Story: United States and New Zealand

Page 3. Nuclear-free 1980s

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Cold War abates

For much of the Cold War (the latent conflict between the Soviet Union and the US, which began after the Second World War) New Zealand was aligned with the US on security, economic and political fronts. However, by the mid-1970s it appeared as if this international conflict was coming to an end. In the Asia–Pacific region the Vietnam War was over and the anti-communist South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) had collapsed. The division of the world into Eastern and Western blocs seemed much diminished. Norman Kirk’s Labour government, elected in 1972, took advantage of this new mood by protesting against French nuclear-weapon tests in the Pacific, and by not welcoming visits by nuclear-propelled American vessels.

Nuclear-free policy

The Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and the 1980 election of US President Ronald Reagan, who was determined to increase international opposition to communism, saw a reigniting of Cold War tensions. However, New Zealand peace groups strongly supported their European counterparts who were campaigning against the stationing of American nuclear weapons on their territory. David Lange’s Labour government was elected in 1984 on a platform to establish New Zealand as a nuclear weapon-free zone. This was likely to mean a reluctance to accept visits by US warships that might be carrying nuclear weapons.

Many, if not most, New Zealanders wanted to have a nuclear-free policy while remaining part of the ANZUS alliance. However, the US saw this as an unexpected hardening of New Zealand’s position, leading to a breakdown in US–New Zealand security ties. In 1985 the Labour government declined an American request for a visit to New Zealand of a naval vessel, the USS Buchanan, on the basis that it might be capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The US, worried that some of its more important allies – especially the strongly non-nuclear Japan – might copy the New Zealand example, was unwilling to confirm or deny that this was the case.

The sniff test

Although David Lange often said that New Zealand’s nuclear policy was not for export to other countries, he did accept invitations to participate in the international disarmament debate. Lange took part in an Oxford Union debate in 1985, remarking at one point that he could smell the uranium on the breath of a member of the opposing team.

End of ANZUS

In 1987 New Zealand’s Parliament enacted legislation that denied access to New Zealand’s internal waters to vessels which were propelled by nuclear power or might be carrying nuclear weapons. By this time the US had suspended security cooperation with New Zealand under ANZUS. New Zealand would now be classified as a friend, not an ally. Any military cooperation between the two countries required a special waiver from the US government.

New Zealand debate

New Zealand opinion was divided on this foreign-policy turning point. For many, the non-nuclear policy and the willingness to say no to the world’s leading power were celebrated as a sign of an independent foreign policy. They saw New Zealand as gaining a unique profile on the international stage. Supporters of the non-nuclear position also suggested that in standing up to the US New Zealand was able to shape new relationships in Asia, and had more freedom to decide whether or not to contribute to American military exploits.

Others believed the breach in the relationship seriously harmed New Zealand’s interests. They suggested that the armed forces suffered by being denied regular opportunities to train with the US military, and pointed to the complications for New Zealand’s important relationship with Australia. They claimed that New Zealand had become a free rider on, rather than a contributor to, the security that the US and its allies brought to the Asia–Pacific region, and that the country had lost credibility in Asia. They also argued that even when part of an alliance New Zealand contributed forces abroad because of its own national interests.

Trade and culture

Despite the conflict, trading and cultural relationships with the US were little affected. The proportion of imports from, and exports to, the US in 1990, the last year of the Labour government, were higher than in 1984, before the crisis erupted. In addition the policy of selling state-owned assets attracted investment from the US, especially in Telecom and New Zealand Rail.

How to cite this page:

Robert Ayson and Jock Phillips, 'United States and New Zealand - Nuclear-free 1980s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 September 2019)

Story by Robert Ayson and Jock Phillips, published 20 Jun 2012