Bending over backwards, Nicky Hager

Friendly Fire: Nuclear Politics and the Collapse of ANZUS, 1984-1987
Gerald Hensley
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781869407414

Gerald Hensley is an intelligent man, a good researcher and a pleasing and witty writer. Friendly Fire is his third book, and about New Zealand’s mid-1980s nuclear politics. But, unlike his earlier books, this time he has written on a subject about which he is more bitter than witty.

Hensley was head of Prime Minister David Lange’s department at the climax of the nuclear-free campaigns. The book is a memoir of the grumpy New Zealand and allied officials who worked behind the scenes to try to thwart the introduction of the nuclear-free policy. When the Lange Government stuck to the policy upon which it had been elected, they felt it personally and often angrily.

Hensley’s outlook is evident right from the book’s title, which portrays the nuclear-free issue as New Zealand inflicting harm on its own side, the United States. Throughout the book US actions are presented as “carefully considered” and thoroughly justified. It had “bent over backwards to try to meet New Zealand’s demands”. This refers to officials like Paul Wolfowitz, the Cold War hawk who later returned in George W Bush’s administration, pushing for the invasion of Iraq. In contrast, David Lange and his supporters are painted as flaky, naive and dishonest.

Hensley gained access to New Zealand, British, Australian and US archives, and the book is packed with interesting source material. But whether you appreciate it depends greatly on whether you share his world view.

If you are receptive to suggestions that the “US effort” in Vietnam was a “tactical failure” but a “very large strategic success”, that the New Zealand anti-nuclear movement was being manipulated by the KGB, that the nuclear-free policy was the “worst mistake made ever in the country’s foreign policy”, and that the best course for the country was to continue as the “long-standing ally” that had “stood with the US” through a succession of Asian wars, then the book will ring true and its judgments will be satisfying.

But if you don’t share this outlook, the book feels partisan and lacking in balance. My history student daughter’s reaction was “who let the dinosaur out?”

Like that of many older New Zealanders, Hensley’s political outlook evolved during the Vietnam War years. But he is part of the other Vietnam generation: the ones who supported the war. At the height of anti-war protests, he was based in New Zealand’s Washington embassy, liaising with US intelligence agencies. The book defends the war because “to many it looked as if the dominoes were poised to fall”, meaning South-east Asian countries falling to communism.

There is no mention of the million people killed in the Vietnam War nor of the many historians who now see the Vietcong as a nationalist movement. To Hensley, it was about holding back “Communism” (with a capital “c”) and, just as importantly, helping strengthen military ties with the US. “Australia and New Zealand gained a special status in Washington,” he writes, “their wider access and influence re-inforced by the reluctance of other members of the [WWII] wartime club – Britain and Canada – to join the war.” This outlook foreshadows his similar attitudes to nuclear deterrence and New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy.

The focus of the book is the years 1984 to 1987, when the nuclear-free policy came into existence. It tells the story of the New Zealand, US and British officials who worked together to try to stop the nuclear policy. Hensley is open about their aims. Other western nations had “faced down” their publics when they called for nuclear-free policies. Japan had a strict nuclear-free policy but “turn[ed] a blind eye” to blatantly nuclear-armed vessels stationed in the country (their policy relied, Hensley says, on “delicate understandings which could not stand too much daylight”). The Australian government had promised the public a nuclear ship ban and then dropped it in the interests of what Hensley calls “Western solidarity”. The officials set out to achieve something similar with New Zealand’s policy.

Hensley was at the centre of these bureaucratic efforts. In August 1984 he joined the Chief of Defence Force and Secretary of Defence in an informal “working group” to “search for a way through”. The plan they eventually agreed upon involved arranging a visit by a US warship that had nuclear weapon systems but which was not likely to be nuclear-armed during the visit. This ambiguous ship would allow the US Navy to say it hadn’t yielded to New Zealand’s policy and the New Zealand government to say it was comfortable with the visit. US officials emphasised that more “contentious” warship visits would have to follow.

In other words, it was a bureaucratic sleight of hand. Since the US Navy wouldn’t confirm or deny which ships were nuclear-armed, letting in a possibly armed ship was a slippery slope to any warships coming. The aim was a nuclear-free policy in name only, a policy acceptable to the US government so the ANZUS alliance could continue undisturbed.

These same officials encouraged Lange to believe they could find a way to have the nuclear-free policy while keeping the US government happy. Lange allowed them to work on the plan but eventually it collided with reality. When the first warship request arrived, for an old warship called the USS Buchanan, Lange realised that “not very likely” to be nuclear-armed was not consistent with a real nuclear-free policy. The Buchanan was refused, New Zealand was excluded from the ANZUS treaty and pro-alliance officials such as Hensley have never got over their frustration at failing to pull off their plans.

Most of the book is the story of this unsuccessful bureaucratic campaign, including lots of blame and criticism of Lange for not moving public opinion behind their proposed solution. It is the pro-ANZUS officials’ version of this important piece of the country’s history. It tells their story well but it goes on longer than a general reader might want.

I’ve thought a lot about the book seeming so unbalanced. I know from my writing that the key to trying to be fair and balanced (even when I have my own views) is talking to a wide range of people. When, for instance, I sit down with ordinary soldiers, intelligence officers or senior officials, a natural process occurs where I don’t just collect information but I am listening to their point of view. I have approached them from the starting point that they are decent people. I imagine them reading what I’ve written and judging whether I have been fair to them.

I think this is where Hensley’s book falls down. He wants it to be history. He writes: “Views are still sharply divided between those who see [the nuclear policy] as the worst mistake made ever in the country’s foreign policy, and those who regard it as the dawn of true national independence. All the historian can do is to recount as dispassionately and accurately as possible … .” But the book is about as dispassionate as a party manifesto. He is participant more than historian.

The book makes more sense when we see who was interviewed and who was not. Michael Bassett’s bitter and twisted version of the Buchanan story was, for Hensley, “an indispensable background” (Bassett is the former Labour Party MP who swung far to the right, including drafting Don Brash’s infamous anti-Maori Orewa speech). Another key Lange government source, including on a crucial issue of whether Lange lied to his colleagues, is former Labour MP and later ACT Party leader Richard Prebble. It is hard to imagine a less reliable historical source. Nearly all the people Hensley interviewed, whom he calls “all the significant participants”, were officials and politicians who opposed the nuclear policy.

Hensley’s prejudices seem to have got in the way of his interviewing anyone from the anti-nuclear movement. The role of the public, media, scientists, doctors and everyone else who had dreamed up and worked for years for the nuclear-free policy – the democratic part of the story – is dismissed as a “PR campaign” and given only about a paragraph of the book.

Instead, he often refers to the anti-nuclear movement just as “the Left”. It is caricatured and put down, trivialising the position supported by a majority of the public. Even though he disagreed with these people, talking to them and taking them seriously would have made this a better history.


Nicky Hager lives in Wellington and has written five books about New Zealand politics, the military and intelligence agencies.


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