Page 4: Nuclear politics
Lange, David Russell
Lawyer, politician, prime minister
This biography, written by Barry Gustafson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
David Lange was minister of foreign affairs as well as prime minister from 1984 to 1987. During that time he came to personify New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy, although he was not one of its major initiators.
By 1984, there was considerable opposition to nuclear-armed or nuclear-propelled United States navy ships visiting New Zealand. Lange accepted that ships possibly carrying nuclear weapons should be banned but at first was less certain about nuclear-powered ships. He also wanted to find a way to exclude nuclear ships without irreparably damaging the ANZUS treaty with the United States and Australia. Others in his party, however, opposed nuclear-powered as well as possibly nuclear-armed vessels and were not at all worried if ANZUS ceased to exist.
Visit of USS Buchanan
When, in January 1985, the Americans refused to confirm or deny whether an old, conventionally propelled destroyer, USS Buchanan, was carrying nuclear weapons, the Labour government refused to let it enter New Zealand. The Americans regarded this as a breach of the ANZUS alliance, and some senior US officials, such as Secretary of State George Shultz, believed that Lange had misled them. The US suspended military ties with New Zealand, although, to Lange’s and New Zealand’s relief, trade was not affected.
Oxford Union debate
US displeasure was exacerbated later that year when Lange defended New Zealand’s non-nuclear position in a widely publicised debate at the Oxford Union in England, speaking in support of the proposition ‘That nuclear weapons are morally indefensible’.
In 1987, the Labour government passed the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone Disarmament and Arms Control Act. By 1990 even the National Party had accepted the irreversibility of New Zealand’s nuclear-free position.
Rainbow Warrior attack
Another nation annoyed by New Zealand’s stance on nuclear weapons was France, which had been testing them at Moruroa (Mururoa) atoll in the South Pacific since 1963. New Zealand had resolutely opposed this for over 20 years.
On 10 July 1985 the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior arrived in Auckland before sailing to Moruroa to continue the protests. Frogmen from the French secret service mined the ship and sank it at its berth, causing the death of a crew member. Two of the French agents, Major Alain Mafart and Captain Dominique Prieur, were apprehended, convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Unlike the Americans, the French government had no qualms about threatening to apply pressure against New Zealand exports. In June 1986 Lange was reluctantly forced to allow the transfer of Mafart and Prieur to the French island of Hao. By May 1988 they had been freed and returned to France. France belatedly apologised and paid a token compensation but there was little support for New Zealand from Britain or the United States, both still annoyed over the nuclear ships issue.