Story: Cold War

The Cold War existed between 1945 and 1991, with New Zealand aligned for the most part with the Western powers and making contributions in Berlin and South-East Asia. Growing anti-nuclear sentiment in the 1980s ended US ship visits to New Zealand, which led to the suspension of the country from ANZUS.

Story by Gerald Hensley
Main image: Liam Jeory straddles the Berlin Wall

Story summary

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The Cold War was a struggle between the world’s communist countries (especially the Soviet Union and China) and the capitalist democracies (especially the United States). It lasted from the end of the Second World War (in 1945) until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. It was largely a war of threats and ideas, although in some places, such as Korea and Vietnam, there was actual fighting.


After the Second World War New Zealand and the other Western Allies came to distrust the Soviet Union (which had fought alongside them in the war). Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill suggested there was an ‘iron curtain’ across Europe, with much of Eastern Europe under Soviet control.

People thought there would be a third world war, and New Zealand agreed to support Britain if there was conflict in the Middle East. New Zealand fought alongside the US in the Korean War (1950–53) between communist North Korea and US-aligned South Korea.

In 1951 the ANZUS military defence treaty between New Zealand, Australia and the US was signed.

South-East Asia

China had become communist in 1949, and political instability spread through South-East Asian countries, most of which had been European colonies and were now becoming independent. New Zealand joined SEATO (the South East Asia Treaty Organization), hoping to stop the spread of communism. New Zealand troops served in Malaya, and in the Vietnam War alongside the US, supporting South Vietnam against communist North Vietnam.

Questioning the Cold War

In the 1960s some countries had formed the non-aligned movement, and did not take sides in the Cold War. The US and the Soviet Union (known as ‘superpowers’) were producing huge numbers of nuclear weapons, supposedly to deter one another from attacking first. New Zealanders questioned this massive growth in weapons, and opposed nuclear testing in the Pacific.

Last decade

In the 1980s the nuclear arms race continued. In 1988 both sides agreed to reduce weapon stocks. However, many people felt that nuclear war was still possible and might destroy civilisation. New Zealanders protested against visits by nuclear-armed US ships, and in 1987 these visits were banned. The US suspended its defence agreement with New Zealand, isolating it from ANZUS.

In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War.

Attitudes to communism

New Zealanders were mostly tolerant of communism. However, for a brief period in the 1950s, some communist-party members lost their government jobs.

How to cite this page:

Gerald Hensley, 'Cold War', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

Story by Gerald Hensley, published 20 June 2012