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New Zealand’s Alliance with the United States

by Ian McGibbon

This is the first article on U.S.-New Zealand relations – or about New Zealand itself – to appear in this journal’s 13-year history. A distinguished New Zealand historian covers this small country’s relations with the United States from World War II to the present – from times of close alliance through very rough times, when New Zealand turned against the United States and withdrew from the alliance (the ANZUS Treaty) based on a political anti-nuclear, anti-American agenda coming out of the war in Vietnam. He follows the relationship through a period of intermittent cooperation down to a gradual warming of relations in this century. The article concludes that, though a U.S.-New Zealand alliance is no longer possible, New Zealand can rebuild its relationship with the United States through participation in a range of activities important to Washington, and the United States is now holding out a hand of friendship. – J. Edgar Williams

At 2.56 p.m., Saturday 1 September 1951, New Zealand Ambassador Carl Berendsen’s limousine pulled away from his San Francisco hotel flanked by three motorcycle policemen with sirens. With precise timing, it turned a corner and fell in behind a limousine carrying his Australian counterpart Percy Spender. Almost immediately the antipodean vehicles were joined by a much larger procession carrying Secretary of State Dean Acheson. As guns boomed in salute, the motorcade swept into the Presidio and pulled up at a hall. After taking the salute of the guard and standing to attention for national anthems – God Save the King and the Star Spangled Banner – the three dignitaries entered the hall. At 3.30 p.m. they mounted a dais. All three gave short speeches – all this on television and coast-to-coast radio – before they got down to the purpose of the gathering, the conclusion of the Pacific Security (ANZUS) Treaty.

In a letter to External Affairs head Alister McIntosh in Wellington, an exultant Berendsen described what followed:

The Treaty was then produced on a formal table in front of the dais with a Treaty officer standing alongside. Ambassador Spender was called upon to sign for Australia, and did so, pocketing his pen. I followed suit, pocketing my pen, then Acheson, flanked by Ambassador John Foster Dulles and Senators Alexander Wiley and John J. Sparkman signed for the United States. A few words from the Secretary of State brought the ceremony to a conclusion.[1]

It was the final step in a hectic process that had begun the previous February, when Dulles had met with Australian and New Zealand leaders in Canberra. At these talks the possibility of a tripartite agreement had emerged. In the months that followed, the loose ends were tied up. In Washington Berendsen, chafing at quibbling over details, feared that the opportunity to secure the alliance – once described by Minister of External Affairs Frederick Doidge as “the richest prize of New Zealand diplomacy”[2] – might be lost. New Zealand had, he maintained, “been offered on a platter the greatest gift that the most powerful country in the world can offer to a small and comparatively helpless group of people.”[3]

The ANZUS alliance had its roots in the depredations of another Pacific country – Japan. Concluded just months short of 10 years after Japanese naval aircraft devastated the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor, it had been foreshadowed long before as the antipodean governments contemplated the rise of Japanese naval power. As early as 1905 the Japanese annihilation of the Russian Fleet at Tsushima had awakened doubts about Japan, then the British Empire’s ally. Many New Zealanders had been reassured by the arrival of the American Great White Fleet in Auckland three years later. In 1913 First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill bluntly spelled out New Zealand’s strategic options: “If the power of Great Britain were shattered upon the sea, the only course open to the five millions of white men in the Pacific would be to seek the protection of the United States.”[4]

Security Doubts
Not surprisingly those responsible for New Zealand’s security were of similar mind to Churchill when, during the 1930s, the British battle fleet’s ability to match Japan’s navy came into doubt. Imperial defense plans centered on the major naval base built at Singapore between the world wars, from which the Royal Navy would operate on the flank of any Japanese drive to the south. But European dangers progressively reduced the size of the fleet Britain could afford to send east. For New Zealanders another visit by the U.S. battle fleet, in 1925, had been welcomed as evidence of American strength. But few in the 1930s believed that New Zealand could rely on the United States to redress the balance in the Pacific. Isolationist sentiment in the United States raised the possibility of the United States standing aside from a war between the British Commonwealth and Japan. Such thinking led New Zealand down paths that, in retrospect, seem counterproductive to its search for security, not least its resistance to American encroachment on British territories in the South Pacific. Civil aviation concerns were present, to be sure, but New Zealand’s situation demanded encouragement of a regional presence on the part of the one power with the naval strength to contest Japanese naval dominance in the western Pacific.

Fears of Japan burgeoned in 1940. With events in Europe greatly enhancing the danger of a Japanese onslaught in the southwest Pacific, New Zealand looked increasingly to Washington. The fall of France unhinged what remained of the Singapore strategy, for without the French fleet to cover the Mediterranean the Royal Navy could not send a fleet to Singapore for the foreseeable future, Churchill, now Prime Minister, advised Wellington. Echoing his 1913 remarks, he urged Australia and New Zealand to look to the United States. The New Zealand government, the whole basis of its defence policy shattered, contemplated the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations with the United States – a big step for a country that had not yet formally severed its ties with the United Kingdom (and would not do so until 1947), had no overseas missions other than a high commission in London, and possessed only rudimentary machinery for the conduct of international relations.

In the event, New Zealand’s search for a link with Washington meandered for over a year, procrastination stemming from uncertainty in Wellington about who might best represent New Zealand and reassurance from Britain’s renewed promises that, notwithstanding the panic of May 1940, it could still implement the Singapore strategy, and that Britain would not abandon its southern Dominions. Not until November 1941, with a crisis developing in the Pacific, did the government appoint Walter Nash, the Minister of Finance, to head the New Zealand legation in Washington, and it would be January 1942 before he presented his credentials to President Roosevelt. In early December Washington nominated an ambassador to New Zealand, but he was forced to withdraw; Patrick J. Hurley finally arrived in Wellington in April 1942.[5]

From 8 December, when New Zealand declared war on Japan, New Zealand and the United States were allies. Despite the devastation wreaked on the U.S. battle fleet at Pearl Harbor, New Zealanders’ hopes of succour in Washington were not an illusion. Admiral King, the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Fleet, was adamant that the United States could not “in honor” abandon the Australasians to the rampaging Japanese. “They are our brothers, and we must not allow them to be overrun by Japan.”[6]

While the British defence system in the Pacific was falling apart – Japanese forces took the supposedly impregnable Singapore bastion on 15 February 1942 – American forces moved into the southern Pacific. In May they defeated the Japanese in the Battle of the Coral Sea – a victory that convinced many in Australia and New Zealand, incorrectly, that the U.S. Navy had prevented a Japanese invasion of their countries. In reality the Japanese, at this stage, had no such intention. An invasion depended upon the outcome of the showdown the Japanese were seeking with the remnants of the U.S. fleet. When this took place a month later off the island of Midway, Japan received a near knock-out blow, losing the heart of its naval offensive power in the course of a few minutes. The American victory wrenched the strategic initiative from Japan’s grasp and in effect removed all possibility of invasion for both Australia and New Zealand.

Sinking Kiryu at Midway

New Zealand-American Contacts
The course of the Pacific War brought New Zealanders and Americans into contact on a scale never before achieved. In June 1942 American troops, both U.S. Army and Marines, arrived in New Zealand, where they occupied camps near Auckland and Wellington. They were the vanguard of more than 80,000 who would spend time in New Zealand during the next two years. Far from being attacked, New Zealand became the base for a U.S. counter-offensive in the south Pacific. This began with the assault on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in August 1942. Over the next two years elements of all three New Zealand armed services took part in the Solomons campaign under American command.

The defeat of Japan removed the present danger but not New Zealand’s fears for the future. However unlikely it might seem in 1945, a Japanese resurgence motivated by a desire for revenge, similar to Germany’s rise in the 1930s, could not be ruled out, in New Zealand’s view. Old certainties had been shaken in the course of the war. Obviously Britain could no longer be relied on in all circumstances. The United States, now the dominant naval power, could. But New Zealand’s alliance with it ended on 2 September 1945 with the formal surrender of Japan. The need for a long-term security arrangement with the United States was recognized in Wellington – but so too was America’s reluctance to enter such arrangements. For the time being there was no sense of urgency. Japan was prostrate, U.S. forces occupied bases throughout the western Pacific, and the U.S. Navy was stronger than all others combined. New Zealand had never been so secure.

The situation in the Pacific was soon overshadowed by events in Europe – the onset of the Cold War. In this grim confrontation between the Soviet Union and its erstwhile allies against Germany, New Zealand was a reluctant participant. Not until 1948, and especially the communist coup in Czechoslovakia, did its leader Peter Fraser accept that the split was irrevocable and that the West must prepare for possible war with the Soviet Union. He pledged his country to send forces to the Middle East in the event of war and reintroduced compulsory military training to make it possible. New Zealand would make its war effort in a familiar Commonwealth milieu. But even as these plans were being implemented, a crisis in the western Pacific precipitated a new wartime alliance with America and, in due course, the ANZUS treaty. That crisis was North Korea’s invasion of South Korea on 25 June 1950. To Wellington, convinced that North Korean leader Kim Il Sung was a Soviet puppet, this was a Soviet move in a wider conflict, and it responded accordingly, sending frigates and eventually an army force to serve in the U.S.-led UN Command under General Douglas MacArthur.


NZ gun crew, Korea

The Korean War at first seemed once again to have reduced New Zealand’s need for a formal security arrangement with the United States. In the event it was the United States that brought the issue back to the fore. The stimulus was Chinese intervention in the conflict and the defeat inflicted on the UN forces in northern Korea in late 1950. As the situation worsened, Washington turned with new urgency to the long delayed question of the Japanese peace settlement. Rapid action was deemed necessary to forestall any chance of Japan falling within the communist orbit. To this end, sticking points would now be quickly resolved.

One such was the firm opposition of Canberra and Wellington to the favoured soft peace with Japan. The answer seemed to lie in some form of security guarantee by the United States to Australia and New Zealand that would allay their fears of a Japanese revival. This convergence of interests underlay the talks that envoy Dulles had in Canberra in February 1951, from which emerged the draft that would become the Pacific Security Treaty. One week after the Presidio signing ceremony, the three delegates joined statesmen of the other belligerent powers in signing the Japanese Peace Treaty. With both main political parties in New Zealand supporting these developments, New Zealand’s approach rested on a bedrock of bipartisan support.

Continuing British Ties
If the achievement of an alliance with the United States fulfilled a longstanding goal for New Zealand, it also introduced significant problems for a government – and country – which remained economically, culturally, and psychologically tied to Britain. Ten years after ANZUS came into being, Prime Minister Keith Holyoake could state unequivocally that “New Zealand’s defence planning has been based almost without conscious thought on the assumption that in any future war we should again be fighting side by side with you [the United Kingdom] in all arms, our soldiers transported in British ships, serving alongside British Troops under British Higher Command, using British equipment, operating from British bases, and receiving British logistic support.”[7] This Commonwealth orientation – and preference – left New Zealand facing a potential dilemma. As early as 1954, Holyoake’s predecessor had foreshadowed it when he described ANZUS as “basic to our whole foreign policy.”[8] What if British and American interests diverged?

In this situation New Zealand’s objective was to ensure that her two main allies did not diverge. Hints of the problems this would cause had been revealed over Korea even before ANZUS was signed, and they were starkly exposed during the Suez Crisis of 1956. In practical terms New Zealand found reconciling the approaches of its two allies most difficult in attempts to develop allied strategy in Southeast Asia. Efforts to develop plans to deal with a possible Chinese eruption into the region exposed major divergences, never effectively resolved. The problem of Southeast Asian security did, however, bring New Zealand and the United States together again in another security treaty – the South East Asia Collective Defence Treaty of September 1954. This treaty was a response to the situation in Indo-China, and especially the French defeat in its eight-year war with the communist-nationalist Viet Minh in Vietnam. It provided the basis for the South East Asian Treaty Organization, which came into existence in 1955, charged with planning to meet communist aggression in Southeast Asia.

For New Zealand the continued presence of its two main allies in Southeast Asia provided a reassuring buffer to any communist expansion southwards. To this end it committed forces during the 1950s to the British Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve in Malaya and Singapore, beginning a 32-year involvement. New Zealand troops operated against CTs – communist terrorists – in Malaya during the Malayan Emergency and against Indonesians during the Konfrontasi of 1963-66. It was much less enthusiastic about supporting the United States in South Vietnam in the early 1960s, partly because it had doubts about the likelihood of success and partly because of the United Kingdom’s absence from the line-up. Nonetheless, it recognized that to stand aside could jeopardize its relationship with the United States. The “ultimate disaster” for New Zealand, the government’s foreign policy advisers warned, would be American determination to wash its hands of New Zealand on the grounds that “we weren’t worth the effort of cultivating or protecting.”[9]

To preserve ANZUS, then, New Zealand agreed to fly its flag in Vietnam, one of only five countries willing to back words of support for the Republic of Vietnam with action in the form of combat troops. Its contribution was conspicuous by its small size – initially a non-combatant engineer detachment, then a 120-man artillery battery, finally several companies of infantry. At its peak New Zealand had 543 personnel in Vietnam, one thousandth of the U.S. effort; 37 men died. Despite its small size, this commitment did not go uncontested in New Zealand. Opposition mounted. The antiwar mood and the lack of government enthusiasm were sufficient to induce visiting U.S. envoy Clark Clifford in 1967 to develop “serious doubts” about the United States’ Vietnam enterprise. He joked to his companion, General Maxwell Taylor, that “more people turned out in New Zealand to demonstrate against our trip than the country had sent to Vietnam.” He returned to Washington disturbed by New Zealand’s and America’s other regional allies’ reluctance to contribute more forces to the cause in Vietnam.[10]

The Importance of ANZUS

NZ battery, Vietnam

The importance of ANZUS grew during the course of the Vietnam War, not because of the joint effort there but because the British signalled their intention to withdraw from the Southeast Asian region. To New Zealand’s relief, the original plan to pull out completely was soon modified after a change of government, and a tripartite arrangement involving the UK, Australia, and New Zealand was developed. An ANZUK Force was created, but within a few years both Australia and the UK had withdrawn their forces from it. Although New Zealand’s force remained in Singapore until 1989, partly because of the financial burden that would be involved in bringing it home, it was no longer part of any strategic arrangement. The forward defence in Asia strategy, which had underlain New Zealand’s approach for two decades, had collapsed with the U.S.-Chinese rapprochement, and the ensuing demise of SEATO. In these circumstances, it seemed all the more imperative that New Zealand “should retain the ANZUS Treaty as a central guarantee of our security.”[11]

Even more important was the revival of British efforts to join the European Economic Community. This heralded the end of New Zealand’s comfortable existence within the British world, safely ensconced in an economic cocoon that had long served it well. With assured markets in the United Kingdom, it had had no incentive till then to seek economic opportunities elsewhere, including in the United States. Indeed New Zealand had resisted such developments, most notably during the Korean War. When the United States had sought favourable arrangements to ensure that U.S. needs for its strategic stockpile could be met in New Zealand’s wool market, New Zealand had resisted firmly. Wool was, of course, a key element in New Zealand’s economy, and the result of resisting American pressure was a wool price boom of stupendous proportions. The State Department was left to note in 1951 that wool was the one area where New Zealand had not been co-operative with the United States.[12]

During the 1960s New Zealand began hesitantly to move out of the British orbit in terms of equipping its forces. Its Vietnam contribution no doubt increased U.S. willingness to make concessions on the purchase of U.S. equipment. New Zealand used these facilities to purchase Hercules transport aircraft and later A4 Skyhawks for its air force. This was a new departure, New Zealand having previously restricted its defence purchases to the same place where most of its overseas funds were earned, the United Kingdom. During negotiations over the expansion of New Zealand’s force in Vietnam the question of access to U.S. markets for New Zealand meat exports was raised, though without success, but Britain’s turn to Europe increased the importance for New Zealand of finding alternative markets (even if access arrangements negotiated with the European Economic Community did soften the short-term blow).

Anti-war poster

This then was the background to New Zealand’s attempt in the 1970s to put flesh on the bones of its relationship with the United States. This was not easy. Among the obstacles was a deep-seated anti-Americanism among many New Zealanders. This had its roots in resentment that America had usurped the ‘mother country’s’ position as the world’s greatest power. As Frank Corner, who headed New Zealand’s foreign service from 1979 to 1984, noted, “Even as late as 1970 the general run of non-ideological New Zealanders… were still old-style British in their instincts… they shared a certain style of British superciliousness towards Americans and American culture and foreign policies; and they still tended to link their fate with that of Britain.”[13] While many of the wartime generation remained grateful to the United States for protecting their country during the war – the Coral Sea syndrome – a significant element of the post-war generation – the baby boomers (born after 1945) – had become disaffected by the Vietnam War. Many on the left of politics in particular had become anti-American in their opposition to New Zealand involvement, and remained so after the conflict ended. These people were to be found supporting a variety of other causes, and especially anti-nuclearism.

Conflict over Naval Visits

There was, therefore, a degree of ambivalence among the population about the U.S.-New Zealand alliance. It never had the solid bedrock of sentiment and kinship that had underlain the relationship with Britain. The conservative government formed by the National Party and led by Robert Muldoon from 1975 to 1984 attempted to bolster ties with America, not least by cooperating in a range of American-initiated ventures, such as the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai in 1982. It also encouraged the presence in New Zealand of the U.S. Navy.[14]

Protesting U.S. ship visit, 1982

Naval visits became the battleground between the government and a growing but still minority group of anti-nuclear protestors who objected to the presence of nuclear powered and especially nuclear armed vessels in New Zealand harbours. This issue had been avoided rather than resolved by the Labour government that had preceded Muldoon’s administration. They had been able to set aside the question of ship visits because liability issues in the event of an accident to a ship in port had not been settled. Combative and stubborn by nature, Muldoon had no intention of avoiding a fight over ship visits. He regarded them as a slap in the face of protestors. New Zealand was treated to the spectacle of U.S. warships entering harbours accompanied by a flotilla of small craft bedecked with anti-nuclear slogans. Muldoon’s approach ensured that the nuclear issue became of central importance to on-going U.S.-New Zealand ties, far exceeding that of the visits themselves. Following a review of New Zealand’s defence in 1978, the government proclaimed ship visits to be “an important part of the pattern of defence cooperation which gives substance to the ANZUS alliance” and that “no needless restrictions” should be placed in the way of visits by nuclear powered vessels.[15]

It was against this background that the Labour Party returned to power in 1984, after Muldoon was impelled to call an early election by one of his own party breaking ranks on the nuclear issue. The ensuing handover of power from Second World War veteran Muldoon to baby boomer David Lange symbolised a generational shift in New Zealand. Many of those who now assumed ministerial office had been active in the anti-Vietnam cause. Some were determined to end New Zealand’s alliance with the United States, and saw the nuclear issue as a means to this end.

In this situation the United States would have been wise to let the ship visits issue lie fallow for the time being – as it had during the previous Labour administration (1972-75). Muldoon’s policy had, however, made it into a test that the equally combative Secretary of State George Shultz had no intention of avoiding. On a visit to Wellington days after the election but before Lange took office, he discussed the ship visit issue with the Prime Minister-designate. He came away from this meeting with the mistaken impression that Lange had promised to bring his party into line on the question – in the way that Australian Labour Prime Minister Bob Hawke had done with his. Within months the United States was pressing New Zealand to accept a ship visit.

USS Buchanan

For the government in Wellington the key question related to nuclear arms. American policy at the time was to neither confirm nor deny whether any particular ship was carrying them. This presented a problem in determining which ship would be sent in response to a New Zealand invitation. Sent to Hawaii to discuss the matter with the Commander-in-Chief Pacific, the government’s chief defense adviser, Air Marshal Ewan Jamieson, settled on the frigate USS Buchanan, an older vessel that was capable of carrying nuclear anti-submarine missiles but was unlikely to be. Jamieson maintained that the “reasonable inference” could be drawn that a second-rank vessel like the Buchanan would not be carrying nuclear weapons, but he was unable to give an “absolute guarantee” that it was not doing so. The government balked. It asked Washington for an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate but was rebuffed. When the issue was leaked to the press, the visit negotiations collapsed in disarray, Wellington formally declining the Buchanan on 5 February.[16]

With the United States convinced of bad faith on Lange’s part, the episode generated ill-feeling among American officials that would still be discernible two decades later. For its part, Lange’s government seized the opportunity to portray itself as being bullied by a super-power. It not only appealed to New Zealand nationalism but also embarked on an anti-nuclear campaign that was bound to influence a population for whom the question of nuclear weapons was largely abstract, New Zealand being so far from the seat of conflict and relatively unthreatened by them. “Simply by lending the authority of government to the concept of a nuclear-free defence,” Lange later boasted, “the New Zealand administration stoked up nuclear-free sentiment.”[17] The upshot was a melding of anti-nuclear feeling with nationalism that remains strong a quarter of a century later.

End of ANZUS
This campaign on the part of Lange’s government created a schizophrenic state among New Zealand opinion. Polls indicated that 70 per cent of the population opposed visits by nuclear ships, now expanded to include nuclear-powered vessels, but awkwardly about the same proportion wanted New Zealand to stay in ANZUS. When asked to choose between the two, 52 per cent opted for ANZUS.[18] Nonetheless the government pressed ahead with its agenda to legislate to prohibit nuclear visits, despite warnings from Washington that this would amount to a renunciation of ANZUS. The New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act sealed the fate of New Zealand’s involvement in the alliance. Meeting Lange in Manila on 27 June 1986, Shultz pronounced the end: “So we part company as friends, but we part company.”[19] But when Lange, during a subsequent speech at Yale, described ANZUS as a “dead letter,” his Cabinet repudiated him.[20]

David Lange

A group of retired service heads warned of the consequences of the government’s actions – earning Lange’s denigration as “geriatric generals” and later as “unreconstructed military Neanderthals.”[21] But most New Zealanders acquiesced in the ending of the alliance. In part this stemmed from the lack of any sense of threat because of New Zealand’s isolated position, a situation that was enhanced almost immediately by the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union. Realists recognised, moreover, that with the United States and Australia remaining in lockstep New Zealand enjoyed a free ride in security. Any threat to New Zealand would also be a threat to Australia, invoking the ANZUS treaty, which remained in existence (there is no provision for its abrogation). The end of the U.S.-New Zealand alliance was not without cost though. While the United States refrained from penalising New Zealand economically, it did end a number of advantageous arrangements in the training, equipment purchasing, and intelligence fields.

The lasting damage lay in the impact of these events on the mindsets of the two sides. The anti-American feeling within the government was apparent in New Zealand’s response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Despite UN endorsement of the U.S.-led effort that was mounted to liberate Kuwait, the Labour government could not agree on a response. The efforts of Mike Moore, who assumed the prime ministership on 4 September 1990, were unavailing, leaving him to complain that the “old left” had stymied action. “After advancing for a generation the proposition that the United Nations should be more proactive, they wrung their hands.”[22] Not until the government changed in December 1990 – a conservative administration took over – was New Zealand belatedly able to offer a contribution. By this time it could manage only a non-combatant effort, which arrived too late to take part in Operation Desert Storm.

Since 1990 New Zealand’s efforts in relation to the United States have been focused in two directions – to restore its defence and political relationship with Washington without giving way on the nuclear issue and to achieve a free trade agreement with the United States. The National Party’s return to power in 1990 did not automatically open the way to the restoration of the ANZUS alliance, as some hoped. During the election campaign the party, for tactical reasons, had indicated that it would not alter the anti-nuclear legislation. Against its inclinations, it adhered to this promise even after the United States declared that nuclear weapons had been removed from all but its strategic submarines, which were never likely to visit New Zealand. Nor was it impelled to repeal the legislation when in 1992 a commission of enquiry concluded that nuclear powered ships posed little risk during a short visit.[23]

Short of taking action to remove the main impediment to rejoining ANZUS, the New Zealand government could only seek to demonstrate its usefulness by engaging in a range of activities sponsored or favoured by the United States. New Zealand warships, for example, were dispatched to the Persian Gulf area to join multilateral efforts to ensure that Iraq adhered to UN resolutions. New Zealand continued to contribute personnel to the Multilateral Force and Observers in the Sinai and sent a company-sized unit to assist peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Labour Returns to Power

Helen Clark

These efforts were undermined, however, when Labour returned to power in 1999. The new Prime Minister, Helen Clark, had been one of the key instigators of the anti-nuclear policy in the 1980s. Her administration decided not to proceed with the acquisition from the United States of 28 F-16s for the air force under a lease deal made by the previous government – and then abolished the combat wing of the RNZAF altogether on the grounds that New Zealand had to concentrate scarce resources on its land forces, which were more likely to be used in the current circumstances. With New Zealand facing an apparently benign strategic outlook, which owed much to U.S. nuclear and naval predominance in the Pacific, New Zealand could continue its ‘good international citizen’ approach, concentrating on a range of peacekeeping activities. Nonetheless the possibility of a rapprochement with the United States was always before the government, if only in pursuit of its economic goal.

The terrorist attacks on Washington and New York on 11 September 2001 provided New Zealand with an opportunity to improve ties with Washington. The government offered a token force to the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, aimed at rooting out the Taliban that had sheltered al-Qaeda, the group behind the attacks. Ironically the anti-Vietnam War protestor Helen Clark adopted the same approach that Holyoake had taken in the 1960s: New Zealand, as in Vietnam, contributed a small token force (an SAS detachment, which served several tours) to an American-led war in Asia and for a similar reason. A key factor was the likely consequences for the U.S.-New Zealand relationship of standing aside. Later New Zealand sent a provincial reconstruction team as well – an on-going commitment in 2009.

Unlike Australia, New Zealand was not willing to commit forces to the Iraq War in 2003. However, after President Bush declared ‘victory’ it sent an engineer unit for reconstruction work. When it became clear that the war was continuing, the sappers were withdrawn.

John Key

Despite this, a gradual warming of relations was noticeable, assisted by New Zealand’s cooperative stance on a range of issues, apart from Afghanistan. When Clark visited Washington in 2002 – the first Labour Prime Minister to do so for 20 years – she was gratified to hear Secretary of State Colin Powell state that “we are very, very, very good friends.”[24] She was again warmly received in Washington in 2007; President Bush declared that the nuclear issue was no longer a barrier to close cooperation and referred to New Zealand as a “good friend,” albeit with only two “verys.”[25] When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited New Zealand in July 2008, she reinforced the positive trend, describing New Zealand as both “a friend and an ally.”[26] With Clark’s successor, John Key, also welcomed in Washington in 2009, New Zealand seemed at last to have put the ANZUS dispute behind it. Restoring the formal link no longer figured as a major issue in New Zealand politics – and probably will not unless the strategic situation takes a major turn for the worse.

The second strand in New Zealand’s diplomatic approach to the United States in the post-ANZUS era has been economic ties. This has centred on the possibility of concluding a free trade agreement with United States. Australia managed to secure one in 2004, highlighting its role as a loyal ally. Non-ally New Zealand found itself at a major disadvantage. Nothing had been achieved by the time President Obama took office, and the clouded economic situation – and anti-free trade sentiment within the Democratic Party – threatened to push a possible agreement further into the distance.

A Mixed Relationship
New Zealand-U.S. relations then have been a mixed bag in the last half-century. For the first half of that period, New Zealand sought close ties, and proved willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States on a variety of battlefields – in the South Pacific, Korean peninsula, and Vietnam. In the second half the relationship became fraught, as New Zealand took a seemingly independent approach to the major security issues posed by nuclear weapons. New Zealand’s alliance with the United States foundered on the rock of the public’s aversion to nuclear weapons (encouraged by one particular administration) – and the resulting perceived political risks confronting any government attempting to overturn this policy.

From Washington’s viewpoint New Zealand has since the 1980s been largely out of sight out of mind, too insignificant to register on its radar.

Insecurity pushed New Zealand towards the United States in the 1940s. While for the time being security is not a major concern in New Zealand – if only because of the pax America in the Pacific – economic interests remain an incentive to repair ties and develop a cooperative relationship with Washington. To this end New Zealand servicemen, albeit on a small scale, are again fighting with Americans in Afghanistan, and their efforts have contributed to a warming in U.S.-New Zealand ties. If the ‘greatest gift’ of alliance is now out of reach, New Zealand can by its actions create a sympathetic attitude among American policymakers by participating in a range of activities important to Washington. This may stand it in good stead should the strategic situation in the Pacific take a turn for the worse.End.


[1] Berendsen to McIntosh, 10 Sep 1951, in Ian McGibbon (ed.), Undiplomatic Dialogue, Letters between Carl Berendsen and Alister McIntosh 1943-52 (Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1993), pp.276-7.

[2] Doidgeto Berendsen, 9 May 1950, in Robin Kay (ed.), Documents on New Zealand’s External Relations, Vol. III, The Anzus Pact and the Treaty of Peace with Japan (Government Printer, Wellington, 1985), pp.545-6.

[3] Berendsen to McIntosh, 25 Jun 1951, in McGibbon, Undiplomatic Dialogue, p. 265.

[4] Ian McGibbon, The Path to Gallipoli, Defending New Zealand 1840-1915 (GP Books, Wellington, 1991), p.221.

[5] M.P. Lissington, New Zealand and the United States 1840-1944 (Government Printer, Wellington, 1972), p.36.

[6] S.E. Morison, History of United States Operations in World War II: Vol. IV, Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions May 1942-August 1942 (Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1949), pp. 246-8.

[7] UK High Commissioner, Wellington, to Commonwealth Relations Office, London, 14 Dec 1961, PREM11/3866, UK National Archives, London.

[8] Ian McGibbon, New Zealand and the Korean War, Vol. I, Politics and Diplomacy (Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1992), p. 369.

[9] Ian McGibbon, ‘Forward Defence: the Southeast Asian Commitment’, in Malcolm McKinnon (ed.), New Zealand in World Affairs, Volume II, 1957-1972 (NZIIA, Wellington, 1991), p.30.

[10] Roberto Rabel, New Zealand and the Vietnam War, Politics and Diplomacy (Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2005), p.211.

[11] R.M. Mullins, ‘New Zealand Defence Policy’, in New Zealand Foreign Affairs Review, Jul 1972, p.33.

[12] On this aspect see McGibbon, Korea, I, Ch.13.

[13] Frank Corner, ‘ANZUS et cetera — June 1991’, unpublished typescript, p. 11 (copy in author’s possession).

[14] See recollection of Anne C. Martindell, US Ambassador 1979-81, Evening Post (Wellington), 23 Mar 1985.

[15] Defence Review 1978 (Wellington, 1978), pp.54-5.

[16] Ian McGibbon, ‘New Zealand Defence Policy from Vietnam to the Gulf’, in Bruce Brown (ed.), New Zealand in World Affars, III, 1972-90 (NZIIA, Wellington, 1999), p.124.

[17] David Lange, Nuclear Free — The New Zealand Way (Penguin, Auckland, 1990), p.56.

[18] Defence and Security, What New Zealanders Want, Report of the Defence Committee of Enquiry (Wellington, 1986), pp.40, 44.

[19] American Foreign Policy, Current Documents 1986 (US Government Printing Office, Washington, 1987), p.490.

[20] David Lange, ‘Calling a dead letter a dead letter’, New Zealand International Review, Vol. 14, No 4 (1989), p. 26.

[21] Lange, Nuclear Free, pp.154-5.

[22] Mike Moore, ‘Seeking security through inter-dependence’, New Zealand International Review, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1998), p.21.

[23] Stephen Hoadley, New Zealand United States Relations, friends no longer allies (NZ Institute of International Affairs, Wellington, 2000), p.53.

[24] New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 27 March 2002.

[25] Colin James, ibid., 13 March 2007.

[26] -friend-to-ally.html.

Ian McGibbon is General Editor (War History) at the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and has published widely on the history of New Zealand’s international affairs and military history. His books include the two-volume official history New Zealand and the Korean War (1992, 1996). He edited the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History (2000). His latest work, New Zealand’s Vietnam War, Supporting the Republic of Vietnam, 1962-75, will be published in early 2010. Since 1981 he has been managing editor of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs journal New Zealand International Review. He was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to historical research in 1997.

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