John Key can't remember which side he was on during the Springbok Tour civil war, so it's not surprising he kicked for touch the other day when US Vice-President Joe Biden dropped in to announce the end of the US Navy's petty 31-year boycott of our shores.

"It's not a victory for one side or a defeat for the other," said the Prime Minister. It was hard to know if he was being diplomatic to the loser standing alongside him, or just playing for time as he waited for his Google app to jog his memory on the no-nukes bust up between the US and the Lange Government all those years ago.

With half the population now either too young to know what the fuss is about, or more recent migrants, and the rest of us with little appetite to reheat the old stand-off, there were no outbursts of triumphalism. But I confess I would be delighted if, in November, when the US coastguard cutter, or whichever other token non-nuclear vessel sails over the horizon to join in the NZ Navy's 75th birthday celebrations, it's directed to a lonely berth down at the old cement wharf at Onehunga.

A little utu served cold is richly deserved for the humiliation inflicted on the Te Kaha and Endeavour in 2012 when, on arriving as invited guests at the Rimpac international naval exercises in Hawaii, they were deliberately quarantined at a berth at the Honolulu container terminal, too unclean to join the other guests at the Pearl Harbour naval base.


Even warships from old enemy Japan, which in 1941 had blown Pearl Harbour to smithereens, dragging the US into WWII, were forgiven. But not New Zealand.

Another reason for not getting too cocky about Biden's announcement is that far from being an apology, this was just a follow-on from US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta's visit in 2012, trying to sign us up to the United States' team to eyeball China, our largest trading partner, in their South China Sea arm wrestles.

Architect of the 1987 anti-nuclear legislation Sir Geoffrey Palmer takes a pragmatic view, saying that "in this very unsafe world, New Zealand needs as many friends as it can have", though adding that "it needs to be independent" as well.

He harked back to the roots of the anti-nuclear groundswell, which had been fuelled by years of French, US and British nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific. By 1983, 72 per cent of New Zealanders were opposed to nuclear-armed ship visits. Palmer issued a stark wake-up call. Just on 30 years after the passing of the legislation, he reminded New Zealanders, "the situation in the world in relation to nuclear disarmament and international control is perhaps worse now than it was then".

Obsessed with international terrorism, it's forgotten that nine countries together possess more than 15,000 nuclear weapons.

The United States and Russia maintain around 1800 of these on high-alert status, ready to be launched within minutes of President Putin or President Trump pushing the red button.

These two old super foes have about 7000 warheads apiece. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the United Kingdom has 215, France 300, China 260, India 100-120, Pakistan 110-140, Israel 80 and North Korea fewer than 10.

Writing last year on the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Palmer worried that the cause of nuclear disarmament was going backwards, with some nuclear powers spending big money updating their arsenals.


He said efforts to prepare a treaty declaring "that it is in the interests of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never again used under any circumstances" had collapsed, as had efforts to produce agreements on nuclear non-proliferation.

It's unfortunate that given our proud anti-nuclear stance, nuclear weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin is one of the "Platinum Sponsors" to the Navy's birthday celebrations, including the November international arms fair at Auckland Council's Viaduct Events Centre. Hopefully they'll resist the temptation to bring samples.

Over the weekend, Palmer reminded us of unfinished business. Of a campaign for nuclear disarmament in which, for a brief while, New Zealand led the world. It's time we went back into battle.