FEW could remain unmoved by the news that the plane carrying Samantha Smith had crashed with no survivors. Samantha was the little Maine schoolgirl who wrote Soviet leader Yuri Andropov about her fear of nuclear war, and who was invited by the Soviets to their country in l983 as a consequence.
Some charge that the Soviets, by paying her way to Moscow and giving her trip and travels wide publicity, exploited her as an instrument in their propaganda campaign against modernization of the American nuclear arsenal.
But still, there is something refreshingly innocent when the young talk of the need for peace and urge peoples of different nationalities to better understand each other.
The fact is that most everybody in his heart yearns for peace, but there are great differences over how to secure it.
At one end of the spectrum are the unilateral disarmers who argue that if the West would only lay down its weapons, the Soviets would follow suit. At the other end are those who argue that the Soviets respect only strength and that the West preserves the peace by overwhelming military deterrence.
Whichever view one champions, Samantha was right, of course, in urging us to work harder for peace.
Nor can one quarrel with President Reagan's pronounced hope at the weekend that he can eliminate hostility and suspicion between the two superpowers.
There is modest work going on now designed to strengthen cultural exchanges between the Americans and the Soviets, and that is all to the good. We should see their ballet in the United States and they should see our modern dance in Moscow. We should hear their regional choirs, and they should hear some of our rock stars.
But though it is good and constructive for peoples to get to know each other better, what bedevils our relationship with the Soviets is not a communications gap between peoples, which might be resolved by more visits. It is the incompatability of our systems.
Ours is a system that enshrines the individuality of man.
Theirs is a system that subjugates the individuality of man.
Samantha Smith was free to write the Soviet leader, to accept his invitation to visit Moscow, to travel to the Soviet Union, to tell about it when she returned home in a press and television industry uncensored by government. Later, she was free to embark on an acting career in a new television series.
Had she been a Soviet citizen, she might have written her letter, but Soviet officials would have decided whether she could accept an invitation, whether she could travel, and with whom, to where. No free press in the Soviet Union would have chronicled her opinions. And she could not have picked up later and traveled to a country of her choice to shoot sequences for a television series.
The treatment of the Sakharovs and the Scharanskys is cruel testimony to the way the Soviets treat individuals. Their harassment of Soviet Jewry is but one example of a long string of violations of basic human rights.
In the West, freedom of the press, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, are as natural as taking breath.
In the Soviet Union, such liberty is dispensed at the whim of the country's rulers.
And throughout the Soviet empire, let those who seek too generous a ration beware. The Poles and the Czechs and the Hungarians can testify to that.
Meanwhile, Soviet tanks and planes thunder across occupied Afghanistan. And Mr. Gorbachev delivers barely concealed threats to Pakistan.
The fact is that the Soviet Union is a tough, expansionist nation, with no hint of liberalization at home, which has significant military capacity to do harm to the non-Soviet world.
Its gospel is an ideology alien to democracy.
We should heed Samantha's injunction to remove fear and suspicion when we can.
It may be, as President Reagan hopes, that there are gray areas between the United States and the Soviet Union where agreements of mutual advantage can be negotiated.
But our problem with the Soviet Union is not an absence of channels of communication; it is the antithetical character of their society to democracy.
John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.