New Zealand’s long and rich relationship with the United States began in the early days of European settlement. During the 20th century this became perhaps New Zealand’s most colourful international relationship.
The mid-1980s breakdown of the military alliance with the US, by then the world’s most powerful country, over the issue of nuclear-ship visits was one of the most important turning points in New Zealand’s foreign policy. Efforts to improve the security relationship between the two countries took nearly two decades to make significant headway. The signing of the Wellington Declaration in late 2010 during US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to New Zealand marked a renewed closeness in the security relationship.
From the last years of the 18th century, American sealers and whalers visited New Zealand waters in pursuit of their catch. In 1838, 54 of the 96 whaling ships that visited the Bay of Islands were American, and Briton James Clendon was appointed US consul in Kororāreka (later called Russell) that year. (He became effective in this role once a colonial government was created in 1840.)
An American whaler introduced a sweet potato superior to traditional Māori kūmara, and the new variety became known as ‘merikana’ (American). The gold rushes of the 1860s also attracted some miners from the United States. Popular American entertainments such as minstrel shows toured New Zealand, as did balloonists such as Leila Adair and lecturers such as Mark Twain.
While American thinkers influenced New Zealand reformers in the late 19th century, the reverse was also true. American progressives saw the New Zealand example of factory acts, women’s suffrage and industrial relations as significant experiments, and the Chicago reformer Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote two books on New Zealand – Newest England and A country without strikes.
American ideas were significant influences on late-19th-century New Zealand. The American-based Women’s Christian Temperance Union had a major influence on the women’s suffrage movement that gained the vote for New Zealand women in 1893. Social thinkers such as political economist Henry George and the Populist political movement (which sought agrarian reform in the US) influenced moves to break up large landholdings at the end of the century. US labour organisations such as the Knights of Labor and the ‘Wobblies’ (Industrial Workers of the World) provided important examples for New Zealand unions.
As US power grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were points of contact between the governments of the two countries, well before New Zealand assumed formal responsibility for its own foreign policy. For example, in 1908 the New Zealand and Australian governments both welcomed the visit of the US’s ‘great white fleet’, a battlefleet dispatched by President Theodore Roosevelt to circumnavigate the globe as a demonstration of US military power. However, New Zealand and Australia continued to rely on Britain’s navy. Indeed, there was some disquiet in New Zealand about American naval power in the Asia–Pacific region. William Massey, who was prime minister during the First World War, questioned whether the US’s growing influence would be entirely in British and New Zealand interests once the war was over.
American westerns had considerable influence on dress styles and behaviour in some Māori communities, especially on the East Coast of the North Island. During the Second World War, C Company of 28 (Maori) Battalion – recruited from the East Coast – soon became known as the ‘cowboys’.
Following the First World War American cultural and economic influences on New Zealand life increased. US petrol companies and carmakers entered the New Zealand market. While before the war the US had provided about 10% of New Zealand’s imports, in the 1920s this rose to well above 15%. General Motors opened a factory at Petone in 1926.
Popular culture also had an impact, especially Hollywood movies and American music, both jazz and popular songs. Notable American tourists, included the writer and big-game fisherman Zane Grey.
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.
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.
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.
For much of the Cold War (the latent conflict between the Soviet Union and the US, which began after the Second World War) New Zealand was aligned with the US on security, economic and political fronts. However, by the mid-1970s it appeared as if this international conflict was coming to an end. In the Asia–Pacific region the Vietnam War was over and the anti-communist South-East Asia Treaty Organization had collapsed. The division of the world into Eastern and Western blocs seemed much diminished. Norman Kirk’s Labour government, elected in 1972, took advantage of this new mood by protesting against French nuclear-weapon tests in the Pacific, and by not inviting nuclear-propelled American vessels to visit.
The Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and the 1980 election of US President Ronald Reagan, who was determined to strengthen international opposition to communism, saw a reigniting of Cold War tensions. New Zealand peace groups strongly supported their European counterparts, who were campaigning against the stationing of American nuclear weapons on their territory. David Lange’s Labour government was elected in 1984 on a platform that included establishing New Zealand as a nuclear weapon-free zone.
Many, if not most, New Zealanders wanted to have a nuclear-free policy while remaining part of the ANZUS alliance. However, the US saw this as an unexpected hardening of New Zealand’s position, leading to a breakdown in US–New Zealand security ties. In 1985 the Labour government declined an American request for a visit to New Zealand by the USS Buchanan, on the basis that it might be capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The US, worried that some of its more important allies – especially the strongly non-nuclear Japan – might copy the New Zealand example, was unwilling to confirm or deny that this was the case.
Although David Lange often said that New Zealand’s nuclear policy was not for export to other countries, he did accept invitations to participate in the international disarmament debate. Lange took part in an Oxford Union debate in 1985, remarking at one point that he could smell the uranium on the breath of a member of the opposing team.
In 1987 New Zealand’s Parliament enacted legislation that denied access to New Zealand’s internal waters to vessels which were propelled by nuclear power or might be carrying nuclear weapons. By this time the US had suspended security cooperation with New Zealand under ANZUS. New Zealand would now be classified as a friend, not an ally. Any military cooperation between the two countries required a special waiver from the US government.
New Zealand opinion was divided on this foreign-policy turning point. Many celebrated the non-nuclear policy and the willingness to say no to the world’s leading power as a sign of an independent foreign policy. They saw New Zealand as gaining a unique profile on the international stage. Supporters of the non-nuclear position also suggested that by standing up to the US New Zealand would be able to shape new relationships in Asia, and have more freedom to decide whether or not to contribute to American military actions.
Others believed the breach in the relationship seriously harmed New Zealand’s interests. They suggested that the armed forces suffered by being denied regular opportunities to train with the US military, and pointed to the complications for New Zealand’s important relationship with Australia. They claimed that New Zealand had become a free rider on, rather than a contributor to, the security that the US and its allies brought to the Asia–Pacific region, and that the country had lost credibility in Asia. They also argued that even when part of an alliance, New Zealand sent forces abroad on the basis of its own national interests.
Despite the conflict, trading and cultural relationships with the US were little affected. The proportion of imports from, and exports to, the US in 1990, the last year of the Labour government, was higher than in 1984, before the crisis erupted. In addition, Labour’s policy of selling state-owned assets attracted investment from the US, especially in Telecom and New Zealand Rail.
The non-nuclear position was consistently supported by New Zealanders and became part of New Zealand’s international personality. By the mid-1990s any political party that wanted to govern in New Zealand needed to retain the nuclear-free legislation. As the repeal of this legislation was the price the US wanted paid to restore ‘normal’ defence relations, there was a stalemate between the two countries. As successive US administrations recognised that neither National- nor Labour-led governments would change this policy, there were efforts to find ways around the problem.
Throughout the 1990s New Zealand reminded the US that despite this obstacle, New Zealand was a reliable member of the international community, and could be a valued partner if not a formal ally. New Zealand worked with the US in:
In September 1999 Bill Clinton became the second US president in office to visit New Zealand, when he attended the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Auckland. Following the forum he played golf near Queenstown and declared New Zealand ‘an enchanted land … a place every child dreams of finding, but most had given up before they reached New Zealand.’1
Despite improving relations at a government level, there were still some critics of New Zealand's relationship with the United States.
By the 2010s New Zealand’s status was somewhere between friend and ally, as a close security partner of the United States. Cooperation between the two countries extended across a broad range of government agencies. In 2010 John Key was invited to President Barack Obama’s nuclear security summit in Washington. This was taken by many New Zealanders as a sign that the US had come closer to New Zealand’s position on nuclear issues – Obama had spoken of his hopes for a world eventually free of nuclear weapons. Later that year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed the Wellington Declaration, which sought an enhancement of cooperation between the two countries, including in the South Pacific region. It did not, however, reintroduce an alliance obligation for either side. In 2011 Prime Minister John Key paid a successful formal visit to President Obama.
The improvement in the US–New Zealand security relationship came when both countries were navigating a new balance of power in the Asia–Pacific region, whose main characteristic was a rising China. New Zealand had been more comfortable than the US with this changing regional picture, but wanted the US to play an active and stabilising role in the region as the power balance changed. New Zealand also wanted to see the US engaged in the closer integration which was happening between Asia’s economies. Just as New Zealand and the US became formal allies soon after China’s communist revolution, they improved their security relationship at a time when China’s rise was once again the number-one story in the Asia–Pacific region.
The election of President Donald Trump in 2016 and the installation of a Labour-led government led by Jacinda Ardern in 2017 imposed some strains on the relationship between the two countries. The US turn away from multilateralism and its trade dispute with China threatened core New Zealand interests.
During the 1990s New Zealand continued to buy many goods from the US, including computer and information services. In 1995 American imports were 20% of the country’s total imports by value – a proportion that then fell markedly. New Zealand’s exports to the US dropped to under 10% by the mid-1990s, largely because of increased demand from Australia and Japan. In the 2000s the US was consistently the country’s third-largest trading partner, but as a percentage of total trade it was about 10%, consistently less than Australia and China.
The arrival of jet travel in the 1960s made more frequent visits to New Zealand possible for American tourists. In the 2000s there was a steady inflow of US travellers. They were the third-largest group of visitors (after Australians and British), and represented about 8% of all tourists. American visitors tended to be older than those from other countries, and were often in their 50s and 60s.
It took some time before Americans took advantage of New Zealand’s immigration policy, which favoured those with higher educational qualifications or greater wealth. In 1991 there were only 8,451 Americans resident in the country. But over the next 15 years the number doubled, with Americans most likely to be found in the cities. They made important contributions to New Zealand’s cultural and IT industries.
The US continued to have a powerful influence on the popular culture of New Zealand in the films watched, the blockbuster books read, the television shows enjoyed and the music played. Hip-hop music and its offshoots of break-dancing and graffiti art had a strong following, especially among Māori and Pacific youth. Young New Zealanders also inhabited the technology universe which the United States had spawned. Facebook, Google, YouTube and iPhone became household names in New Zealand.
New Zealanders also participated occasionally in this media world, most obviously when Peter Jackson’s Lord of the rings film trilogy won plaudits in Hollywood and Oscars in 11 categories in 2004.
New Zealand’s success in sailing to victory in the America’s Cup at San Diego in 1995 also attracted American interest southwards. American sailors competed in Auckland in 2000 and 2004, and coverage of the regattas involving the two countries in 2013 and 2017 heightened New Zealand’s profile in the US.
Bassett, Michael. Working with David: inside the Lange cabinet. Auckland: Hodder Moa, 2008.
Lange, David. My life. Auckland: Viking, 2005.
Lissington, M. P. New Zealand and the United States, 1840–1944. Wellington: Government Printer, 1972.
McKinnon, Malcolm, ed. The American connection. Wellington: Allen & Unwin/Port Nicholson Press in association with the Stout Centre for the Study of New Zealand Society, History and Culture, 1988.
McKinnon, Malcolm. Independence and foreign policy: New Zealand in the world since 1935. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1993.