Kerre McIvor: US Navy visit is a sign of our maturity

The friends have become allies again. Photo / Greg Bowker
The friends have become allies again. Photo / Greg Bowker

I'm not the same person I was 30 years ago and I'm jolly glad about that. We're not the same country that we were 30 years ago either and I'm equally pleased about that.

Who would want to live in a country with the same attitudes and values, the same take on the world, generation after generation? Good and bad comes with change but for the most part, the changes that come as we evolve are positive.

If some historians believe Gallipoli was the birth of the nation, surely this country taking on the US must be seen as our transition into teenagers. Stroppy, opinionated, sure in the rightness of our moral stance and willing to stick two fingers to the patriarchal, authoritarian power trying to tell us what to do.

The fourth Labour Government swept into power in 1984, in part because of the no-nukes debate. Then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon called an early election - the catalyst being Marilyn Waring crossing the floor and withdrawing her support from the Government after being attacked by Muldoon for supporting the Opposition Labour Party's Nuclear Free New Zealand Bill.

Labour won the election in a landslide and made it clear they'd make good on their promise. They would not allow nuclear-propelled ships into New Zealand, nor any vessels carrying nuclear weapons. As David Lange put it, the only thing worse than being incinerated by your enemies is being incinerated by your friends.

Labour always maintained that although they were against nukes, they were pro-Anzus, the traditional alliance between Australia, New Zealand and the US but, really, that was sophistry as officials knew the US policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear warheads would bring an inevitable clash between the countries. And that's exactly what happened. Late in 1984, the United States requested that the USS Buchanan be allowed to visit New Zealand, hoping that the fact that it was a clapped out destroyer that couldn't possibly be carrying nuclear arms would allow it to slip under the radar. The Government said no. And that was that.

In 1987 the Labour Government passed the Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act; the United States retaliated with the Broomfield Act, downgrading New Zealand from an ally to a friend.

The US severed military and intelligence ties with New Zealand - well, the obvious ones anyway - and downgraded diplomatic connections. And despite the softening of attitudes towards this country over the years, the US Navy has held firm and has never sent a ship to this country since 1984. Unless their submarines have been cruising around our coastal zone. Who would know? But this week, American Vice-President Joe Biden announced that the United States Navy was no longer sulking.

It's an important year for our own navy - it's commemorating its 75th year and as part of Operation Neptune, events are planned throughout the year. An official celebration will be held in November and this week the Vice-President confirmed the US would come to the party. Ironically, this is a political announcement that pleases everybody. Although peace activists don't welcome any vessels of war to this country, they see it as a victory for the people. Little New Zealand refusing to back down on its stance; the United States giving in. And those who believe that turning our backs on the US was an act of treachery are also delighted. "They saved us in the war!" and "We'd be speaking Japanese if it wasn't for the Yanks!" are popular catch cries - highly contestable but nonetheless, those folk will be out there on the docks, absolutely delighted and waving flags to welcome whichever ship the US chooses to send.

For the young ones, however, those born around the time the no-nukes legislation was passed, they have far more pressing concerns - like finding a job, paying off a student loan, finding an affordable home. This isn't their issue. But for those of us who lived through that time, the visit by a US Navy ship is a big deal. And a sign that not only have we grown up. But that the US has too.

Kerre McIvor is on NewstalkZB, Monday -Friday, noon-4pm.

- Herald on Sunday

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