New Zealand Closes Ports to U.S. Nuclear Warships Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In a controversial move that sparked international debate, the New Zealand government decided to deny port access to U.S. warships carrying nuclear arms.

Summary of Event

New Zealand’s antinuclear policy, in particular the banning of nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed vessels from the nation’s waters, sparked controversy within the Australia-New Zealand-United States (ANZUS) alliance and aroused worldwide interest and debate. The antinuclear stance formed a key element of Prime Minister David Lange’s Labour Party platform during the 1984 national election New Zealand, when he unseated longtime Prime Minister Robert Muldoon of the National Party. Subsequent public opinion polls in New Zealand endorsed the government’s antinuclear policy. Nuclear weapons;opposition New Zealand;antinuclear policy Weapons;nuclear [kw]New Zealand Closes Ports to U.S. Nuclear Warships (Feb. 4, 1985) [kw]New Zealand Closes Ports to U.S. Nuclear Warships (Feb. 4, 1985) [kw]Ports to U.S. Nuclear Warships, New Zealand Closes (Feb. 4, 1985) [kw]U.S. Nuclear Warships, New Zealand Closes Ports to (Feb. 4, 1985) [kw]Nuclear Warships, New Zealand Closes Ports to U.S. (Feb. 4, 1985) [kw]Warships, New Zealand Closes Ports to U.S. Nuclear (Feb. 4, 1985) Nuclear weapons;opposition New Zealand;antinuclear policy Weapons;nuclear [g]Australia/New Zealand;Feb. 4, 1985: New Zealand Closes Ports to U.S. Nuclear Warships[05680] [g]Oceania;Feb. 4, 1985: New Zealand Closes Ports to U.S. Nuclear Warships[05680] [g]Polynesia;Feb. 4, 1985: New Zealand Closes Ports to U.S. Nuclear Warships[05680] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Feb. 4, 1985: New Zealand Closes Ports to U.S. Nuclear Warships[05680] [c]Environmental issues;Feb. 4, 1985: New Zealand Closes Ports to U.S. Nuclear Warships[05680] Lange, David Weinberger, Caspar Hawke, Robert Shultz, George P.

The issue came to a head in early February, 1985, with the New Zealand government’s refusal to approve a requested port visit by a U.S. warship, the USS Buchanan. Buchanan (ship) The request was denied because the New Zealand government was unable to satisfy its concerns that the vessel was not armed with nuclear weapons. The U.S. government, like other nuclear powers, maintained a strict policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear weapons aboard its vessels. In turning down this particular ship visit, the New Zealand government made it clear that it would continue to welcome port visits of allies, including U.S. warships, provided they were only conventionally powered and armed.

At a press conference held on February 4, 1985, U.S. State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb Kalb, Bernard outlined the U.S. position in regard to New Zealand’s denial of the request. The visit by the USS Buchanan was to take place in March, 1985, in connection with an ANZUS treaty exercise known as Sea Eagle. Sea Eagle naval exercise Kalb noted that the United States was deeply disturbed by New Zealand’s decision to deny port access to a U.S. Navy ship that was contributing to the common defense of the ANZUS alliance. He commented also that the U.S. government was considering appropriate responses to the denial, and that the United States would be discussing the situation with Australian prime minister Robert Hawke.

The United States further responded in late February by greatly reducing defense and intelligence cooperation with New Zealand. At issue was the operational character of the ANZUS alliance. The United States then completely withdrew from participation in the Sea Eagle exercise. In essence, the situation amounted to a disagreement about the level and nature of defense cooperation within the ANZUS framework. The core obligations of the three partners in the ANZUS treaty were to consult and to act to meet common danger in accordance with constitutional processes.

The 1951 Security Treaty Between Australia, New Zealand, and the United States of America, commonly known as the ANZUS pact, ANZUS pact established formal security cooperation for the three countries, which shared a common heritage that could be traced from their founding as colonial settlements and that was strengthened by their World War II partnership. The period of wartime cooperation, however, showed that a common language did not erase sometimes sharp differences in national sentiments and approaches. Moreover, a shared preference for a democratic system did not automatically translate into agreement on postwar political arrangements in the Pacific region.

Prime Minister Lange maintained that, unlike the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the ANZUS alliance had been regarded by the treaty partners as a conventional alliance, not a nuclear alliance. He argued that the treaty did not oblige New Zealand to accept nuclear weapons. The U.S. government countered that if New Zealand wished to have an effective defense relationship with the United States, then New Zealand must accept nuclear weapons. During a visit to Los Angeles on February 26, 1985, Lange stated that the differences between the two countries were not beyond resolution if both parties wished to resolve them.

Speaking at an internationally televised debate at Oxford University on March 1, 1985, Lange pointed out that New Zealand had never been part of the strategic defenses of the West. The nuclear weapons that its allies had brought to New Zealand in the past were tactical weapons. He noted that being a part of somebody else’s tactical nuclear battle was as undesirable as being part of somebody else’s strategic nuclear battle. He also observed that although New Zealand had been accused of undermining the West and giving comfort to the Soviet bloc, the decision of the New Zealand government in no way weakened the deterrent power of the Western alliance.

On March 5, 1985, Lange addressed the U.N. Conference on Disarmament Conference on Disarmament, U.N. (1985) in Geneva, Switzerland. At this meeting, he noted that two factors guided his government’s action: long-standing public concern in New Zealand about nuclear weapons testing by France in the South Pacific and the fact that New Zealand had excluded all nuclear weapons from its territory because it was not part of any global or regional nuclear strategy. He further revealed that the ANZUS alliance had no formal command structure and imposed no specific military obligations on its members. His view of ANZUS was that it was a conventional alliance and useful as a means of interaction among the conventional forces of three countries of broadly similar outlook and interest in the region. Given that understanding, New Zealand was a willing participant.

On March 6, 1985, New Zealand’s high commissioner to Australia, Graham Ansell, Ansell, Graham took an early opportunity to outline New Zealand’s nuclear policy at a meeting of the Institute of International Affairs in Canberra, Australia. He indicated that New Zealand had no illusions about its size or importance in the world and recognized, on this most fundamental issue facing humankind, that it was the Soviet Union and the United States, the major nuclear states, that had to summon the political will and create the bilateral confidence in one another to make real progress in disarmament. He admitted that New Zealand’s role was limited but maintained that New Zealand would continue to urge mutual, balanced, verifiable, and significant reductions in nuclear weapons. He believed that the ANZUS pact had the flexibility to continue without the necessity of nuclear weapons.

On December 10, 1985, Lange fulfilled a campaign pledge by introducing the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Bill New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Bill (1987) in the nation’s parliament. The bill, which became law in 1987, excluded nuclear weapons from New Zealand and completely disengaged that nation from any nuclear strategy for its own defense. In Lange’s view, the bill was wholly compatible with all of New Zealand’s international obligations, including the one New Zealand had formerly assumed under the ANZUS treaty. In response to the bill, Paul Wolfowitz, Wolfowitz, Paul the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, stated that the United States would terminate its alliance commitment with New Zealand if the New Zealand parliament enacted such legislation.


New Zealand’s action created considerable international discussion and debate. It underscored the frustration felt throughout the world with the escalation of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although it was motivated by antinuclear, not anti-U.S., sentiments, New Zealand’s decision angered many in the United States. After several failed attempts by American and Australian diplomats and their New Zealand counterparts to arrive at a compromise, the United States terminated its defense arrangement with New Zealand. In a joint communiqué issued on August 12, 1986, the U.S. secretary of state, George P. Shultz, and the Australian minister of foreign affairs announced that the United States was suspending its obligations to New Zealand under the ANZUS pact, pending adequate corrective measures over visits by nuclear ships.

Lange’s Labour government’s first term, 1984-1987, was indelibly associated with the implementation of New Zealand’s nuclear-free defense policy. For the New Zealand government, however, there was considerable political risk in becoming embroiled in a major diplomatic dispute with the United States. When Lange’s Labour government came to power in 1984, there was strong, but not majority, support for the ban on nuclear warships. After the ban was legislated, public opinion was consolidated behind it, and by the time of the 1987 election, Labour had gained substantial majority support for its position.

Nevertheless, the collapse of ANZUS (which before that time had been the cornerstone of New Zealand’s defense policy) following the ban, along with the generally estranged relations with the United States, resulted in political cost for the Labour government. This was particularly significant because the need for a place in the Western alliance, expressed through a defense arrangement with the major powers, was deeply embedded in the New Zealand political culture. Even though the Labour Party won the 1987 election, polls showed that more than 60 percent of the voters supported a defense alliance with the United States, while less than 20 percent opposed it. The major support for defense arrangements with the United States came from the National Party, more than 80 percent of the members of which supported defense ties. When poll respondents were asked to consider a trade-off for U.S. defense that meant that nuclear ships would be permitted in New Zealand, however, opposition to defense with the United States rose from 30 percent to 77 percent for the Labour Party and fell from 47 percent to 20 percent for the National Party.

The depth of antinuclear sentiment among members of the New Zealand public surprised New Zealand politicians and dismayed and irked their counterparts in the United States. In April, 1989, the retiring U.S. ambassador to New Zealand, Paul Cleveland, Cleveland, Paul spoke scornfully of the nuclear ban as he departed the country. In response, Lange, in a controversial speech at Yale University, acknowledged that ANZUS was dead. This statement stirred consternation in his critics and provoked renewed debate in New Zealand’s parliament. The distribution of public opinion on the issues of nuclear ships and defense ties remained fairly stable, however, with strong support for both the antinuclear stance and the defense tie with the United States.

By the next election in 1990, there was, surprisingly, less direct opposition to the Labour government’s antinuclear policy among the members of the National Party than there was among Labour voters. The effect of the National Party’s change of position appeared to have raised hopes for a negotiated compromise between New Zealand and the United States without abandonment of the ban on nuclear warships. The National Party defeated the Labour government in 1990, and the new government took steps to restore defense ties with the United States. In response to this initiative, the U.S. Navy substantially reduced the deployment of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific, and the New Zealand government established a distinction between ships that may be nuclear armed and those that are merely nuclear powered as a basis for reviving the ANZUS relationship.

The collapse of communism around the world in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s removed the primary threat that had given rise to ANZUS, but the relations of both Australia and New Zealand with the United States continued to evolve along cooperative lines. ANZUS began focusing on such issues as the East Timor conflict and, later, the international war on terrorism that emerged after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, although no formal renegotiation of the treaty had taken place. Nuclear weapons;opposition New Zealand;antinuclear policy Weapons;nuclear

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, Richard W., ed. Australia, New Zealand, and the United States: Internal Change and Alliance Relations in the ANZUS States. New York: Praeger, 1991. Explores the history of the ANZUS alliance and the reason for the New Zealand-U.S. disagreement over port access for nuclear-armed warships. Includes contributions from noted authorities on the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boston, Jonathan, John Martin, June Pallot, and Pat Walsh, eds. Reshaping the State: New Zealand’s Bureaucratic Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Addresses the restructuring of New Zealand since 1984, when the governing National Party was defeated by the Labour Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levine, Stephen, and Paul Harris, eds. The New Zealand Politics Source Book. 3d ed. Palmerson North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press, 1999. Provides a comprehensive view of the evolution of New Zealand’s political system. Discusses all of the major political parties active in the country, both past and present.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Nuclear Policy Sparks Debate.” New Zealand Foreign Affairs Review 35 (January-March, 1985): 3-17. Reviews the events leading up to the closure of New Zealand ports to U.S. warships and the debate between Prime Minister Lange and U.S. officials over the incident. Written primarily from the New Zealand perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Templeton, Malcolm. Standing Upright Here: New Zealand in the Nuclear Age, 1945-1990. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press, 2007. Describes the evolution of thought and policy in New Zealand concerning nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vowles, Jack, and Peter Aimer. The Voters’ Vengeance: The 1990 Election in New Zealand and the Fate of the Fourth Labour Government. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press, 1993. Documents the dramatic parliamentary transformations that took place in the New Zealand government following the 1990 elections, in which the National Party was returned to power. Discusses New Zealand’s attempts to reestablish a defense arrangement with the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Westerskov, Kim, and Keith Probert. The Seas Around New Zealand. London: Reed, 1981. Documents the role the seas have played in New Zealand’s history. Contains excellent discussions of the ocean’s natural history, physical features, and commercial possibilities. Well illustrated.

Europeans Demonstrate Against Nuclear Weapons

Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty

Bush Announces Nuclear Arms Reductions

United States and Russia Reach Nuclear Arms Reduction Agreement

France Resumes Nuclear Testing

Categories: History