Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

"The Collapse of New Zealand’s Military Ties with the United States"

George Shultz and David Lange

This Fulbright lecture was first delivered at Georgetown University on 2 December 2002, and then in revised form in Wellington on 5 August 2003. Parts of it were reprinted in the Dominion on 6 August 2003 and in the National Business Review on 8 and 15 August 2003

By Michael Bassett

The bare facts of the defence rupture between New Zealand and the United States in 1984-5 are well known. New Zealand had been a full member of the tri-partite ANZUS alliance with Australia and the United States since 1951. Then, in February 1985, New Zealand's Labour Prime Minister, David Lange, took a step in relation to visits by American nuclear-armed and/or nuclear- powered vessels that resulted in the United States severing military, and most intelligence, ties. The US defence guarantee to New Zealand was withdrawn. Joint military exercises ceased. New Zealand's access to the State Department was reduced, and no ministerial visits to the White House or the Pentagon took place for more than a decade. Many American officials simply lost patience with New Zealand, and with governments that held office after 1984.

The Lange Labour government in turn felt the American response heavy-handed. At Yale in April 1989, Lange, who had often argued that New Zealand could both belong to ANZUS and be nuclear-free, speculated that the ANZUS Pact was finished. The defence rift between the United States and New Zealand was complete. Since then, there have been attempts to patch it together under both Republican and Democratic administrations, but they failed. In 2002 Secretary of State Colin Powell declared New Zealanders to be "very, very, very good friends" of the United States. We have stood together in the Balkans, Timor, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, though not in Iraq until recently. But New Zealand is no longer regarded as an American "ally".

There have been several explanations for the rift , each containing part of the story. Historians and political scientists portray New Zealand's developing anti-nuclear policy as what Jock Phillips calls a "a postcolonial yearning for a new nationalism". (1) Malcolm McKinnon argues in similar terms. Michael Pugh notes a growing tendency in the 1970s and 1980s for New Zealand to think regionally, to the detriment of older ties with Britain and the United States.(2) Both McKinnon and Pugh accept that what gave strength to anti-nuclearism in New Zealand was the way in which, first, the Americans in the early 1950s, then the British, and finally the French, chose to test nuclear weapons in the Pacific, an area which New Zealanders in their more imperial moments called their "back yard".(3)

Super-imposed on the growing concern about nuclear testing was a tactic pursued by Robert Muldoon. He viewed politics holistically. He was an artful operator. Everything was grist to his mill. Many Labour politicians, myself included, objected to the way he played domestic politics with American ship visits. Denis McLean, Secretary of Defence in the 1980s and later Ambassador to Washington, confirmed in an interview that Muldoon sought more American ship visits than the Americans felt comfortable making. Muldoon's practice appeared to be to request a visit whenever he was floundering in the polls, because he calculated that he could win publicly from the protests. He even planned a ship visit for September 1984, anticipating a tight general election. Instead, as we know, he bolted early to the ballot box.(4) Few people knew of the American reluctance to play along with Muldoon. Unfairly, in retrospect, Labour supporters were inclined to suspect there was an American desire to dabble in New Zealand politics. More than a touch of anti-Americanism can be discerned within Labour's growing anti-nuclear stance.

After the rupture with the US in early 1985, some New Zealanders and Americans tried suggesting that the Labour Government had simply been taken over by extreme left-wingers, or had succumbed to Soviet propaganda.(5) But that line of reasoning was unconvincing for several reasons: first, the Labour ministry was clearly dedicated to free enterprise, as its market reforms demonstrated, and secondly, domestic public opinion became so enthusiastic about the anti-nuclear policy that the strongly pro-American National Opposition adopted it on the eve of the 1990 election. It's a bit hard to argue that we had all become pro-Soviet extremists!

David Lange put his spin on the rupture with the United States. At the time he placed all the blame on "lamentable leaks" of information, implying they came from the United States. Because of the public uproar those leaks created in late January 1985 he said they destroyed his ability to negotiate a satisfactory diplomatic outcome.(6) By 1990 he'd had more time to rationalise; the break, he said, was a sensible response to New Zealand's unique strategic position in the world: "I didn't consider we were in danger", he wrote of the 1985-86 period. "Cam Ranh Bay was closer to Paris than it was to Wellington. The war in Vietnam was over but the dominoes of Southeast Asia had not…fallen".(7) In other words, the fears of the fifties on which the ANZUS Pact had been forged were no longer warranted; if visits from nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered vessels were the price for continuing a dated alliance, then it had become too expensive. At what point Lange arrived at this isolationist conclusion, given his declarations for most of his prime ministership that he favoured retaining the ANZUS connection, he hasn't told us.

What interests me – and it is the reason for this lecture - is that many Americans and some New Zealanders still seem bemused by the rupture between us. We are two western countries that have fought along side each other in virtually every major conflict since 1914. We have always enjoyed close ties. Americans with whom I have discussed the nuclear dispute in the 1980s share a feeling that somewhere there is another factor - a missing piece of the jigsaw, if you like - to explain the break. I want to suggest that there is another factor. What hasn't been answered satisfactorily to date is why David Lange, given the commitments he made to George Shultz in 1984, capitulated a few months later to those who wanted all "nuclear-capable" ships excluded from New Zealand. The answer, I suggest, is inextricably linked to a political struggle within the Labour Party at that time.

Explaining this requires some discussion of the internecine warfare of the early 1980s, and the way it impacted on Lange himself. Lange hints at this warfare in his 1990 book, but his reference is oblique.(8)In my view, the internal dissension led Lange as Minister of Foreign Affairs to make what was more a unilateral than a collective Cabinet decision to rupture our defence arrangements with the United States. Put simply, my argument is that in early 1985 Lange was Prime Minister, but leading the Labour Party in name only. He perceived that by rejecting an American request for a visit to New Zealand waters by the USS Buchanan, he could at last win over his party. His Cabinet and Caucus were not fully in the picture, but went along with him because they, too, hoped to heal the rift inside the Labour Party.

Frankly, as ministers, we had increasing difficulty understanding the volume of words flowing from Lange's mouth at Cabinet and Caucus meetings as he performed verbal cartwheels before falling into the hands of his sternest internal critics at the end of January 1985. Sometimes he seemed resigned to ending ship visits as well as the ANZUS pact; that seemed to be his position at Caucus on 10 October 1984 when he briefly reported on discussions he'd had in the United States with Shultz. Later he talked as though he expected ship visits and the ANZUS connection to continue, despite the Americans' clear determination to "neither confirm nor deny" whether ships were nuclear armed.(9) My notes from meetings I attended fail to convey any consistent line in the Prime Minister's thinking as he thrashed around the dilemma posed by the American request for a ship visit in January 1985. The comments of several ministerial colleagues with whom I have discussed the matter, confirm my conclusion. Moreover - and I must stress I am not making excuses - the Government by this time was engaged on so many fronts reforming the economy and social services that none of us had the time carefully to monitor the Prime Minister's gymnastics. The November 1984 Budget was particularly controversial; the New Zealand dollar was about to be floated on the world market (that took place on 2 March 1985); the wage round was proving extremely difficult as we emerged from a Wage-Price Freeze; and doctors were stubborn in the face of the blandishments that I, as Minister of Health, was waving before them over children's visits to GPs. In other words, the Cabinet was not fully engaged with the ships issue at the precise moment when it mattered. After the split, when it became clear that there was wide public enthusiasm for the Prime Minister's decision to portray himself as a "nuke-buster", we simply went along for the ride.(10)

Now to the specific problem within the Labour Party. Social democratic parties everywhere found the late seventies and early eighties stressful. For a time, British Labour was captured by forces seemingly determined to render it unelectable. Social Democrats in Germany and Sweden lost their way, and several state parties within Australia – most notably Victoria's – developed a skill for getting off-side with their national body on nuclear ship visits and most other things. The Australian Labor Party flirted for a time with an anti-nuclear policy until the newly-elected Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, took a resolute stand in 1983.

The New Zealand Labour Party experienced similar tensions. In effect, the era of big government had largely been played out. The world economic downturn in the 1970s rendered further expensive extensions to welfare states unaffordable, especially in New Zealand, where poor economic stewardship caused the country to fall swiftly down the OECD ladder. In any event, doubts were growing inside the Labour Party about the effectiveness of much current spending. Others, however, couldn't accept that the days of interventionism were passing. Our women's movement was nearing its peak. Several on the party's National Executive, particularly the present Prime Minister, Helen Clark, and the present Attorney General, Margaret Wilson, had agendas to implement. Access to abortion, pay equity, state-funded childcare and other forms of assistance to women were their principal causes, and the Labour Party their chosen vehicle. Their first objective was to capture its membership. In the mid 1970s, it, like the party's leadership, was weak. The insurgents' candidate for eventual leadership of the Parliamentary Party was Jim Anderton. He was elected party president in May 1979, and exercised considerable influence over party affairs. As yet, however, none of the insurgents was in Parliament, from whence a Labour prime minister and a cabinet would eventually be elected.

Set against this faction in the party was a generally older, more traditionally pro-family group that also favoured existing defence alliances. It was sometimes called "old" Labour, but it possessed younger faces as well. Most of this group were already in Parliament. Their prospective leader was David Lange. Four years younger than Anderton, Lange had no parliamentary peer for oratory. At his best he was grand, sometimes inspiring. Even on an off day he could entertain. The women's movement, however, found him intolerable. On the issues they focused on, his mercurial, witty style conflicted with their seriousness. When Lange came within an ace of winning leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party on 12 December 1980 his opponents moved into top gear. Over the next two years they spared no effort to capture the hearts and minds of party activists and to poison them against Lange and his allies. Since it was widely anticipated that the existing leader of the Labour party, Bill Rowling, would soon retire, schemes were hatched – they didn't come to fruition – to have the leadership vacancy decided by the entire party membership, rather than by the parliamentary party. The insurgents hoped that Anderton, who was still outside Parliament, might somehow snatch the prize from under Lange's nose.

Lange, however, couldn't be stopped. On 3 February 1983 he was overwhelmingly elected leader by his peers. Polls suggested he would soon be Prime Minister. But his internal enemies did not surrender. They now set out to take control of Labour's policy formation process. Meetings of the Policy Council became pitched battles. For the next eighteen months, until he entered Parliament himself, Anderton constantly sought to upstage Lange. On several occasions Anderton made policy pronouncements without having followed proper constitutional process.(11) In effect, a bitter battle between Labour Members of Parliament and the party insurgents was still being waged when Muldoon suddenly called the snap election.

What has all this got to do with the anti-nuclear policy? What it meant was that when Lange became Prime Minister, he had been unable yet to place his stamp on his party or on its policy. Unlike previous Labour leaders, he hadn't risen to office through the party machine. He never fully understood its Byzantine rituals. He found himself unwelcome, sometimes insulted, at meetings of the party's National Executive. He had neither the personal toughness nor the negotiating experience to bring this opposition to heel. They dismissed his oratory as empty rhetoric.

When Lange was sworn as Prime Minister on 26 July 1984 he and his allies had ensured that Helen Clark and Jim Anderton were not part of the ministry.(12) Since the party's presidency was beyond Lange's control, Margaret Wilson succeeded Anderton, now an MP. Lange mellowed sufficiently to allow Clark to chair Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, but in general, she, and her supporters, were given the cold shoulder by the new ministry. Her group, in turn, formed a vociferous in-house set of critics of the new Government's economic reforms. They constantly attacked Lange for supporting Douglas, especially following the first budget on 8 November 1984. I well recall the unpleasant atmosphere in Caucus during those early months in office. The insurgents leaked material to the press, and caused endless ructions. I penned a diary note on 23 November 1984: "They have decided to kill this Govt rather than have it run by people they dislike".(13)

The nuclear-ships issue gave Lange's in-house critics their oportunity to assert their influence. When they discovered how Lange proposed to handle it, they used their information as a stick with which to beat him.(14)

At the time of the election in July 1984, President Reagan's Secretary of State was in Canberra, on his way to New Zealand to attend a meeting of the ANZUS Council. Two days after the election George Shultz, plus Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Paul Wolfowitz, and Commander-in-Chief of Pacific Forces, Admiral William Crowe, met with Prime Minister-elect Lange. They exchanged pleasantries. Lange gave assurances that he wanted to maintain the ANZUS relationship. It was agreed that more substantial discussions would follow on 24 September when Lange would be in New York at the UN General Assembly. At both meetings Lange promised Shultz he would negotiate a way to allow some American naval vessels to enter New Zealand waters. Although he was poorly prepared for the New York meeting, and had not discussed the issue with his officials beforehand, Lange persuaded the Americans to give his government a "comfortable amount of time" before seeking a ship visit.(15)

However, there was some ambiguity about Lange's intentions. Labour's policy stated that no nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered ships would be allowed to enter New Zealand waters. Only a few days before he met Shultz in New York, Lange was quoted in the British press as saying that New Zealand would ban all US warships if Washington refused to drop its policy of declining to say if any of its vessels carried nuclear weapons. Then, on his return to New Zealand, Lange was quoted in the Dominion as saying that he would urge the Labour Party to allow nuclear-powered warships into New Zealand if it could be shown they were safe and if the US was to give an assurance they were not nuclear-armed. (16) The room for diplomatic manoeuvre was obviously cramped. Nonetheless, over the next few months, at Lange's direction, several New Zealand officials worked to secure a ship that would pass the test set by the new government's "neither nuclear-armed nor nuclear- powered" policy.(17)

When they eventually found out what was being proposed, Lange's Labour opponents set out to torpedo all visits by American naval vessels. In her capacity as chair of Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Helen Clark had been hoping to influence the evolution of Labour's ship policy. But Lange kept quiet about what was happening; not even Frank O'Flynn, his Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defence, who visited Admiral Crowe in Hawaii in October, was fully in the picture.(18) In December 1984 Helen Clark visited New York on an invitation from Kora Weiss of the anti-nuclear movement, and went on to Washington. On 12 December she lunched with New Zealand Embassy officials and had appointments with peace movement activists.(19) The Embassy gave nothing away about discussions between the two governments, but soon after her return to New Zealand she received a call from a Washington journalist who had picked up information about an imminent request from the Americans for a ship visit to New Zealand. In fact, the previous November New Zealand's Chief of Defence Staff, Air Marshal Ewan Jamieson, working entirely for Prime Minister Lange, had visited Admiral Crowe in Hawaii. Jamieson had also been in London where he sought advice from his British counterpart.(20) Using his own judgement, Jamieson identified what appeared to be a suitable ship to fit New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy. It was the guided missile destroyer USS Buchanan. The ship's identity was kept secret, but a plan emerged for it to enter New Zealand ports after the Sea Eagle manoeuvres scheduled for Australian waters in March 1985.

Because of the "neither confirm nor deny" policy of the United States about whether its ships carried nuclear warheads, both sets of officials felt it best to send a ship that any knowledgeable person would conclude was likely to pass New Zealand's anti-nuclear test, without either side declaring this definitely to be the case. The Buchanan was old. It was obviously diesel-powered. While it was capable of being fitted with nuclear warheads for depth-charging submarines, it seemed to Jamieson most unlikely to be carrying them for several reasons. He discovered that its missiles had such a short range that any detonating nuclear warhead might well have seriously damaged the Buchanan and its crew. Several frigate captains carrying rockets similar to those on the Buchanan told him of their aversion to nuclear warheads for this reason. Jamieson also discovered that the Buchanan had recently been on duty in Japan. The Japanese Government's "three non-nuclear principles" effectively banned nuclear weapons from its waters, although some American ambiguity about the capacities of visiting ships was tolerated.(21)

Taking all this into consideration, Jamieson convinced himself, and other Defence officials, that Lange could with virtual certainty be assured that the Buchanan complied with the "neither nuclear-armed nor nuclear powered" policy. Gerald Hensley, Lange's head of the Prime Minister's office, would tell me later that when they recommended Lange use the words "extremely unlikely" to be carrying nuclear weapons (its propulsion was never in doubt), they were deliberately understating what they believed to be the true position. Officials wanted to accommodate the American request for some ambiguity.(22)

The opposition group within the Labour Party realised that American officials were optimistic that the chosen ship would be acceptable. They decided that while Lange might think he could sell it to the New Zealand public, they would ensure he couldn't. On Thursday 24 January 1985 a meeting took place at Parliament Buildings involving the President of the party, Margaret Wilson, and three junior backbenchers, Helen Clark, Jim Anderton and Fran Wilde. All were critics of Lange and of the Government's economic reforms. Chairing the meeting, Margaret Wilson decided to go beyond Labour's official policy of opposition to nuclear-armed and nuclear-propelled ships. She took it upon herself to re-define policy in such a way that no ambiguity about any ship's status was possible. In the process she ensured no visit could take place without a stand-up fight between the Prime Minister and the National Executive.

Margaret Wilson tells us in her book that under her re-definition of policy that was endorsed next day by the National Executive, no ship could enter New Zealand waters if it was "CAPABLE [my emphasis] of carrying nuclear weapons".(23) In effect she was adding a third requirement for any ship visit. Taken literally, this stipulation that no ship be nuclear-capable could encompass any vessel - even a rubber dinghy - that was able to transport a warhead. The re-definition greatly reduced the scope for prime ministerial discretion. By hook or by crook, Lange's opponents were going to regain some of the influence within the Labour government that they had lost when the Cabinet was formed and the economic reforms got underway. Years later, in 1996, Wilson conceded this was the aim of her actions. "Having actually experienced a little bit of the economic policy…" she told a TV interviewer, "it seemed important to us [the National Executive of the Labour Party] to remain firm that there was no compromise, there was no ability to negotiate policy".(24) Interviewed on 1 March 2003, Prime Minister Clark told me the intention was to lock the Government into its policy.

After their meeting on 24 January 1985, the insurgents made contact with several peace activists, Nicky Hager, Kevin Hackwell and a shadowy organisation known as CANWAR, none with a track record noticeably supportive of the Labour Party, but each with friends in the media. They were informed of what was going on. They willingly became pawns in the National Executive's game where the prime movers had rather more on their minds than nuclear ships. A campaign designed to keep the Buchanan out of New Zealand was co-ordinated over the next few days from the back bench offices of several government MPs.(25)

Ministers, meanwhile, were gradually returning to Wellington after their summer holidays. There had been a brief Cabinet meeting on 17 January, but no discussion of the ship issue. Unbeknown to us, that day a formal American request for a visit by the Buchanan was received at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was passed to the Prime Minister's Office. But just as it was about to hit his desk, Lange took off on a visit to one of the most remote spots in the Pacific – the Tokelau Islands- where no New Zealand Prime Minister had been for 40 years. He was virtually incommunicado for several days except for what he described as "garbled reports from home" on a crackly ship radio.(26) The "tramp steamer" taking him from Samoa to Fakaolo took 37 hours. Over four days he met people, swam, and was entertained. He then took another 49 hours returning to Samoa. There he was collected by an RNZAF Boeing 727 and returned to Wellington.(27)

Was Lange evading the issue of the Buchanan? The officials I've interviewed certainly thought so, and I agree with their assessment. Helen Clark would observe to me later that Lange always took the line of least resistance. One thing is for sure: Lange had done none of the political spadework necessary to fulfil the commitments he'd earlier given to Secretary Shultz.(28) Indeed, ministers were never told precisely by Lange what he had promised Shultz. Nor were we asked to support any campaign to ensure the public trusted his judgement on whether any ship was nuclear armed or nuclear powered. When Lange established Cabinet committees at the end of July 1984 there was none to discuss the nuclear ships issue. Nor did the Prime Minister appear to have any colleagues with whom he regularly consulted on the nuclear ships issue. I acted as Minister of Foreign Affairs while Lange was in New York in September 1984 and received no briefing about the meeting. American and New Zealand officials realised with growing alarm that Lange's Cabinet colleagues were not in the loop about what was being negotiated by Jamieson, nor did Cabinet discuss the implications of any request for a ship visit until just before Christmas.(29) Notes of my frequent talks with the Prime Minister carry no record of any word on the issue, even though it now appears that a Cabinet paper had been prepared for us. The matter was not discussed at a meeting of the new Cabinet External Relations and Security Committee on 24 January 1985 about the time when the insurgents were holding their gathering next door. Lange enlisted no one in a campaign to sell the notion that decisions about any American ship's acceptability would have to be made by the Prime Minister, exercising his judgement on advice from officials. Yet, without support from his Cabinet colleagues, Lange should have known that he risked being out-manoeuvred. By the time he formally agreed in principle on 20 December 1984 to entertain a request for an American ship visit, a strategy to handle it was urgently needed. But Lange said virtually nothing to his colleagues. Instead, he went on holiday, then to the Tokelaus.

Lange's internal party opponents were always more disciplined. Following their meetings on 24-25 January, while Lange was still away, a letter was despatched to Acting Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer conveying the National Executive's decision to endorse Wilson's new policy pronouncement.(30) She and some of her colleagues began talking to the media. Not surprisingly, journalists became excited about possible divisions within the government. The head of the Prime Minister's Department, Gerald Hensley, briefed Palmer on 26 January. He announced that New Zealand would decide whether in its view a ship was nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed, and would make a decision about its admissibility. However, Wilson now advised Palmer that the National Executive required matters for judgement to include whether a ship was "nuclear capable". On hearing this, Palmer took fright. In a memo to Lange that he read on his flight back to Wellington, Palmer suggested the request for a visit from the Buchanan be declined. Floods of letters and telegrams, many drummed up by his caucus critics, awaited Lange's return.(31)

Arriving in Wellington about midday on 28 January 1985, the Prime Minister met his Cabinet around 3pm. Almost certainly he had been nobbled in the meantime by a party official. In his report to Cabinet, words flowed from him as he realised that his inertia was catching up with him. He began looking for a way out of the commitment he'd given George Shultz. Lange told us at Cabinet he was certain the Buchanan was neither nuclear-powered or nuclear armed, but such was the public interest, he felt no one would believe assurances from him to this effect. He acknowledged the existence of the Americans' "neither confirm nor deny" policy, but wondered aloud whether the US could be persuaded to say something helpful about the Buchanan. Given Lange's failure to prepare the ground politically, and the storm being whipped up by his opponents, the words devised by Defence officials were no longer adequate. The Prime Minister started looking for a way out. He began to contemplate rejecting the ship outright. It slowly dawned on the rest of us that our lack of information over such a long period meant we had lost the initiative. Ministers turned instead to discussing how to minimise political fallout.(32)

Throughout Lange's political career he hated confrontation. It sometimes made him physically ill. And he naturally craved acceptance and endorsement from the party he led. His opponents knew all these things. While, as Gerald Hensley observed to me, Lange was angry that Labour's National Executive was "running this pin into his bottom", he decided it was easier to live with the pain than with his commitment to Shultz.(33) After Cabinet on 28 January Lange received a deputation from some members of Labour's National Executive. He seems not to have disputed Margaret Wilson's unilateral re-definition of Labour policy, although he recognised it for what it was.

But this is where Lange's actions became murky again. If the Buchanan were to be rejected, he didn't want to carry the odium for any consequent breach with the United States. Someone came up with the notion that he should request a substitute American vessel , one that obviously complied with New Zealand's policy. Lange warmed to the idea, although he was discouraged by the American Ambassador Monroe Browne or his deputy, Richard Teare, who met him on 29 January.(34) And officials bluntly told the Prime Minister that the Americans would almost certainly reject such a request. Ewan Jamieson had invested considerable effort in finding the Buchanan; alternatives likely to be neither nuclear armed nor nuclear powered weren't plentiful. Jamieson and McLean told Lange that in any event, any country required by a Treaty to defend another took a dim view when told that only some forms of weaponry were permissible in the exercise of that obligation.

Members of New Zealand's peace movement – principally Nicky Hager and Peter Winsley - were by this time hovering around the offices of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence.(35) Messages got to Lange about a guided missile frigate of the newer Oliver Hazard Perry class, which Hager claimed was not nuclear capable. By now it mattered little that Defence officials thought Hager seriously misinformed on this point.(36) The fact that the Prime Minister was taking counsel from the peace movement which had been brought into the process by his Caucus opponents suggests he was ready to deliver himself into their hands. Lange decided to recommend to the whole Government Caucus that a visit by an alternative ship be requested. When he did so, he knew full well it would almost certainly be rejected by the Americans. The fact that a Prime Ministerial request to this effect was being made was now leaked to the nedia - it is unclear by whom - thus making it doubly certain that the Americans would reject it outright. This, coupled with the leak of a letter to Lange from Bob Hawke, only heightened the media frenzy. The leak was seized upon by Lange, attributed to the Australians and Americans, and used as a fig leaf to cover his decision to reject the Buchanan.

Lange's cabinet colleagues were told little of the briefings he received between 28 and 31 January. When we attended the all-day Caucus on 31 January we did not fully appreciate that a rejection of the Buchanan would be the end of the road with the United States. Lange gave a long summation of the situation, telling us that the Buchanan was nuclear capable, although he knew this ship to be neither nuclear-armed nor nuclear powered. To date that was the only Labour policy criterion that had been subjected to the party's policy ratification process. There was much discussion in Caucus on the merits of an Oliver Perry class frigate; several MPs parroted Nicky Hager's line. Margaret Wilson was in attendance. She supported a motion that the request for a visit by the Buchanan be rejected, and that an invitation be extended instead to an alternative. She added, darkly, that if the Cabinet and Caucus were to wobble on this motion, she expected pressure to be applied by the party faithful for a special conference of the Labour Party.(37) We knew that when she talked of "pressure" it would be from the top down, rather than the bottom up. But the thought of days spent eyeballing delegates who knew little of the background to the issue, and who would in all probability be putty in the hands of Cabinet's opponents, was enough to freeze blood. Caucus adopted Lange's motion.

Later that day, Lange dispatched a letter to the American Ambassador saying there was insufficient information available to ensure that the Buchanan complied with New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy. It told him that an application for a visit by an Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate would be welcomed. After consulting Washington, Browne replied on 3 February that the request for a visit by the Buchanan still stood. Lange informed him the following day that the request was declined.

The Americans did little to hide their belief that they had been strung along by Lange. Later in the month a relatively junior State Department official, Bill Brown, was dispatched to meet him when he passed through Los Angeles. Brown informed him of various punitive actions such as the curtailment of intelligence that were being imposed by the United States.(38) Early in March Bob Hawke announced that the proposed July meeting of the ANZUS Council in Canberra was postponed. The rest, as they say, is history.

The ANZUS alliance contained an explicit undertaking that military contacts between the parties would occur. But after receipt of Lange's letter of 4 February 1985 there was no American willingness to negotiate further. American officials felt they had gone as far as they could – possibly beyond what was prudent – without completely abandoning "neither confirm nor deny". Paul Wolfowitz who was the key American negotiator at the time, had exhausted a considerable portion of his political capital with his Republican colleagues. Secretary Shultz was adamant that no further time should be wasted on New Zealand. When the Nuclear Free Zone Disarmament and Arms Control Bill was introduced to Parliament in December 1985, Shultz said that New Zealand had, in effect, made a de facto withdrawal from ANZUS, an opinion he conveyed in person to Lange when they met in Manila at an ASEAN meeting in late June 1986.(39) The Bill passed into law on 4 June 1987. It convinced the Americans they could no longer meet their obligations under the Treaty to defend New Zealand even if they were of a mind to.(40) At a gathering in Little Rock, Arkansas, at the end of 1992, Shultz was approached by Denis McLean who introduced himself as New Zealand's new Ambassador to Washington. Shultz glared at him and barked: "Your Prime Minister lied to me", then walked away.(41) Shultz's memoirs make no mention of the New Zealand imbroglio. It was an event he chose to forget.

Why did David Lange take so few steps to deliver on the assurance he gave George Shultz that he would negotiate a way for ship visits to continue? It is my belief that Lange's desire to be loved by the Labour Party - to enter into his inheritance as its leader – got the better of him in the end. He was never much interested in party policy, and had neither the political instincts, the negotiating skills, or the capacity to use his leader's authority that others like Peter Fraser, Norman Kirk, Bob Hawke, and I should add, Helen Clark, possessed in abundance. Lange took virtually no political counsel from his Cabinet colleagues, probably knowing that they would recommend confronting people, something of which he was incapable. Lange allowed himself to become isolated from his closest allies who had promoted and protected him in the past. As a result, Helen Clark, Margaret Wilson and Jim Anderton cornered him. They eye-balled him till he blinked. It became easier for him to sacrifice the American connection than to fight. He would settle for what he was beginning to sense could be a popular diversion at home, something with theatrical potential. While his ministers were re-structuring the economy, he'd become a "nuke-buster". They could look after the bread, he'd handle the circuses.

During the days after he'd returned from the Tokelaus, Lange was promised bonuses, too. Someone with smart political instincts mentioned to him that he might be nominated for a Nobel Peace prize. The idea appealed. Lange told Caucus about it on 31 January. Then came an invitation to debate Reverend Jerry Falwell at the Oxford Union on 1 March 1985. Organised by the Oxford Union dealing directly with Lange's office, and managed by David Frost's producer, John Florescu, this event played to Lange's strengths.(42) He was always a better actor than a politician, and had no trouble dominating the occasion. When a sleek young conservative student taunted him, the Prime Minister, seemingly spontaneously, leant towards him and declared "I can smell the uranium on your breath". As we remember, it brought the house down and made him a national hero.

Lange returned home a few days later. Fans mobbed him at Auckland's airport. Conspicuous amongst them were members of Labour's National Executive who, until recently, had treated him with ill-disguised contempt.(43) Party officials showered Lange with letters of congratulation. Years later, Helen Clark observed that the party was very pleased that it had finally been "tossed a bone" by Lange's Cabinet.(44) With longer hindsight, we can see that it was really Lange who had been tossed a bone by the insurgents who were resolutely on their way to capturing control at every level of the Labour Party.

When any leader breaks a promise, there is a cost. New Zealand paid a price for Lange's failure to fulfil his promise to George Shultz. American officials came to distrust New Zealand; some are back in office in Washington today. I found that they recall events with clarity. This doesn't make rapprochement easier. Our contacts with the United States diminished in 1985; they are still not back to the level they were. Despite assurances from George Shultz that the dispute over nuclear ships would not result in trade sanctions, negotiating a free-trade deal has clearly been adversely affected by our policy on ship visits and more recent issues.

There were personal perils for David Lange, too. Several party officials now held a key to his popularity. That would have longer-term consequences. With the help of one of his officials, Lange was slowly parted from his original Cabinet and Caucus supporters. That process began during 1985. Wilson suggested she hold weekly meetings with the Prime Minister. Having been spurned by party functionaries for so long, Lange was now beguiled by their solicitude. It would only be a matter of time before the same people used him again, this time against his Minister of Finance. Eventually Lange's ill-fated break with Roger Douglas in 1988 – an event that involved amongst others, Helen Clark, Jim Anderton, and new Caucus dissidents selected in 1987 by Margaret Wilson - meant that Lange was now dependent on the party apparatus instead of his former supporters. In the end, those who had been Lange's bitterest critics in the early 1980s would be the ones who narrowly rescued him in a Caucus "want-of-confidence" motion in the Prime Minister on 29 June 1989. But with that event, where a majority of his Cabinet voted against him, Lange was dead in the water. By this time, Clark, one of Lange's bitterest enemies earlier in the decade had become his closest confidante. He broke down and wept in front of her about his predicament.(45) His old opponents had him where they wanted him. With little resistance from them since they stood to benefit from change, Lange resigned as Prime Minister in early August 1989. His exit was mourned neither by his original backers, nor by those who had used him more recently for their own ends. On her steady march to the top, Helen Clark became deputy to the new Prime Minister, Geoffrey Palmer.

In effect, Lange's political lassitude in the later part of 1984, his chronic inability to deal with opponents, and his urge to be loved, led him to take the line of least resistance over ship visits. His Cabinet colleagues were puzzled. Most of us nursed a feeling that we had been kept in the dark on important details. Several wished the issue could be re-litigated. Having said that, we also realised that Lange had made a marriage of convenience with the upper echelons of the party organisation that had been wielding shotguns against most of us for too long. Moreover, Lange's stance gained public backing, something that was further enhanced by his inspired handling of events following the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland harbour in July 1985. Lange's role as circus master was of enormous benefit to the Government he led. It was a pity that tolerating him doing what he did best, came at such a high price.

The insurgents eventually took over the New Zealand Labour Party. Their youth, and the retirement of the old guard, saw to that. With their victory the real purpose behind the anti-nuclear policy vanished.

On 27 September 1991 the purported purpose also disappeared. By presidential decree, George Bush ordered that all nuclear warheads be removed from surface vessels of the US Navy. According to Admiral Crowe, the majority of Pacific surface vessels were no longer nuclear-armed, anyway.(46) With this presidential stroke of the pen, the US Navy's "neither confirm nor deny" policy in relation to nuclear arms became irrelevant. The principal sticking point between our two nations was gone. The following year, a meticulous report by Mr Justice Somers into the safety of nuclear-powered vessels removed the other area of political concern. It concluded there was virtually no public danger from visits by nuclear-powered ships. Welcomed as it was by scientists and most politicians, the reliability of the Somers report has never been seriously questioned.

There remains, therefore, nothing more than historical symbolism and popular nostalgia sustaining the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act that passed into law in June 1987. But it remains on the statute books. The question is: who will now have the courage to face up to the needless irritation it causes? Jenny Shipley's government participated in some discussions with US officials about a possible rapprochement over ship visits, but those efforts came to nothing in August 1999 when the National Government ran out of time before the general election.

The question I wish to ask is who better to initiate reconciliation proceedings than a government headed by Helen Clark? Our Prime Minister, as we can see, was a key player in the initial break; she used it to climb the greasy pole of New Zealand politics. She showed in the process an early example of her superior political talents. With a display of genuine leadership she could now resolve outstanding difficulties between New Zealand and the United States. This would be a real test of greatness. Moreover, what Lee Kuan Yew likes to call "the external frame" – the security setting within which a country finds itself - has also changed for both Australia and New Zealand with events since Nine Eleven, and more recently since the Bali bombing. All the ingredients are there for a policy re-assessment. The New Zealand Labour Party, some might recall, once campaigned with the slogan "It's Time". It needs resurrecting.


* Michael Bassett was a minister in the Fourth Labour Government, 1984-90, and has written widely on New Zealand political history. In the fall semester 2002 he was Fulbright Professor of New Zealand Studies at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.

In preparing this paper I have been aided by interviews I conducted with the current Prime Minister Helen Clark (1 March 2003); Denis McLean, Secretary of Defence, 1980-88 (9 April 2002); Gerald Hensley, Permanent Head of the Prime Minister's Department 1980-88 (10 April 2002); Sir Ewan Jamieson, Chief of Defence Staff 1983-86 (1 June 2002); Richard Teare, US Deputy Chief of Mission in Wellington 1983-86 (9 October 2002); Paul Cleveland, US Ambassador to Wellington 1986-89 (14 October 2002); Admiral William J. Crowe, Commander in Chief Pacific (US Forces) 1983-85 (4 December 2002); Ambassador John Wood (New Zealand's Acting Head of Mission in Washington 1984-85); and with many of my former parliamentary colleagues. Sir Roger Douglas read the manuscript and commented on various points. I am grateful to each of them for their information, but I accept responsibility for any errors there might be in this article.

1. Jock Phillips, "New Zealand and the Anzus Alliance: Changing National Self-Perceptions, 1945-88", in Richard Baker (ed), Australia, New Zealand and the United States, New York, 1991, p.194. There are many factual mistakes in this article, but its thesis was perceptive.

2. Malcolm McKinnon, Independence and Foreign Policy: New Zealand in the World since 1935, Auckland, 1993, p.300. Michael C. Pugh, The ANZUS Crisis, Nuclear Visiting and Deterrence, Cambridge UP, 1989, pp.38-9.

3. Malcolm McKinnon briefly summarizes these movements in Bruce Brown(ed), New Zealand in World Affairs, 1972-1990, Wellington, 1999, pp.147-151. Some American officials became increasingly annoyed with French testing, realising that since the US was seen to be friends of France, they were being partly held to blame. See "Developments in the South Pacific Region", hearing before the House Sub-committee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, chaired by Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, September 10 1986, Washington, DC, pp.156-157. I am grateful to Peter S. Watson of Washington DC for bringing this publication to my attention. The gradual evolution of the Labour Party's policy on ship visits is dealt with by Kevin Clements, "The Defence Committee of Enquiry," in Jonathan Boston and Martin Holland(eds), The Fourth Labour Government", Auckland, 1987, pp.214-217.

4. Between 1958 and 1984 New Zealand ports received 160 US Navy ships. Under Muldoon there was an average of 4 ship visits pa. Pugh, p.56. Interview between Michael Bassett and Denis McLean, Wellington, 9 April 2002. Interviewed the following day, Gerald Hensley who was head of the Prime Minister's Department under both Muldoon and David Lange, noted that Muldoon "pushed" the ship visits. McKinnon in Brown(ed), New Zealand in World Affairs, 1972-1990, pp.149-50, deals briefly with Muldoon's domestic political calculations over ship visits. News that there would be a visit in the run-up to the originally scheduled election emerged in June 1984. See Auckland Star, 14 June 1984, p.A8.

5."Developments in the South Pacific Region", op.cit, pp.148-149. In fact, Lange was most insistent in 1985-6 that Cabinet members dispel any such idea.

6. David Lange telegram to Sir Wallace Rowling, 7 February 1985, CS(85)52, Bassett Papers.

7.Quoted in McKinnon, Independence, pp.292-3.

8. David Lange, Nuclear Free- The New Zealand Way, Auckland, 1990, pp.26-30.

9. See for instance his telegram to Rowling, 7 February 1985, op.cit.

10. Lange wore his "nuke-buster" tee shirt on occasions during his African trip in April 1985.

11.The constitution required policy to be finally authorised by Labour MPs, but Anderton didn't seek endorsement for his policy utterances on Labour's anti-nuclear stance in 1983. In August 1984 he announced Labour's policy on the future of the South African consulate without consultation with either the caucus of the Labour Party or the Cabinet. Anderton was severely lambasted both in the press and in Caucus on 3 May 1984 for the contents of a speech he had given at the Auckland Regional Conference a few days earlier. Bassett Papers. See also New Zealand Herald, 28 April 1984, p.1; 30 April 1984, p.1; 1 May 1984; Dominion, 3 May 1984, p.2.

12. Jim Anderton was defeated by his Caucus colleagues in one of the later ballots and Helen Clark in the last ballot to select the Cabinet on 17 July 1984. Bassett Papers. When Under-secretaries were apportioned several weeks later, neither Clark nor Anderton was appointed. Clark bitterly complained to the press. Herald, 16 August 1984, p.3.

13. Diary note, Bassett Papers.

14.The growth of anti-nuclear sentiment within the Labour Party is discussed by Pugh, chapter 6.

15. An account of the first meeting appeared on the front page of the New York Times, 17 July 1984. Admiral William Crowe confirmed these details when I interviewed him on 4 December 2002. See also Admiral William J. Crowe Jr, The Line of Fire, New York, 1993, p.103. There seems to be no New Zealand note of this meeting because Lange was not yet a minister. Malcolm Templeton told me on 16 November 2002 that Paul Wolfowitz when interviewed, assured him that Lange told the Americans he would find a way for ship visits to proceed. H. Monroe Browne, the American Ambassador in Wellington, gave his version of the meeting of 16 July 1984 in the Dominion, 1 November 1985, p.1. New Zealand's Acting Head of Mission in Washington at the time of the September meeting was John Wood. He agreed to be interviewed about it on 9 December 2002. Lange, gave his account of the meetings in Nuclear Free, pp.56-61.

16. The Guardian, 21 September 1984. Dominion, 9 October 1984, p.1.

17. Hensley observes that the plan was to secure an American ship which patently wasn't nuclear to the initiated, but about which there could be the necessary shadow of ambiguity. Hensley interview, p.23.

18. A report of O'Flynn's Hawaii visit appeared in the Dominion, 18 October 1984, p.2. On 23 October he presented his written report to Cabinet colleagues on his trip, but it was deemed sensitive and collected up before ministers had a chance to read it. Nonetheless, it's clear that O'Flynn had no information about Jamieson's November visit to Hawaii. On 19 November 1984 O'Flynn complained to me that he didn't know what was really going on within Foreign Affairs, his associate portfolio, but that he kept being lobbied by various groups as though he did. Note in Bassett Papers. In early December O'Flynn reassured Parliament that a solution to the differences with the US over ship visits was possible. Dominion, 6 December 1984, p.2.

19. Interview with Ambassador John Wood, 9 December 2002. Also interview with Helen Clark in Virginia Myers(ed), Head & Shoulders: Successful New Zealand Women talk to Virginia Myers, Auckland, 1986, p.174.

20. Letter to me from Sir Ewan Jamieson, 12 February 2003. Interview with Prime Minister Helen Clark, 1 March 2003.

21. See Ewan Jamieson, Friend or Ally? : New Zealand at Odds with its Past, Sydney, 1990, pp.2-3. Detail about these negotiations is contained in my interview with Sir Ewan Jamieson at Taupo on 1 June 2002. Also his letter to me of 12 February 2003. See also Peter Watson's "Letter from America", New Zealand Herald, 4 August 1987, editorial page. Admiral Crowe discussed American policy concerning ship visits to Japan in his interview with me on 4 December 2002. I am grateful to Bryce Wakefield for explaining Japan's "three non-nuclear principles" policy.

22. Hensley interview, p.25. McLean said somewhat the same in his interview, p.17. When I interviewed Admiral Crowe who was CINCPAC 1984-6 on 4 December 2002 he told me that the Buchanan was definitely not nuclear-armed.

23. Wilson, p.65.

24. Text of interview in Marcia Russell, New Zealand from Fortress to Free Market: Revolution, Auckland, 1996, p.92., Roderic Alley gives some of the story about the calculations behind this further embellishment to Labour policy in Jonathan Boston and Martin Holland, pp.202-206.

25. Margaret Wilson, Labour in Government, 1984-1987, Wellington, 1989, pp.64-65. McKinnon, in Brown(ed), New Zealand in World Affairs, 1972-1990, p.160. Pugh contains some detail, pp.126-131.

26. The words were used by Lange in a verbal report to Cabinet on the afternoon of 28 January 1985. Bassett Papers.

27. Lange's report on his Tokelau trip appears in CS(85)35, and is dated 28 January 1985. Bassett Papers. In it Lange mentions that he could have travelled from Samoa to the Tokelaus in a New Zealand naval ship, but preferred instead to share "the full spectrum" of Tokelauans' experiencies. Lange further recalled the trip in Dominion, 18 December 1985, p.1.

28. Notes of interview with Helen Clark, 1 March 2003, p.2. Gerald Hensley noted that American sources later told him that they had realised in December 1984 that Lange was undertaking none of the spadework necessary to sell the deal which his officials were working on. Interview,10 April 2002, pp.24-5. Monroe Browne made the same observation in the Dominion, 1 November 1985, p.1.

29. According to Sir Wallace Rowling in a note to Lange on 4 February 1985, Paul Wolfowitz firmly believed that "insufficient political preparation of public and party opinion in New Zealand which might have permitted an accommodation" was the cause of the rift. CS(85)52, Bassett Papers.

30. McKinnon in Brown(ed), p.160, footnote 77.

31. Lange, Nuclear Free, p.87. The sequence of events at the end of January 1985 was greatly assisted by the recollections of Gerald Hensley. Also Alley in Boston and Holland, pp.204-205.

32. Cabinet notes, 28/1/85, Bassett Papers.

33. Hensley interview, p.23.

34. Interview with Richard Teare, 9 October 2002. McLean's and Jamieson's advice was similar to that made by Bob Hawke in a letter to Lange that was leaked to the press at this time.

35. Jamieson tells of discovering one or other of them outside O'Flynn's office in January-February 1985, waiting for the next appointment with the minister. Jamieson interview. Also letter to me of 13 February 2003. Several Caucus members mentioned having discussed matters with Hager.

36. McLean interview, p.18.

37. Caucus notes, 31/1/85, Bassett Papers.

38. There is a lengthy report of Lange's visit to Los Angeles in the Dominion, 28 February 1985, p.1.

39. Dominion, 17 December 1985, p.1. Lange's report to Cabinet is dated 3 July 1986. CS(86)329. See Dominion, 30 June 1986, p.1.

40. Letter to me from Richard Teare, 31 December 2002, BP.

41. Denis McLean dates Shultz's determination to end any thought of further discussion with New Zealand to before Shultz met Lange in Manila in 1986 to tell him that we parted as friends. McLean interview.

42. For details of the Oxford Union debate I thank Bruce Brown, then DHC at the New Zealand High Commission in London. Brown provided information to me in a letter dated 18 November 2002, Bassett Papers.

43. Auckland Star, 9 March 1985, p.1.

44. Story recounted to Michael Bassett by Paul Cleveland, 14 October 2002.

45. Brian Edwards, Helen: Portrait of a Prime Minister, Auckland, 2001., p.204. Interview with Helen Clark, 1 March 2003. See also Jon Johansson, "Political Leadership in New Zealand: Theory and Practice,", PhD Thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2002, pp.320-323.

46. Crowe interview 4 December 2002. I am grateful to Ambassador RichardTeare for providing me the precise date of President Bush's announcement.