Story: Cold War

Page 4. Questioning the Cold War, 1955 to 1985

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Growing scepticism

The new stability in South-East Asia began a third phase in New Zealand’s outlook on the Cold War. With boundaries in South-East Asia settled, the focus of the long international struggle shifted away from the Pacific basin and therefore became less threatening in New Zealand eyes. This, and the anti-Vietnam War movement, encouraged a new scepticism about Cold War rhetoric and the need for active New Zealand participation.

The rise of non-alignment

This greater sense of detachment was partly a product of the growing influence of the non-aligned movement, led by India, Yugoslavia and Ghana, in the 1960s. The movement had been formed at the Bandung Conference (a meeting of Asian and African nations in 1955) and reflected the impatience of its members with the preoccupations of the Cold War. They wished to dissociate themselves from any part in the ideological contest, except when it could be exploited for their economic or military benefit.

The Soviet Union and the US found themselves bidding and manoeuvring for small and often temporary advantages among the non-aligned states. Because the lines had been settled in Europe and East Asia neither side could hope for major gains, although the use of client states (those supported by one side or the other) and the scuffling in unstable areas like Central America and Angola caused periodic alarm, as did the Soviet navy forays into the Pacific.


The first round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I), between the United States and the Soviet Union, took place between 1969 and 1972. The countries agreed to limit the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems and to an interim reduction in intercontinental missiles. A second round (SALT II) took place from 1977 to 1979. It agreed to reduce all types of strategic missiles to 2,250 each and a ban on new missile programmes. However, it was never ratified by the US Senate because of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Limits of power

The Soviet Union could not compete economically with the US, but by focusing all its resources it could compete in military terms. With many countries standing apart in the non-aligned group, the broader ideological issues faded into a more straightforward power contest between the two ‘superpowers,’ as they came to be called.

The limits of direct confrontation became clear after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when, under the threat of war, the Soviet Union withdrew the missiles it had begun to install in Cuba. Thereafter, global public opinion criticised the increasing size and number of US and Soviet nuclear weapons. From 1969 the two superpowers began negotiations to overcome their distrust and reduce the stockpiles of nuclear weapons, first through SALT I in 1971 and then in hopes of SALT II at the end of the decade. This period of increased cooperation became known as détente.

Growing anti-nuclearism

New Zealanders were among those questioning the idea that the cataclysmic potential of nuclear weapons was a deterrent to their actual use. The threat to the country’s safety seemed to come less from the overthrow of neighbouring states and more from Cold War rivalries and insecurities. The seemingly unstoppable growth of weapons raised the danger of the destruction of civilisation itself, even by accident. Nuclear-weapons testing in the Pacific – first by Britain and the US between 1957 and 1961, and then by France from 1963 – also sharpened New Zealanders’ aversion to nuclear weapons. This sentiment strengthened when fallout products such as strontium 90 were found in milk in New Zealand.


The New Zealand frigates Pukaki and Rotoiti acted as weather ships during British nuclear bomb tests near Christmas Island (Kiritimati atoll, part of present-day Kiribati) in 1957–58. Sailors recall that during the blasts they could see the bones of their fingers through closed eyes. The ships then sailed through the site of the bomb explosion (ground zero), where crews were exposed to radioactive rain and drank radioactive water. Many later developed cancers that some medical experts have attributed to radiation poisoning.

South Pacific nuclear weapons-free zone

In 1974, in an attempt to restrict the spread of nuclear weapons, the Labour government called for the establishment of a South Pacific nuclear weapons-free zone. After lengthy negotiations a treaty was adopted by the South Pacific Forum in 1985, but because it did not cover the high seas or port visits it was more of a gesture than a constraint. Nevertheless it was a signal of a growing unease, in which anti-nuclearism was fusing with the post-Vietnam War distrust of alliance relationships. In 1987 the government passed anti-nuclear legislation, banning nuclear ships and weapons from New Zealand.

How to cite this page:

Gerald Hensley, 'Cold War - Questioning the Cold War, 1955 to 1985', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

Story by Gerald Hensley, published 20 Jun 2012