, and Israeli forces departed in March 1957. That month, Egypt took control of the canal and reopened it to commercial shipping. Ten years later, Egypt shut down the canal again following the Six Day War and Israel’s occupation of the Sinai peninsula. For the next eight years, the Suez Canal, which separates the Sinai from the rest of Egypt, existed as the front line between the Egyptian and Israeli armies. In 1975, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat reopened the Suez Canal as a gesture of peace after talks with Israel. Today, an average of 50 ships navigate the canal daily, carrying more than 300 million tons of goods a year. 1831 A play lionizing Davy Crockett opens The play The Lion of the West opens in New York City. It was the first of many plays, books, and movies celebrating Davy Crockett. Born in 1786 in Tennessee, Crockett grew up in a poor family that hired him out as a cattle drover at age 12. He eventually settled in middle Tennessee, where he became famous for his skill as a professional hunter. The forests of Tennessee were still dense with game at that time, and Crockett once killed 105 bears in a single season. After a stint fighting Indians with Andrew Jackson, Crockett began a career in politics, eventually becoming a Tennessee state representative in 1821. As a state legislator, Crockett was a strong advocate for the rights of squatters who were claiming land on the frontier without legal permission. At the same time, the political fortunes of his old commander, Andrew Jackson, were on the rise. When Jackson became president in 1828, he pointed to Crockett as a symbol of the frontier egalitarianism he believed should be adopted throughout the nation. Politics alone, however, would not have ensured Crockett’s enduring status as an American hero. For that, only the 19th-century version of Hollywood would be adequate. In 1831, the play The Lion of the West opened at New York City’s Park Theater. Starring the popular actor James Hackett as a legendary frontiersman named Colonel Nimrod Wildfire, the play was a thinly disguised and highly exaggerated account of Crockett’s life. Two years later, the play was followed by an equally larger-than-life biography, Sketches and Eccentricities of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee. After Crockett died at the Alamo in 1836, his posthumous transformation from mortal man to mythic martyr was almost inevitable. A bogus 1836 autobiography portrayed him as an American Hercules and established many of the tall tales that would remain forever associated with his name. In the 20th century, Crockett’s fame waned for a time, but Walt Disney revived the legend. In 1954, Disney began producing a series of movies and television programs featuring the actor Fess Parker as Crockett. The series was a ratings blockbuster, and it led to the largest media-generated commercial craze up until that time. Children across America clamored for coonskin caps, powder horns, books, and records so that they could be just like their idol, Davy Crockett.