April 1982: this month last century

Thirty years ago, Wellington is voted nuclear weapons-free by the city council (14 April 1982).

In 1981, New Zealand peace groups began campaigning for sites around the country to become nuclear weapons-free. This initiative was supposed to highlight the dangers of nuclear weapons and to change national policies related to them. The following year, Wellington became nuclear weapons-free.

No nukes in the Pacific. 1984. Pam Debenham. Purchased 1988 with Harold Beauchamp Collection funds. © Pam Debenham. Te Papa

No nukes in the Pacific. 1984. Pam Debenham. Purchased 1988 with Harold Beauchamp Collection funds. © Pam Debenham. Te Papa

This anti-nuclear position had evolved from environmental protests over French nuclear testing in the Pacific in the early 1970s. As the decade progressed, protests were also directed at visits to New Zealand by US vessels that were either nuclear-powered or -armed. The poster below advertised a protest that took place in Auckland in 1976.

Poster, ’No Nuclear Warships in N.Z. Ports’, 1976, New Zealand. Campaign Against Nuclear Warships. Gift of Robyn Anderson, 2004. Te Papa

Poster, ’No Nuclear Warships in N.Z. Ports’, 1976, New Zealand. Campaign Against Nuclear Warships. Gift of Robyn Anderson, 2004. Te Papa

Opposition to visiting American ships more than doubled between 1978 and 1983, even though these visits were part of maintaining ANZUS, the defence treaty that New Zealand had entered into with the USA and Australia after World War II.

By 1984, nuclear weapons and where the government stood in relation to this issue became a critical election issue. Some say that it caused the downfall of Prime Minister Robert Muldoon and the National government.

Badge, ’ANZUS’, 1980s, New Zealand. Maker unknown. Gift of Anne Else, 2004. Te Papa

Badge, ’ANZUS’, 1980s, New Zealand. Maker unknown. Gift of Anne Else, 2004. Te Papa

The newly elected Prime Minister, David Lange, was openly opposed to nuclear weapons. He declared that ‘there’s only one thing worse than being incinerated by your enemies, and that being incinerated by your friends’ (Frontier of Dreams, p. 367).

Badge, 'Greenpeace’, circa 1985, New Zealand. Greenpeace. Gift of Ken Thomas, 2008. Te Papa

Badge, ’Greenpeace’, circa 1985, New Zealand. Greenpeace. Gift of Ken Thomas, 2008. Te Papa

The bombing of the Greenpeace protest vessel, Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland harbour in 1985 strengthened New Zealanders’ anti-nuclear stance. In 1987, the Labour-led government passed the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act. As the badge illustrated below put it, New Zealanders had all the arms they needed.

 Badge, ’All The Arms We Need’, 1980s. Maker unknown. Gift of Ken Thomas, 2008. Te Papa

Badge, ’All The Arms We Need’, 1980s. Maker unknown. Gift of Ken Thomas, 2008. Te Papa

The USA responded to this situtation by downgrading New Zealand’s status from ‘ally’ to ‘friend’.

But this demotion did not affect local attitudes, and New Zealanders held to their anti-nuclear ideals. By 1988, 72% of the population was living in a total of 105 areas that had been declared nuclear weapon-free zones. And, by 1989, over half the country indicated that it would sacrifice formal defence ties, such as ANZUS, rather than admit nuclear-armed ships into the country.

Go to the Slice of Heaven exhibition website to read more about the background to this story.

Read further details about ‘Nuclear-free New Zealand’ on nzhistory.net.nz

Reference:

Bronwyn Dalley and Gavin McLean, eds, Frontier of Dreams: The Story of New Zealand, Auckland, 2005.

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