Back to the USSR, Terence O’Brien

New Zealand and the Soviet Union, 1950-1991: A Brittle Relationship
A C Wilson
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 086473476X

Lenin’s Legacy Down Under: New Zealand’s Cold War
ed Alexander Trapeznik and Aaron Fox
Otago University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1877276901

Reviewing two such books in tandem, there is an inevitable temptation to compare them. For the reader interested in the history of New Zealand foreign policy-making but, like the present reviewer, unfamiliar with the intricacies of this country’s Cold War relationship with the Soviet Union, Tony Wilson’s history is a balanced, rounded and even-paced narrative. It contains insights about, and sketches of, the broader developments affecting the Soviet Union, interwoven with the complexities of New Zealand-Soviet relations.

Those relations, as the author emphasises, loomed larger in New Zealand than they ever did in the Soviet Union throughout the 40 years spanned by the book. That is the nature indeed of much New Zealand foreign policy. Vigorous anti-Soviet rhetoric by successive New Zealand leaders – Holland, Holyoake, Muldoon – was calculated to provide domestic political mileage, and offer assurance internationally of New Zealand’s solid anti-communist credentials. Yet, as Wilson demonstrates effectively, such theatre was never allowed by official or commercial New Zealand to obstruct the pursuit of rewarding trade relationships as well as dealings over fisheries and a joint interest in Antarctica. Over the 1970-1980 period, in particular, when New Zealand confronted profound external trade adjustment following British entry into the EEC, the Soviet market became vital to the survival of the New Zealand primary sector in key export commodities like dairy produce and meat. Wilson indeed suggests this country owes a great deal to the accomplishments of a small group of unsung heroes – traders and government officials – who operated in the Soviet Union over that period and did not allow ideological or other differences to divert their commitment.

Wilson’s book fills gaps. It relates the fascinating but unsuccessful request for political asylum in 1967 by Stalin’s daughter, which the New Zealand government of the day kept a close secret.  Its treatment of New Zealand-Soviet relations in the period following the introduction of the New Zealand non-nuclear policy in the mid-1980s is absorbing. The Soviets (or at least some of their ambassadors in Wellington) rather clumsily sought to extend an embrace towards New Zealand, an embrace which disconcerted political leaders and officials as they strove to placate the US, which was furious over its perception of New Zealand delinquency. The resultant cold-shouldering of the USSR by Prime Minister David Lange prompted, as Wilson recounts, the Soviet foreign minister to observe that “it was short-sighted of New Zealand to settle its dispute with the US, by cooling down its relations with the Soviet Union.” Within five years the end of the Cold War turned all of this into history, but fascinating history nonetheless.

The second book, Lenin’s Legacy Down Under, comprises contributions from 10 authors (one of them Wilson himself). The quality of the contributions varies. The book flatters to deceive, moreover, by including, as its first contribution, a potboiling piece of barely three pages by the leading American historian and analyst of the Cold War period, the Yale Professor John Lewis Gaddis, author of several important books, including We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. Any reader who selects Lenin’s Legacy Down Under expecting a meaty offering from the doyen of American Cold War expertise will be disappointed, although what Gaddis says, peremptorily, is admirable enough.

Notwithstanding the book’s sub-title – New Zealand’s Cold War – it would be stretching things to describe it as a comprehensive review of New Zealand and its international relations during the Cold War period. Individual chapters do repay study, including those by Anne Marie Brady on New Zealand and China, and by James Bennett on the relations between the New Zealand labour movement and international communism. Barry Gustafson’s piece on New Zealand and the Cold War represents good potted history, although its treatment of the country’s relations with the USSR is, naturally enough, thin when set alongside the Wilson book.

Jim Rolfe’s offering on New Zealand defence policy in the Cold War, compiled with the benefit of access to official documents, is straightforward if  laconic. It describes New Zealand’s participation in the “hot wars” of the Cold War as professional but limited. It affirms New Zealand was unwilling, in the last analysis, ever to commit to the necessary military capacity to back up the nominal, or formal, Cold War commitments accepted by various New Zealand governments in security relationships with other like-minded countries. Rolfe concludes that this is a reflection of deeper doubts held by New Zealand policy-makers about the issues underlying the Cold War.

Perhaps the intriguing contribution is the final piece which comprises a transcript by one of the editors of two interviews with Gerald McGhie, who was New Zealand’s ambassador in Moscow at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. (McGhie also served at an earlier time as deputy in the New Zealand embassy.) His first-hand knowledge is thus undeniable. However, his contribution should really be read as a postscript to the Wilson book and its studied approach, because the transcript includes some commendably pungent insights about actual diplomatic service in Moscow of a kind not normally included in such books. In parts the transcript reads almost as a stream of consciousness, and McGhie’s opinions will not all be shared by  others. But he has one or two important things to say, in particular about the need to cultivate in Wellington genuine understanding about Russia. Wilson, who had access to official papers, makes the same point but more obliquely when he notes that the foreign ministry made little sustained effort to build up expertise, preferring to rely on assessments from NATO and others. It may be argued from the overall record that this stood New Zealand in good enough stead.

Looking to the future, Wilson predicts a Russia under Vladimir Putin that is reverting to autocratic type. Be that as it may, Russia with its vast deposits of natural gas and oil will surely make its mark on 21st century international relations, including on regions of prime importance to New Zealand, such as East Asia. This country will surely need to improve its capacity for independent judgement.


Terence O’Brien is a former diplomat and senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review, War
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