By Richard W. Teare
Almost thirty years ago, a new Labour Party government in New Zealand, headed by Prime Minister David Lange, instituted an anti-nuclear policy that denied access to the country’s ports by vessels of the U.S. Navy, except under conditions that would have contravened the U.S. policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence or absence of nuclear weapons aboard its ships. In response, the United States imposed heavy military and diplomatic sanctions on the Kiwis. When New Zealand enacted its policy into law, the United States declared that it could no longer meet its obligation to defend New Zealand under the ANZUS Treaty of 1951.
Why and how did this breach come about? Gerald Hensley, head of the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Department at the time, has supplied definitive answers in Friendly Fire: Nuclear Politics & the Collapse of ANZUS, 1984-1987, published in May by the Auckland University Press. (Disclosure: This writer was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Wellington for much of the period and a source for Hensley’s book.)
Hensley’s position at the PM’s Department made him the public official closest to Lange, and he was one of the handful of New Zealand government officers privy to efforts authorized by Lange to choose, in coordination with U.S. officials, an innocuous vessel for an initial port call. Lange’s negotiator was Air Marshal Ewan Jamieson, the Chief of Defence Staff. The ship chosen was a middle-aged destroyer, U.S.S. Buchanan, but when the port call was requested, Lange – in the face of opposition from within his own party and from a vocal anti-nuclear movement – wavered and asked for a supposedly more ambiguous frigate instead. The U.S. declined.
Jamieson, a deeply honorable man, died in March 2013. In retirement, he spoke out against the government’s anti-nuclear policy, as did several other retired flag officers. Lange derided them as “geriatric generals.”
Hensley portrays Lange, accurately, as a brilliant and witty but insecure and at times duplicitous politician who did not practice consultation, shunned preparatory work, and avoided confrontation. The book draws on archival research in Wellington, Canberra, Washington and London and on interviews with numerous participants, including former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who had to deal with his own party’s left wing over issues of port access.
Hensley also interviewed former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who had met twice with Lange in 1984 and felt betrayed by the Buchanan decision. Nevertheless, Shultz dispatched veteran diplomat Philip Habib to Wellington in November 1985 for an unannounced meeting with Lange to determine whether there was any chance of salvaging the situation. Habib told Shultz he “saw no sign of flexibility.” After his final meeting with Lange, in 1986, Shultz pronounced: “We part company as friends, but we part company as far as the alliance is concerned.”
One of the author’s major sources is Working With David: Inside the Lange Cabinet by Michael Bassett. Bassett, Lange’s distant cousin, who, like several Cabinet colleagues who might have supported a different course, was kept in the dark until the issue was settled.
Hensley skillfully weaves together several important elements: public opinion in New Zealand; bitter reactions by senior political and military leaders in the United States and Australia to New Zealand’s policy and Lange’s behavior; and the potential damage to U.S. and Western interests in Japan and some NATO countries. He provides accounts that have not appeared elsewhere of internal U.S. Government debates, and of unavailing diplomatic efforts by the British to promote a resolution.
In the years since 1987, virtually all of the sanctions imposed by the United States have been lifted, and relations are now at a “new normal,” though U.S. Navy vessels do not call at New Zealand ports. Hensley’s book is indispensable to an understanding of the history of bilateral relations and of an episode that was seen for a time as a threat to the solidarity of the wider Western alliance.