In the mid 1980’s, U.S. bilateral relations with New Zealand, a long-time ally in a relatively peaceful corner of the world, came to the fore when a new Labour government in Wellington refused to accept U.S. Navy vessels from entering New Zealand ports unless they specifically declared they were not carrying nuclear weapons of any kind. This violated the U.S. government’s “neither confirm nor deny” policy. The standoff resulted in sanctions against New Zealand, which stayed in place for more than 25 years and significantly changed the nature of the ANZUS treaty.
The ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty) Alliance was formed on September 1, 1951. This alliance provided protection and defense for each member of the alliance through a collective security agreement. It was one of the treaties that the United States created, along with NATO and others, in response to the threat of communism, ensuring that Australia and New Zealand would work collectively towards democracy. However, newly elected Prime Minister David Lange enacted legislation that prohibited nuclear-armed or powered ships to enter New Zealand waters.
In response, the United States suspended its obligations to New Zealand under the ANZUS treaty on September 17, 1986, citing that New Zealand was “a friend, but not an ally.” This suspension of official obligation to New Zealand continued until the late 2000’s, although the two countries continued to work together and collaborate. New Zealand continued supported the United States and Great Britain in various military endeavors by providing troops and engineering support in Afghanistan and Iraq during the War on Terrorism. They also sent relief funds and various personnel contributions to the United States after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Southeastern area of the country.
Officially, relations began to improve after President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Helen Clark met for an official visit in 2007. In addition, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice referred to New Zealand as “a friend and ally” after an official visit in 2008. In 2010, both parties signed the Wellington Declaration, which ended the 25-year-long dispute over nuclear policies and reaffirmed the alliance. In 2012, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the United States would fully cooperate with New Zealand and repealed the ban on visits by New Zealand warships on U.S. bases. Today, the ANZUS Treaty and alliance has been fully restored and the United States and New Zealand maintain a friendly relationship and alliance.
Richard W. Teare, the Deputy Chief of Missions in Wellington, New Zealand from 1983-1986, recalls the election of David Lange of the Labour Party, who ran on an anti-nuclear platform. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy, beginning July 1998. James A. Morton served as a Political Counselor in Wellington, New Zealand from 1984-1987. In his interview, he details his relationship to Ambassador H. Monroe Brown and explains the justifications for “neither confirm nor deny” (NCND) policy. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning October 1993. Jon David Glassman, the Country Director for Australia and New Zealand from 1985 to 1987, describes the increased tensions with New Zealand and negotiations to find a compromise. He was interviewed by Peter Moffat, beginning on December 19, 1997.
Kenneth Yates served as the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) Advisor to the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC) in Hawaii from 1992 to 1995. In his interview, he discusses the Sommers report, which was made by an independent, New Zealand agency and investigated the different sources of nuclear pollution, and which concluded the source was hospital waste. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning March 1997.
You can read about when Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO.
NZ gets a new PM – And the trouble begins
Richard W. Teare, Deputy Chief of Missions, Wellington, New Zealand, 1983-1986
TEARE: Labour changed leaders and got David Lange. Lange was a lawyer from Auckland who had specialized in defending criminals, often indigent cases. He has an enormous gift of gab. According to a biography of him, he sort of talked his way into the nomination for an open seat in I believe 1978 when he was totally unknown. But his oratory was such that he appeared late in a field of expected candidates, would-be candidates, and just wowed them.
He was very clever, a good debater and so he became the leader. He was only forty-one at the time in ’83 when he took over the Party and by ’84 he led it to a resounding victory although I think almost anyone in Labour could have pulled off a victory in ’84. People were fed up with [Leader of the Labour Party, Sir Wallace Edward “Bill”] Rowling and with the harsh economic policies and the way the country seemed to be going downhill.
Inflation, unemployment, minimum price controls, loss of population through emigration, things like that. So it was a very strange period because [Prime Minister Sir Robert] Muldoon lost the election. The results were known very quickly that evening. [Secretary of State] George Shultz was already in Australia and on his way to New Zealand. I think he telephoned over I think from the Lodge, the Prime Minister’s official residence in Canberra, where he was having a social evening with Bob Hawke and he spoke with Ambassador Brown about the way things were shaping up there.
Muldoon, of course, had sobered up and realized the ANZUS Council was coming and after some little discussion it was decided that we should go ahead with the ANZUS Council no matter what. So the Council meeting was held with the Foreign Minister of the by then lame duck government, Warren Cooper. But Shultz had a meeting with David Lange on the Monday or Tuesday, the newly crowned Prime Minister.
Except that Muldoon would not relinquish office immediately and would not take policy steps that his own Ministers were convinced were necessary to save the economy. So finally Muldoon was cajoled or deceived or whatever into doing what had to be done. I think I am probably glossing over a lot here because I’ve forgotten many of the details….
The real point of contention is what Lange did or did not tell Shultz during their meeting on the 17th of July 1984. The lowest ranking person in the room on the American side was Paul Wolfowitz, who was the Assistant Secretary for Asia. Shultz was there. Ambassador Brown was there and one or two others with Shultz.
But the understanding that the rest of us got on the American side was that Lange was going to look for ways to preserve access to the New Zealand ports by nuclear capable ships of the United States Navy.
Despite the fact that his Party platform said that anything nuclear — nuclear weapons, nuclear propulsion systems, for that matter, nuclear reactors for power generation — were anathema. New Zealand had none and wanted none of any of the above either permanent in the form of reactors or temporary, even transitory ships with possible weapons aboard.
Of course, our policy was neither to confirm nor to deny the presence or absence of any nuclear weapon on any ship or aircraft. Nuclear propulsion was a different story. Everybody knew and the Navy was quite prepared to say which ships were nuclear-propelled and which were not. And furthermore argued that nuclear propulsion systems on naval vessels are about the safest thing there is in the world.
What happened then was that we went into a sort of limbo for about five months, mid-July to mid December 1984, during which attempts were made to figure out if there wasn’t some way that we could continue ship visits. Ship visits that were not important by the way to the Navy. It was out of the way. It was extra distance, extra fuel required to steam down there.
But we wanted to preserve the principle that U.S. ships, nuclear capable included, could call there because after all this was a Treaty ally. We were obligated under the ANZUS Treaty to defend New Zealand and we needed to use everything in our arsenal to defend it, or might need to.
“The U.S. ambassador would not let any reporting go in that showed there would be a crisis in no time”
James Morton, Political Counselor, Wellington, New Zealand, 1984-1987
MORTON: I got an assignment as Political Counselor to Wellington, New Zealand. On the way out I got to Honolulu to consult with the POLAD, the Political Advisor at CINCPAC [Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command]….
[The U.S. Ambassador was] a guy who probably or should have come out of central casting for a political ambassador. A guy named H. Monroe Brown, a cattle rancher from California. A close friend, as he said it, of Ronald Reagan, who refused to accept the reality of the moment that there was this little democracy out there with which the United States had had friendly relations for 150 years, and it could suddenly turn around and say, “Uncle Sam, I don’t want your ships in here.”
This was a fascinating dynamic. First of all he really did refuse to accept reality, that this had happened. It would be some months before push came to shove that we would request a ship visit and that the government would be in a position of saying, “No, we have a popular mandate.” The polls showed that 80 percent of the New Zealand people were “anti-nuclear”. I was the primary reporting officer at the post.
He would just not let any reporting go in that showed that there would probably be a crisis in no time. [So] we did it by phone and by other ways. But there was also a tendency in Washington of not wanting to hear the situation on the ground out there, though we would be talking to people who were at the country director level. I mean you have [Secretary of Defense] Casper Weinberger and George Shultz and everyone saying that these are alliance partners and they will accept our ships. So we had a problem at both ends.
I’ll tell you the real problem: No one gave a damn about New Zealand. When I was having my briefings before I went at the Pentagon they said that they send a ship or two down there once or twice a year just for alliance purposes. The real problem was something they called the New Zealand disease. They were afraid that this precedence of an alliance partner selectively not wanting to accept the responsibilities of partnership in the alliance could spread to Norway or Denmark and other places. So it was the precedent angle that got the United States hung up. I happened to agree with this thing. We had certain things to do. We had this “neither confirm nor deny” (NCND) thing.
The way we got into the real problem with New Zealand was that they did not want a nuclear-propelled or armed ship to come in. It was against the anti-nuclear provision of the Labour Party.
What New Zealand really wanted was to continue to accept our ships here but not one that is nuclear armed or propelled. Well, it is easy to tell a nuclear-propelled ship but not easy to tell a nuclear-armed ship. When does it have a nuclear-tipped missile or a conventional-tipped missile?
And we don’t want to tell them. That was the “neither confirm nor deny.” When a given ship at a given time was going to a given port, we didn’t want the Soviet Union to know that at that point in time it was not nuclear armed because it takes so long to get a ship re-provisioned and the Soviets would have an advantage.
New Zealand was asking us essentially, “Can’t you just send us a clean ship?” and we are saying, “We can’t tell you we are sending a clean ship or not.” That was the nub of the argument. We understood that.
This eventually got to the point of New Zealand being “expelled” and we withdrew our security guarantee. In other words ANZUS fell apart.
Attempted compromise is sunk
Jon David Glassman, Country Director for Australia and New Zealand, 1985-1987
GLASSMAN: They made me Country Director for Australia and New Zealand, which was thought to be a nice quiet backwater but, fortunately or unfortunately, as the case may be, New Zealand at this point launched its so-called “nuclear ships policy” under which they prohibited the entry into New Zealand of either nuclear armed or powered ships.….
New Zealand sent to Washington Ambassador Wallace “Bill” Rowling, who had been a former Prime Minister. We developed with him a possible negotiated settlement under which we would try a gradual return to access, allowing less difficult ships in first. That is, ships that clearly didn’t carry nuclear weapons and then building up step by step. There was a sense that the New Zealand Government might accept this and we dispatched a ship to New Zealand called the USS Buchanan.
The New Zealanders appeared ready to accept but Prime Minister Lange, after dispute with the Labour Party caucus, turned it down. So at this point, we were in a state of confrontation with New Zealand….
Decisions were made to undertake sanctions against New Zealand. The reason this was interesting and controversial was New Zealand and Australia were allies of the United States — a defense alliance which had existed since the beginning of the Cold War years, part of the chain of alliances circling the globe. They cooperated with us very closely. We shared most of our intelligence with them, at the same level as closest allies such as Britain. We had defense exercises with them. They were an integral part of the Western defense community.
So before invoking these various sanctions, we had a secret meeting with Prime Minister Lange. With me was a Foreign Service Officer named Bill Brown who later became Ambassador to Israel. He and I went to Los Angeles and met with Prime Minister Lange at the home of the Consul General of New Zealand.
We read off to him the sanctions that would be taken against New Zealand if they persisted in their policy — including comprehensive cut-off of intelligence, an end of all defense cooperation, joint exercises and sharing of defense technology….
Lange was very dismissive of these sanctions. He said that, if he didn’t get intelligence, it’s more time to read the comic paper when he is sitting in Parliament. He said these things don’t interest him at all. Meanwhile back in Washington they brought in some people from the Prime Minister’s office in New Zealand who had been involved in the intelligence exchange.
The Agency brought them over and one man whose name now escapes me, when told about the sanctions, began sobbing. These senior New Zealand people had been very much involved from the beginning in inter-allied cooperation. It was felt at that time, however, that the sanctions had to be spelled out very clearly, not so much because of New Zealand’s policies, but to give a lesson in Europe and Japan about what happens if they precluded the entry of the so-called nuclear ships.
Finally the meeting we had out in California with the Australians — we reached an agreement with the Australians who were pushing us very hard to take action against New Zealanders because the Australian Labour Party felt that this could be very contagious within their own party if New Zealand policy was allowed to stand without sanction.
It was agreed that we would suspend New Zealand from the ANZUS alliance. I think it’s probably unique in the history of the broad Western alliance system. At the meeting it was decided that New Zealand was suspended. All the sanctions went into force and held for over a decade.
The Sommers Report: Nuclear pollution in NZ harbors, but from hospital waste
Kenneth Yates, USIA Advisor to CINCPAC, Hawaii, 1992-1995.
YATES: Anything that happened in the Pacific was important to the Command. One of the stressful things at the time was the New Zealand problem. The New Zealanders, of course, broke up the ANZUS treaty, and they were always placed in a special category, because of their refusal to allow U.S. ships to visit New Zealand ports unless the U.S. would confirm that the particular ship did not carry nuclear weapons and was not powered by nuclear energy.
Because of these restrictions, the U.S. refused to send any U.S. warships to New Zealand ports and placed special restrictions on relations between the two militaries. They were not allowed, for example, to visit Camp Smith, USCINCPAC [United States Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command] Headquarters, because of this difference of opinion. If our ships could not visit there, they could not visit us. The New Zealand nuclear question was an important one.
While I was at USCINCPAC, the Sommers report was issued. This was a report that was written by an independent, New Zealand study group that did an extensive survey of U.S. nuclear warships and the amount of radiation leakage or potential radiation leakage for ships in harbor.
Of course, the position of opponents in New Zealand was, if they allowed American nuclear ships to come in, their harbors were going to be polluted. Besides, they reasoned, they would become a target for anyone who wanted to throw missiles at U.S. forces. The crux of it was nuclear pollution.
The Sommer’s report found that there was pollution in New Zealand harbors, but it was from hospitals, the offal of radiation labs, the trash that was routinely tossed into the water. It was determined that the nuclear active residue from hospital gowns and things that were used in their radiation labs was the only detectable source of radiation in the harbor. They went down to other harbors in the world where nuclear ships were present and could find no evidence of nuclear radiation.
So, in fact, their greatest source of pollution was themselves. However, they still maintained, “Yes, but…” And our nuclear policy trouble continued.