Kōrero: United States and New Zealand

Whārangi 2. Allies, 1939–1984

Ngā whakaahua

Second World War

The Second World War (1939–45) brought New Zealand and Australia’s dependence on Britain’s power largely to an end. Britain’s defeat by Japan in Singapore in 1942 shattered confidence in the power of the British navy. As the US came into the Pacific war following Japan’s bombing of the US fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, it was clear that New Zealand and Australia would now rely more heavily on American power. US troops were stationed in both countries, with about 100,000 at one time or another in New Zealand. The ‘American invasion’ was said to have brought new habits – gifts of flowers, use of taxis, milk bars – and 1,500 Kiwi women married US servicemen. Later, many Americans looked back fondly on their time in New Zealand.

First lady

In 1943 Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, toured the North Island. She visited American troops, inspected the work of the Red Cross and studied the contribution of New Zealand women to the war effort. She also took time out to walk around Whakarewarewa, Rotorua, with ‘Guide Rangi’ (Rangitīaria Dennan), the well-known Māori tour guide. Roosevelt’s verdict was that New Zealand was ‘a charming country'.1 Her feelings were reciprocated by the cheering locals.


In the post-war era the US became the main provider of security in the Asia–Pacific region. Its forces occupied Japan and played the leading role in the United Nations-sanctioned war in Korea (1950–53) to support South Korea against the communist North. New Zealand and Australia committed significant military forces alongside the US.

In 1951 the three countries signed the ANZUS security treaty when the occupation of Japan ended. This formal treaty, which had been sought especially by Australia and less urgently by New Zealand, meant that if the armed forces of any of the three countries were attacked in the Asia–Pacific region, or if they were themselves attacked, they could reasonably expect the others to provide assistance.

Vietnam War

New Zealand and Australia assisted the US in the war in Vietnam from 1965. This was not because of ANZUS, and New Zealand was more sparing than Australia in the scale of its contribution. Indeed New Zealand had committed rather larger forces to support Britain in Malaya (later Malaysia). Despite Britain’s decreasing power in Asia, New Zealand continued to emphasise its connections to the ‘old country’. The Vietnam War, however, was more controversial. It created doubt for some New Zealanders about the merits of a close relationship with the US. When President Lyndon Johnson visited New Zealand in 1966 he was greeted warmly by 200,000 New Zealanders – but also by anti-war protesters, whose numbers grew during the later years of the conflict.


In 1973 Britain joined the European Economic Community (now the European Union). Increasingly the US became more than a valued security partner; it became an important trading market as New Zealand sought to diversify and move away from the traditional reliance on Britain. Both exports to, and imports from, the United States grew to about 15% of New Zealand’s trade. New Zealand increasingly worked in an international economic system populated by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which reflected America’s post-war economic dominance in the capitalist and western worlds.


There was growing cultural contact with the US. In 1948 New Zealand established a Fulbright programme, which was funded by both governments to encourage cultural exchange between the two countries through research and study awards. Americans were well-represented among the New Zealand academic community, and New Zealanders such as Nobel prize-winning chemist Alan MacDiarmid, space scientist William Pickering and astrophysicist Beatrice Tinsley had distinguished careers in the US. The two countries cooperated on Antarctic research and from 1955 the US had a ‘Deep Freeze’ base in Christchurch for its Antarctic programme.

Hollywood films, television shows and popular music continued to influence New Zealanders. The Southland town of Gore became known as New Zealand’s country-music capital. American social movements – from the black civil-rights campaign to the hippie counter-culture – were strong influences in New Zealand. A trip to Disneyland became the first stop for many New Zealanders on trips overseas.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Jock Phillips and Ellen Ellis, Brief encounter: American forces and the New Zealand people, 1942–1945: an illustrated essay. Wellington: Historical Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs, 1992, p. 62. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Robert Ayson and Jock Phillips, 'United States and New Zealand - Allies, 1939–1984', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/united-states-and-new-zealand/page-2 (accessed 24 September 2019)

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