We will not in any way tolerate the testing of nuclear weapons, or their manufacture, or their deployment.

Acceptance speech – David Lange

I am proud to accept the award on behalf of the many people who have helped to make New Zealand nuclear free.

New Zealand’s nuclear free movement is a broad-based and popular movement. Our nuclear free status is a challenge to much that is accepted as orthodox in international relations. It was formally adopted in the cold war era as a form of resistance to the dismal doctrines of nuclear deterrence. It is still a rebuke to the unprincipled exercise of economic power and military might.

Our nuclear free movement began with the protests of a very few activists. The campaign for nuclear disarmament in its early days more than forty years ago was made up almost entirely of church people and trade unionists. They were easily dismissed by the political establishment as eccentrics and communists. But they were soon joined by many others.

What turned the New Zealand campaign for nuclear disarmament into a popular movement was the use of the South Pacific as a testing ground for nuclear weapons.

As late as 1973, nuclear testing was carried out in the atmosphere above French Polynesia. After that it took place underground, where it threatened one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems. In New Zealand, anxiety about pollution combined with distaste for the arrogance behind the testing to turn public opinion increasingly against the abuse or potential abuse of nuclear technology.

The immediate focus of the New Zealand protest movement was the nuclear armed and nuclear powered ships of our military ally the United States. From time to time the ships visited New Zealand, where they were met by growing numbers of protesters. The Labour Party pledged that if it became the government it would ban all such ships from New Zealand waters. Labour was elected to office in 1984 and the ban was immediately put in place.

The ban was intended to be a form of arms control. It amounted to a renunciation of the doctrines of nuclear deterrence. It was New Zealand’s position that we did not wish to be defended by nuclear weapons. We would not ask our ally to defend us by deploying nuclear weapons or threatening the use of nuclear weapons. We had no wish to shelter under what used to be called the nuclear umbrella.

The United States insisted that its strategic doctrines required its ally to accept whatever ships the United States chose to send. It argued that New Zealand’s refusal to accept nuclear armed and nuclear powered ships put it in breach of its treaty obligations. The United States declared itself no longer bound by its military treaty with New Zealand. The treaty has never formally been revoked but it remains inactive.

The ban on nuclear weapons has coloured New Zealand’s international relations since its inception.

We are not a country with any strong tradition of neutrality. For most of our modern history we have chosen to identify ourselves closely with greater powers. So we found ourselves in unfamiliar territory in those last years of the cold war when we were browbeaten by other members of the western bloc for our failure to carry what was described as our share of the global burden of nuclear deterrence.

Conservative opinion in New Zealand favoured the American alliance at any price, and our foreign policy and defence establishment was emphatically in favour of it. What probably tipped the balance of public opinion in support of our nuclear free status was a feeling that we were being bullied by our former allies. The policy became entrenched in popular sentiment.

Our nuclear free status passed into law in 1987. The weight of public opinion has maintained it ever since under governments of all parties.

The end of the cold war has not narrowed our differences with the United States. Successive New Zealand governments have made it plain to our former ally that it is welcome to send conventionally armed and conventionally powered vessels to our ports. The United States declines. New Zealand has at times gone out of its way to assist American interests in other areas. In spite of these efforts, the United States continues to characterise the nuclear free policy as an irritant or abnormality in the relationship.

That is a measure of the continuing effectiveness of New Zealand’s policy.

Our nuclear free status means that we decline to acquiesce in the strategies of nuclear deterrence. We will not turn a blind eye to them, and pretend that the weapons are no longer a threat. We will not in any way tolerate the testing of nuclear weapons, or their manufacture, or their deployment.

We cannot by ourselves reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world, but we are doing what has to be done all over the world if those weapons are one day to be eliminated. We will not contemplate any circumstance in which their possession or threatened use is justified. We reject the secrecy and hypocrisy which surrounds the continuing refinement of the technology.

Our nuclear free status is a statement of our belief that we and our fellow human beings can build the institutions which will one day allow us all to renounce the weapons of mass destruction. We are a small country and what we can do is limited. But in this as in every other great issue, we have to start somewhere.

For information or questions about David Lange, you could contact his wife:
Mrs Margaret Forsyth Pope
PO Box 59120
Mangere Bridge
David Lange died in 2005, at the age of 63.