Nuclear free-ish, Nicky Hager

Standing Upright Here: New Zealand in the Nuclear Age 1945-1990
Malcolm Templeton
Victoria University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0864735405

First impressions suggest this is the kind of worthy and dense book few people will get around to reading. That would be a mistake and a great pity. Malcolm Templeton’s history of 45 years of nuclear policy in New Zealand is a fascinating read, providing the inside story (based on official files) on issues that have stirred and motivated two generations of New Zealanders.

The events it covers have had a defining influence on our national beliefs and politics: the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; British and US nuclear testing in the Pacific (including an alarming high-altitude US explosion that David Lange and many others saw from New Zealand in 1958); French nuclear testing and Norman Kirk’s advocacy of New Zealand as a principled, independent small nation; and perhaps our nation’s most dramatic independent act, the 1980s ban on nuclear-armed and -powered ships and the consequent demise of the ANZUS alliance.

Templeton documents the behind-the-scenes actions and words of the politicians and the foreign affairs and military officials involved in these events. Drawing, as the book does, on confidential files (including near-verbatim records of important meetings with their British and US equivalents), we get to see what was going on inside government, including entire episodes about which the public heard nothing.

The book begins with the New Zealand scientists who helped develop atomic weapons during WWII. Within weeks of those bombs being dropped on Japan, the New Zealand Council of Scientific and Industrial Research passed a resolution urging the government that any further work on atomic energy be an international project “developed in the interests of all and to be available to all”. According to Ernest Marsden (head of the DSIR), the unanimous view of senior New Zealand scientists was that atomic science should not “be shackled by prostitution to nationalistic military ends”.

Soon after, in October 1945, Marsden wrote again about the potential benefits of atomic energy but warning of the dangers of atomic weaponry, “potentially destructive beyond the wildest nightmares of the human imagination”. Were we, he asked, about to start a race for the production of atomic bombs and methods of delivering them? Ten weeks after the Hiroshima bomb, he was expressing concerns that most New Zealanders would come to share, and predicting events that would shape international and New Zealand politics for decades.

Many New Zealand scientists remained strongly opposed to nuclear weaponry in the following decades. In contrast, throughout the book we see plenty of foreign affairs and military officials strongly attuned to acting in the best interests of their British and American allies and giving almost unconditional backing to those countries’ nuclear weapon strategies. Internal documents show them repeatedly advising or manoeuvring their ministers into support for (or at least not opposition to) the Anglo-American nuclear deterrent.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, this meant avoiding criticism of US and British nuclear testing, while never missing an opportunity to criticise Soviet nuclear testing. When disarmament resolutions were debated in the United Nations, there would be delicately worded advice to the government such as that the resolutions “raised certain difficulties for countries such as New Zealand which rely for their defence on the deterrent effect of American nuclear weapons.” New Zealand’s UN representative Frank Corner, who epitomised the hardliners, “continued to advocate a harder [pro-alliance] line than the Government’s advisers in Wellington”.

Later, as someone involved in the nuclear-free issue, I concluded that the strongest local opponents of the policy were foreign affairs officials. Templeton’s book confirms a long history of this.

It also presents foreign affairs officials who worked hard to advance disarmament initiatives – including, as the reader gradually realises, the author Malcolm Templeton. He had also been a New Zealand UN representative and clearly did his professional best to achieve the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone. He appears to be one of the “Norman Kirk generation” of foreign affairs officials, people attracted to the idea of independent small nation rather than compliant ally. This may explain why he has been willing to do the extraordinary amount of work required to produce this history.

Half of the book’s 500 pages are devoted to French nuclear testing and the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, the issues on which Templeton himself worked. Some of this got a bit long for me, notably a chapter on the nuclear-free zone treaty negotiations. But mostly it is interesting. Straight after this come nuclear-powered ship visits and the impending collision between the nuclear-free policy and ANZUS alliance.

We see Prime Minister Robert Muldoon actively encouraging, from 1976, the US to send nuclear ships and submarines and hoping thereby to wear down public opposition. He asked for appropriate timing, like “Dunedin in winter when it would be too cold for picketing!” As Templeton summarises, “There was, it seems, no operational need for [nuclear-powered warship] visits to this part of the South Pacific; their purpose was primarily political.”

The Labour Party had had a policy of stopping nuclear ship visits for several years before it became the government in 1984, but foreign affairs and military officials still assumed they could find a way to stop the policy being implemented. They persuaded the Lange Government to work out an “accommodation” that would be acceptable to the Americans. This two-year effort (1984-1986) is revealed in full here for the first time. It included Labour privately offering to review (and eventually drop) the policy banning nuclear-powered ships, and great efforts to accommodate visits by US warships without their having to confirm or deny whether they were carrying nuclear weapons.

Eventually it became clear that the only accommodation the US Government was willing to accept was the New Zealand Government backing down completely. The US State Department said it would only consider “restoration of ‘normal access’ for the types of vessels which had traditionally visited New Zealand – frigates, destroyers and attack submarines.” The meaning of “normal access” was made clear by US Secretary of State George Shultz in a private meeting with Geoffrey Palmer, when he said that “over a period of time you would have to assume that some of our visiting vessels would carry nuclear arms.” That is, a nuclear-free policy in name only.

Although the author concludes that a compromise preserving the nuclear-free policy was probably impossible, his description of the 1984-85 negotiations is presented from the perspective of officials who were seeking the accommodation, and is negative about the public pressure that managed to stop this sort of backdown. He describes the nuclear-free groups as “doctrinaire” for not being willing to agree to a visit by a US warship that was equipped for nuclear weapons but that officials judged “unlikely” to have them on that visit. As the Secretary of Foreign Affairs Merwyn Norrish explained in a confidential briefing, this sort of “understanding … may well have to incorporate an element of trust.”

The nuclear-free groups argued that, even if the first ship might not be nuclear-armed, accepting ambiguously armed ships was a slippery slope towards “normal access”. This was not a doctrinaire position. It was about whether the nuclear-free policy would be genuine or cosmetic. There were plenty of examples of cosmetic nuclear-free policies as warnings, in countries like Japan, where the full range of US Navy vessels regularly visit, and there is no doubt some are nuclear-armed.

Templeton appears to have based this section of the book on interviews with many of the very people who had tried to talk the Labour Government into accepting ambiguously armed ships – and no interviews with anyone who opposed them. He also interviewed and cites writing by Michael Bassett about this, describing him as a “leading historian”. But, like various of the former officials interviewed, Bassett is a bitter critic of the nuclear-free policy who would gladly have accepted a Japanese-type version. If these officials and politicians had got their way, the “nuclear-free” policy would be a disappointing little footnote in our history by now.

It is a pity these people’s perspective (and their negativity towards the nuclear-free policy and its international effect) influenced this section of Standing Upright Here. Even though the book relies primarily on official sources, and gets most of its value from those, an historian should go beyond ex-officials’ prejudices. This, though, is a relatively minor criticism. The book is excellent: a gold mine of interesting material, it is readable and intelligent, and deserves much more attention than it has so far received.


Nicky Hager’s The Hollow Men was reviewed in our December 2006 issue.


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