Story: Cold War

Page 2. Beyond Europe, 1949 to 1955

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Middle East defence

The presence of large Soviet armies and the shattered state of European politics and economies suggested a third world war was inevitable. New Zealand reshaped its defence plans accordingly. The defence of Western Europe rested with the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) alliance established in 1949, but Britain was also concerned with protecting its Middle Eastern oil extraction operations. As part of the British Middle East defence, New Zealand agreed to provide an infantry division and supporting air and naval units if a third world war broke out. After its peacetime demobilisation New Zealand’s regular forces were small and a division could not be operational without introducing compulsory military training (CMT). Many supporters of Peter Fraser’s Labour government opposed conscription – as had Fraser during the First World War – but a subsequent referendum endorsed the CMT proposal.

Won the battle, lost the war

Fraser and his defence chiefs were convinced of the need to build up the army to help Britain check any Soviet move into the Middle East (it had already been a struggle to get Soviet troops out of northern Iran in 1946). Alister McIntosh, the head of the Prime Minister’s Department, told him he would lose the election if he pushed for compulsory military training. The 1949 referendum was successful, although many Labour voters (silently) protested by abstaining. Fraser duly lost the election later that year.

Korean War

New Zealand’s only post-Second World War fighting, however, was in Asia. The communist victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949 was followed by communist North Korea invading US-aligned South Korea in 1950 (Korea had been divided into two states in 1948). The Korean peninsula became the scene of bitter fighting. New Zealand despatched two frigates and an artillery regiment to join the American-led, 16-nation United Nations force endeavouring to check and repel the North Korean invasion. The regiment fought throughout the war (1950–53), including playing an important part in the desperate battle of Kapyong, after which China and North Korea agreed to peace talks at Panmunjom.


Signed in 1951, the ANZUS treaty – a mutual defence pact between Australia, New Zealand and the United States – was a product of the Korean War and the US peace treaty with its former enemy, Japan. For the US it was a Cold War alliance to contain communist expansion; for Australia and New Zealand it was a guard against Japanese military resurgence.

Increasing instability

As the signs of post-war instability in South-East Asia multiplied, New Zealand’s Middle East-oriented defence strategy looked increasingly inappropriate. Asia was caught between the restored rule of the colonial powers, which had been weakened by their earlier defeat by the Japanese, and the demands of growing nationalist movements. China seemed to confirm communism as both the path to the future and the voice of this nationalism – something underlined in 1954 by the communist ousting of French colonial authority in North Vietnam.

It became clear that any threat New Zealand faced from the Cold War was in South-East Asia rather than the Middle East. Because both the US and the Soviet Union possessed nuclear weapons, the risk of a general war had receded, paradoxically, as neither side wanted the annihilation that was likely to result from nuclear war. The US wanted Australia and New Zealand to help ensure that what were called ‘brushfire’ wars in Asia did not escalate into devastating infernos.

Hungary revolts

New Zealand retained an interest in events in Europe, with many hoping the popular 1956 uprising against Hungary’s communist regime would succeed. When it was crushed by Soviet forces, New Zealand accepted around 1,000 Hungarian refugees.

SEATO and the Colombo Plan

In 1954 New Zealand was a founding member of SEATO (the South East Asia Treaty Organization), a defence pact designed to block further communist advances in the region. In 1955 it agreed to deploy forces in Malaya – but it was a more enthusiastic backer of the Colombo Plan. Created at the 1950 Commonwealth Foreign Ministers meeting in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the plan sought to counter communism in Asia through economic and social development. The New Zealand government’s strong support highlighted its preference for non-military responses to Cold War challenges.

How to cite this page:

Gerald Hensley, 'Cold War - Beyond Europe, 1949 to 1955', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 February 2024)

Story by Gerald Hensley, published 20 Jun 2012