New Zealand Set To Mark 1987 Anti-Nuclear Victory Over The United States

NZ Navy Celebrations: NZ still requires US ships to declare their nuclear status, and the US continues to refuse to declare it despite some increased transparency

By Veronika Meduna

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, August 16, 2016) – Almost 30 years after New Zealand introduced controversial anti-nuclear laws, straining its relationship with the US, warships from the world power will visit the tiny nation under its terms.

New Zealand's anti-nuclear campaigners are claiming victory against a Goliath.

When the NZ Navy celebrates its 75th birthday in November, US warships will be there. It will be the first time any American military ship has entered a New Zealand port since the country's controversial anti-nuclear legislation was passed in 1987.

"What this means is that any ship that comes here will be coming on New Zealand's terms," says investigative journalist Nicky Hager, a key figure in the anti-nuclear movement at the time.

"Our terms were set 30 years ago with the nuclear-free policy."

Peace campaigner and former Green MP, Keith Locke, agrees.

"It is recognition that most of the New Zealand public does not want nuclear ships and the US cannot get around that," he says.

Anti-nuclear stance strains relationship with US
The stand taken by the comparatively tiny nation caused a rift between the allies which has lasted three decades, and has been likened to a mouse that roared.

New Zealand's anti-nuclear movement was spurred to action when France tested nuclear weapons at Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia in the 1960s.

More than 80,000 New Zealanders signed a petition calling for a nuclear-free Southern Hemisphere.

"It was the biggest petition anywhere since the Suffragettes' campaign of the 1890s," Mr Locke says.

The anti-nuclear mood gripped the nation. Visiting US warships powered by small nuclear reactors sparked massive protests in the 1970s and 1980s, drawing thousands onto the streets.

It came to a head when the eloquent Labour leader David Lange was swept to power on an anti-nuclear ticket in 1984, trouncing the conservatives.

His resolve was quickly tested, but Mr Lange stood his ground.

In February 1985 he refused to allow the ageing guided-missile destroyer USS Buchanan into his country's ports.

The ship was not armed with nuclear weapons but was capable of carrying them. The US had counted on this being a workable compromise.

Mr Lange famously, and provocatively, said, "No".

He later recounted: "Near-uncertainty was not enough for us. Whatever the truth of its armaments, its arrival in New Zealand would be seen as a surrender by the government."

The West was shocked and awed. Australia gaped at the spurning of its great protector.

The US was furious. It suspended obligations to its little ally under the ANZUS treaty, severing visible intelligence and military ties.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Lange's deputy, explained that the New Zealand government had been forced to choose between the ANZUS defence treaty and a policy that was "strongly supported by the New Zealand public".

It chose the people.

At a time when US president Ronald Reagan was facing down the USSR, calling it the "Evil Empire", and nuclear tensions had stepped up a notch, Mr Lange became a global hero.

He received a standing ovation during a widely televised Oxford Union debate in the UK, where he argued the case that nuclear weapons were morally indefensible.

"There is simply only one thing more terrifying than nuclear weapons pointed in your direction and that is nuclear weapons pointed in your enemy's direction," he argued. 

"The outcome of their use would be the same in either case, and that is the annihilation of you and all of us.

"That is a defence which is no defence," he proclaimed to thunderous applause.

No warm welcome for visiting warships

The nuclear ship ban has been a central pillar of New Zealand's foreign policy ever since.

Warships from other nuclear-weapons states, such as the UK and China, have docked in New Zealand ports because they were prepared to declare their vessels "nuclear-free".

However, the US stuck rigidly to its policy of "neither confirming nor denying" if a ship was nuclear-armed or powered. And that has kept American naval vessels out.

While New Zealand still requires US ships to declare their nuclear status, and the US continues to refuse to declare it, the November visit presents no threat to the nuclear-free law, according to Mr Hager.

"Over the past 30 years the US has been progressively removing nuclear weapons off them," he says.

There are also publicly available records and greater transparency.

But this does not mean the US ships will be universally welcomed. Peace protests are already being planned.

Maire Leadbetter, a committed human rights and peace activist, will be demonstrating when the warships come in.

"I would rather New Zealand stood at a distance and retained its non-aligned policy," she says.

Peace activists are keen for New Zealand to play the role of peace-maker in the region.

Mr Palmer sounds a warning that the global threat from nuclear weapons is worse now than in the 1980s.

"There are nine nuclear weapons states now and the situation with Korea is very worrying," he says.

He points out these nations are currently spending massive sums on modernising their arsenals and there is no sign they will disarm.

"The risk of nuclear weapons being used again is real," he warns.

Radio Australia
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