John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

NZ memories: Anti-nuclear policy refuses US warship

20 comments
150 years of memories: In 1984 we knew we could stand up to anyone.

American Navy Nuclear Submarine USS Haddo arriving in Auckland on 19 January 1979. File Photo / NZ Herald
American Navy Nuclear Submarine USS Haddo arriving in Auckland on 19 January 1979. File Photo / NZ Herald

It was quiet Sunday night, Parliament was nearly deserted. The Herald office was the only room in the press gallery with a light still on when a backbench MP in the Labour Government came in the tell the duty reporter what was happening.

Next morning the front page lead reported that cabinet ministers had come under a full scale "fax attack" from party members worried that the cabinet meeting that day would accept a visit by a United States warship, USS Buchanan.

They had reason to be worried. Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer had spent the previous week carefully explaining how the Government proposed to make the decision without challenging the US Government's refusal to confirm or deny whether the conventionally-powered Buchanan was carrying nuclear weapons.

The fax attack, orchestrated by party president Margaret Wilson, former president Jim Anderton and his caucus colleague Helen Clark, had the desired effect.

Whatever hopes Prime Minister David Lange had entertained that he could reconcile the anti-nuclear policy with the Anzus alliance, were dashed that night.

His party members were already choking on free market economic reforms they had never imagined a Labour Government would adopt. A compromise on the party's long-standing opposition to nuclear power and Anzus was not on.

When the cabinet refused to accept the Buchanan, the US and Australia declared their alliance with New Zealand "suspended". The US froze New Zealand forces out of future military exercises and made Lange unwelcome in Washington.

The American reaction turned public opinion in New Zealand strongly behind the anti-nuclear policy. By the time legislation was passed in 1987, establishing the nuclear ban in law, New Zealanders regarded it as a test of their right to make the decision.

Anti-nuclear protesters had come a long way from flotillas on the Waitemata against visiting US warships. With the help of clumsy US diplomacy they made nuclear freedom an issue of national pride that future Governments dared not change.

Both countries soon recognised their alliance could never be revived but with the passage of time, and military efforts in Afghanistan, the rift is healing.

New Zealand prime ministers are now welcomed at the White House and its forces are slowly regaining invitations to joint exercises. The country has proved its sovereignty to itself.

What are your memories of the 1984 nuclear standoff? Leave your comments below

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

Read more by John Roughan

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n1 at 17 Apr 2014 02:22:11 Processing Time: 628ms