David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

The 'real' story of accidental hero David Lange and how New Zealand became nuclear-free

There's a different view on our anti-nuclear history with new CIA files offering evidence former Prime Minister David Lange became an global hero of the anti-nuclear movement more by accident than design.

It has prompted those close to Lange during that key period in New Zealand's history to offer an alternate version to accepted history in which New Zealand stumbled and almost fell onto the world stage.

Once there, Lange - who died in 2005 - is said to have liked the spotlight so much he became a believer, stayed and performed.

Previously "top secret" files from the Central Intelligence Agency have shone a light on Labour's ascent to power in 1984 and the years that followed. The declassified files have emerged among 13 million records placed online by the CIA this week.

The CIA files paint a conflicting picture of Lange, whose term as Prime Minister has been associated with leading New Zealand on a principled stand against nuclear weapons.

Instead, he was quoted in a 1984 report written prior to the snap election that "he is personally satisfied that nuclear propulsion is safe and that his reservations are centred on nuclear weaponry".

In a 1985 report, there was reference to Mike Moore - who was briefly Prime Minister in 1990 - telling the US Embassy "his idea of a compromise solution to the problem".

Former Prime Minister David Lange as new Labour Party Leader in 1983 with his deputy Sir Geoffrey Palmer in the background.
Former Prime Minister David Lange as new Labour Party Leader in 1983 with his deputy Sir Geoffrey Palmer in the background.

According to the file, he said "the United States should 'finesse' the nuclear power issue by asking to send a conventionally powered ship and should 'tell David privately' that no nuclear weapons would be on board the ship requesting access".

The suggestion mirrors what insiders now say nearly happened with the USS Buchanan, the guided missile destroyer famously turned away from New Zealand in February 1985.

The act of rejecting the USS Buchanan locked New Zealand on an anti-nuclear path, having delivered a firm and public snub to the powerful US.

In interviews today, they have spoken of Lange secretly working with the US Embassy to find a loophole but the plan which was worked out being scuppered because the Prime Minister took off to the Pacific Islands.

It left the decision to reject it to be made by Acting Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, because Lange was unable to be contacted - even though he was obliged to be able to be reached.

Richard Prebble - a leading figure in the fourth Labour Government - said he could recall Lange coming back into New Zealand a few days later to a fever-pitch of excitement.

"The public reaction to little New Zealand standing up to America was euphoric. David Lange got back in the country and talked to half-a-dozen radio stations before he got to the office. By that time it was 'David and Goliath'."

Richard Prebble in 1981 as a newly elected Auckland Central MP.
Richard Prebble in 1981 as a newly elected Auckland Central MP.

Meanwhile, Prebble said Lange's Cabinet colleagues were wondering how they had reached this position. Palmer hadn't consulted Cabinet on the decision to ban the USS Buchanan.

'We were actually sitting around the Cabinet room on Monday with it all being explained to us. Lange was heading in, we were listening to him on the radio and we said - 'would we have done this'."

The answer, said Prebble, was that Cabinet would have allowed the USS Buchanan - a ship which was clearly not nuclear propelled or even armed with nukes.

Prebble said others in Cabinet did not know that the visit was planned or that a request to visit was going to be made.

He said the response might have been different if Lange had received the request, rather than it dropping into Palmer's lap while Lange was out of the country.

"His deputy prime minister had no idea six months of discussion had gone on about the Buchanan."

Gerald Hensley, who was part of those discussions as head of the Prime Minister's Department at the time, said Lange had worked on a solution and the USS Buchanan was the ship New Zealand had nominated to the US as an acceptable way to break the deadlock.

At the time, the Labour Party was fresh in office with an election manifesto which promised no-nukes and that the Anzus Treaty would remain intact.

Gerald Hensley, former Secretary of Defence and author of the book 'Friendly Fire' at his Martinborough home. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Gerald Hensley, former Secretary of Defence and author of the book 'Friendly Fire' at his Martinborough home. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"It was difficult to square that circle," he said. "We thought the best way out of this was to get a visit from a potentially non-nuclear ship and that would put the issue to bed for three-to-four years.

"That was the basis for the Buchanan."

Hensley, who wrote about the issue in his 2013 book Friendly Fire, said he, Lange, the then-Chief of Defence Air Marshall Sir Ewan Jamieson and head of Foreign Affairs Merv Norris worked together on the plan.

The solution saw Jamieson fly to Hawaii to talk the issue through with the US commander of the Pacific Fleet, he said.

"He gave Jamieson a choice of three elderly destroyers - he knew what was at stake. They would offer us a ship to select ourselves."

The USS Buchanan was chosen because it was "an elderly destroyer" with no prospect of carrying any nuclear weapons. The US policy of never confirming or denying would have remained intact, and New Zealand would have hosted a US warship and preserved its Anzus links.

The USS Buchanan, refused access to New Zealand in 1985. Photo / Supplied
The USS Buchanan, refused access to New Zealand in 1985. Photo / Supplied

The "solution" overseen by Lange even saw the US Ambassador at the time visit with a draft of the form which would be used to request a visit, said Hensley.

Lange made a minor change to the document. "I thought and the ambassador thought it would all be very straightforward."

The whole plan went to pieces when news of the visit leaked while Lange was away and Palmer refused the USS Buchanan entry.

Jim Anderton, who was a Labour Party president turned MP by 1984, recalled Palmer approaching himself and fellow MP Helen Clark about the request for the USS Buchanan to visit. Both were staunchly anti-nuclear, and told Palmer there would be no equivocating.

Anderton confirmed he told Palmer if the ship arrived then he would be at the wharf protesting along with 'half the Labour caucus'.

The influence Anderton had over the issue was obviously a factor which concerned the US Embassy.

One of the CIA reports show it kept careful count of Anderton's support in the Labour caucus on the issue and on that of Labour's free market reforms.

The US Embassy figures, reported in the CIA document, claim Anderton would have had the numbers at times.

It is not clear how it was obtaining the information but Anderton confirmed the numbers as accurate when told of the count by the Herald.

Hensley said he had since wondered about the rumoured deal between the factions of the Labour Party. It had been said there was a trade - no opposition on the highly controversial economic reform that was coming if Lange saw to it that New Zealand went nuclear-free.

"It possibly sheds some light as to why [Lange] begged off to Tokelau."

Prebble said: "Foreign Affairs should have told that ship to steam slower." It might have given Lange time to return and grant it access, he said.

Richard Prebble in September 2014. Photo / Stephen Parker
Richard Prebble in September 2014. Photo / Stephen Parker


"Shortly after came the invitation to debate the issue at the Oxford Union and Lange's evolution into a nuclear-free warrior.

"The Cabinet was divided about Lange going to the Oxford Union debate. What he said to us was the Oxford Union debate was, what would you say, on his bucket list of things he would love to do.

"It was actually an indulgence. We were very fond of him and he was a great speaker."

A month later, Lange was on the world stage taking part in a debate at the Oxford Union in England, debating the proposition "nuclear weapons are morally indefensible".

David Lange as Prime Minister addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, 25 September 1984. Photo / Supplied by UN
David Lange as Prime Minister addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, 25 September 1984. Photo / Supplied by UN


Prebble said the conflicting theories of Lange becoming an anti-nuclear hero by accident or design had only one real outcome.

"I'm afraid evidence of the accidental is overwhelming."

But it quickly became a reality. "Lange could recognise a widely popular issue," said Prebble. "You tend to come to sincerely believe what you have said."

- NZ Herald

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