New Zealand's Anti-nuclear Stance
Created | Updated Jun 13, 2013
New Zealand doesn't often grab the world's attention, but during the mid-1980s it took an anti-nuclear stance which made the world take notice. After a generation of doing exactly what America told Australia to tell New Zealanders to do, they took the unusual step of doing something that the USA didn't like. Their timing, in the final years of the Cold War, was significant.
New Zealand Says No
Reacting to an election promise by the Labour Party1, the people of New Zealand decided early in 1985 that they no longer wanted nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered ships coming to their ports. Until that time these ships had been, almost exclusively, American naval ships on shore leave. The ships themselves, and the sailors, were welcome, but the nukes were not.
The US navy's problem was that if they sent a ship to New Zealand, they would have to admit that the ship wasn't carrying nuclear weapons, something that could seriously undermine their defence capabilities. The uproar that ensued, with the USA threatening to exclude New Zealand from combined defence treaties, came as a puzzle to New Zealand, because it regarded itself, as something of a backwater in international politics - not a place which could tip the balance of the Cold War2 one way or the other.
The US government's fear was that other countries might hear about New Zealand's move, and also ban nuclear ships. It took a while, but eventually the Americans realised that the only way other countries would hear about New Zealand's nuclear policy would be from the noisy American reaction. Nobody pays much attention to New Zealand at the best of times. The vaguely-hinted-at American reprisals never happened. The Americans were able to downgrade the strategic significance of New Zealand's ports3, and peace and quiet reigned again in New Zealand.
That was almost 15 years ago. To this day the Americans have not been prepared to admit that one of their ships is not a nuclear ship, and thus no American naval ships have entered a New Zealand port since then.
Plenty of American cruise ships and private craft have visited New Zealand's fair shores, though, but the New Zealand authorities assume that they are not nuclear-powered or armed.
The Rainbow Warrior Affair
In 1985, two DGSE4 agents by the names of Alain Marfart and Dominique Prieur slipped into the New Zealand and, using a Zodiac inflatable dinghy, somehow planted a bomb on the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior as it lay in dock in Auckland Harbour. The ship was preparing to lead a protest against French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, an event which the French were apparently keen to prevent. The bomb exploded, sank the ship, and killed a Greenpeace photographer. After the event, Alain and Dominique toured New Zealand, masquerading as a French honeymoon couple. However, the New Zealand Police, in a moment of perspicacity, spotted them as phonies and dragged them in to face justice.
The wheels of international diplomacy turned around, the French made various thinly-veiled threats to New Zealand's trade access to the EEC, and New Zealand had to give the agents back to serve French justice. The agents received only a mild rebuke.
The French continued to test weapons of mass destruction in the Pacific, and Greenpeace and New Zealand continued to protest against them doing this. After a few more years of thumbing their nose at world opinion, the French finally got bored with playing with bombs, and went off for coffee and croissants back in Paris.
Today the political status quo which exists is that New Zealand is officially nuclear-free. Unfortunately, radiation levels are still rapidly rising, due to a worsening hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica which appears every spring.