Not before time, the United States Navy has been invited to send a ship to New Zealand which, if accepted in the spirit in which it is given, could end a 30-year suspension of visits to our ports. The invitation to attend the Royal New Zealand Navy's 75th anniversary celebrations next year is probably not the first to have been issued, quietly, since the day President Bush (the older) announced US surface ships no longer routinely carried nuclear weapons. But it is the first to become known and, as such, it will be a test of whether old attitudes have changed, both in the Pentagon and here.
The US Defence Department's position - that New Zealand's anti-nuclear law would effectively disclose whether a visiting ship was nuclear-armed - has served no security purpose since that presidential declaration nearly 25 years ago. It survived only as a point of principle - that true allies do not place conditions on the warships they will welcome from each other.
Understandably, US military leaders have never liked the idea that a visiting vessel might be greeted by a New Zealand Government statement that it is satisfied their ship is not nuclear armed. But our law does not require such a statement. It merely requires that the Government be satisfied the ship is not nuclear-armed or powered.
Countless warships from nuclear-armed countries such as the United Kingdom and China have visited our ports since the nuclear-free law was enacted, and none have needed a well-publicised clearance from the Government. There is no reason a US ship visit should be any different - unless public opinion in New Zealand demands the Government make some such declaration. Veterans of the anti-nuclear campaign in this country undoubtedly would like to demand one, but they would be obliged to explain why they have not pressed for a public assurance on ships from China, the UK and other nuclear powers over the years. For them to insist on one now would be an admission their campaign has been as much anti-American as anti-nuclear all along.
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Public opinion has never been as opposed as the protest movement to an American alliance. Indeed, polls recorded strong support for Anzus as well as opposition to nuclear ship visits all the time the public were led to believe it could have both. Opinion turned against the US on this issue only when retaliatory steps were taken in Washington for the refusal of a ship visit in 1985 and subsequent legislation.
The US response turned the issue into a point of national pride for New Zealand, attracting favourable comment from people in other countries and entrenching the nuclear-free law so deeply in our political identity that no government can change it. The US took a long time to realise this, but gradually it has restored our diplomatic and military relationship. If it accepts the invitation to the RNZN celebrations, the reconciliation will be complete.
It can be assured the present Government will not be pronouncing on the ship's weaponry. If we can receive ships from China and other nuclear powers simply on trust, we can surely trust America too.