Story: United States and New Zealand

Page 2. Allies, 1939–1984

All images & media in this story

Second World War

The Second World War (1939–45) brought New Zealand and Australia’s dependence on Britain’s power largely to an end. Britain’s defeat by Japan at Singapore in February 1942 shattered confidence in the worldwide reach of the Royal Navy. As the US entered the Pacific war following Japan’s bombing of the US fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, it was clear that New Zealand and Australia would now rely more heavily on American power. US troops were stationed in both countries, with about 100,000 at one time or another in New Zealand. The ‘American invasion’ was said to have brought new habits – gifts of flowers, use of taxis, milk bars – and 1,500 Kiwi women married US servicemen. Later, many Americans looked back fondly on their time in New Zealand.

First lady

In 1943 Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, toured the North Island. She visited American troops, inspected the work of the Red Cross and studied the contribution of New Zealand women to the war effort. She also took time out to walk around Whakarewarewa, Rotorua, with ‘Guide Rangi’ (Rangitīaria Dennan), the well-known Māori tour guide. Roosevelt’s verdict was that New Zealand was ‘a charming country'.1 Her feelings were reciprocated by the cheering locals.


In the post-war era the US became the main provider of security for non-communist countries in the Asia–Pacific region. Its forces occupied Japan and played the leading role in the United Nations-sanctioned force in Korea, which defended South Korea against attack from the communist North (1950–53). New Zealand and Australia also committed significant military forces.

In 1951, when the occupation of Japan ended, the three countries signed the ANZUS security treaty. This formal treaty, which had been sought especially by Australia and less urgently by New Zealand, meant that if the armed forces of any of the three countries were attacked in the Asia–Pacific region, or if their own territory was attacked, they could reasonably expect the others to provide assistance.

Vietnam War

New Zealand and Australia assisted the US in the war in Vietnam from 1965. This was not because of ANZUS, and New Zealand was more sparing than Australia in its contribution. Indeed New Zealand had committed larger forces to support Britain in Malaya (later Malaysia) during the 1950s. Despite Britain’s decreasing power in Asia, New Zealand continued to emphasise its connections to the ‘old country’. The Vietnam War was more controversial. It created doubt for some New Zealanders about the merits of a close relationship with the US. When President Lyndon Johnson visited New Zealand in 1966, he was greeted warmly by 200,000 people – but also by anti-war protesters, whose numbers grew during the later years of the conflict.


In 1973 Britain joined the European Economic Community (now the European Union). Increasingly the US became more than a valued security partner; it became an important trading market as New Zealand sought to diversify and move away from the traditional reliance on Britain. Both exports to, and imports from, the United States grew to about 15% of New Zealand’s trade. New Zealand increasingly worked in an international economic system populated by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which reflected America’s post-war economic dominance in the capitalist and western worlds.


There was growing cultural contact with the US. In 1948 New Zealand established a Fulbright programme, which was funded by both governments, to encourage cultural exchange between the two countries through research and study awards. Americans were well-represented among the New Zealand academic community, and New Zealanders such as Nobel prize-winning chemist Alan MacDiarmid, space scientist William Pickering and astrophysicist Beatrice Tinsley had distinguished careers in the US. The two countries cooperated on Antarctic research and from 1955 the US ran its Antarctic programme from a ‘Deep Freeze’ base in Christchurch.

Hollywood films, television shows and popular music continued to influence New Zealanders. The Southland town of Gore became known as New Zealand’s country-music capital. American social movements – from the black civil-rights campaign to the hippie counter-culture – were strong influences in New Zealand. A trip to Disneyland in Los Angeles became the first stop for many New Zealanders on trips overseas.

  1. Quoted in Jock Phillips and Ellen Ellis, Brief encounter: American forces and the New Zealand people, 1942–1945: an illustrated essay. Wellington: Historical Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs, 1992, p. 62. Back
How to cite this page:

Robert Ayson and Jock Phillips, 'United States and New Zealand - Allies, 1939–1984', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by Robert Ayson and Jock Phillips, published 20 Jun 2012