‘Peace, Power & Politics: How New Zealand Became Nuclear Free’ by Maire Leadbeater

Peace, Power & Politics cover (1)Peace, Power & Politics: How New Zealand Became Nuclear Free
by Maire Leadbeater
Otago University Press,  2013
ISBN 978-1-877578-58-8

New Zealand’s nuclear-free status remains a proud part of the national psyche. In celebrating this achievement, it is easy to lose sight of the diverse acts of individual sacrifice, bravery, and sheer determination that built the movement and, ultimately, that secured its success. In this book, Maire Leadbeater reveals the many faces and forms of the peace movement and outlines its development across an inspiring quarter century of activism.

Leadbeater picks up the narrative in 1975. In the 1960s, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was still characterised as “a radical left-of-centre movement”. With the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fresh in their minds, and inspired by a pacifist tradition stretching back through the Vietnam War to World War I, a diverse collection of New Zealanders – from ministers of religion to “socialists, students and outspoken academics” – began coming together to demonstrate their opposition to nuclear weapons.

One way to understand this book is as a book of two halves – the first organised around the numerous contests that culminated in the Lange Government’s decision to reject the visit by the USS Buchanan, and the second focusing on the consolidation of New Zealand’s nuclear-free stance and the subsequent diversification of the movement. An important thread in the first half is the clash between the Muldoon Government’s ongoing desire for more US ship visits and the peace movement’s determined and creative opposition. Evocative passages describe the Peace Squadron’s David and Goliath battle against incoming ships and submarines – from the young protester who boarded and danced upon the visiting USS Haddo submarine to the yellow paint bombs and imitation mines wielded by the motley collection of boaties, sailors, kayakers, and even surfers.

The book paints a picture of a movement that was deep and diverse, organising itself far beyond the opposition to ship visits. Leadbeater describes the successful opposition to nuclear power, the campaign for a nuclear-free Pacific, the protests against US military bases in New Zealand, and the bottom-up initiative which saw houses, organisations, boroughs and councils declare themselves nuclear free. Across these separate campaigns, common faces pop up, and Leadbeater’s thorough analysis and deep passion for the common cause of peace and disarmament weaves these different fronts of the movement together.

The most powerful part of the book is the sense of culmination when, in 1985, Lange refuses to allow the USS Buchanan to visit. This followed the “Vote for Peace” campaign, which placed political pressure on the incoming Lange Government in 1984. Although the battle was not won at this point, the popular mandate that had been building for so long gave an important sense of momentum.

This was not the end of the road. The second half of the book details how the nuclear stance was consolidated from 1987 to 1993 and how the movement applied the energy and passion developed in successful campaigning to a host of other peace-related issues. An important part of this consolidation was the passage of the nuclear-free-zone legislation in June 1987. The political contest continued until 1993, however, as the National Party tried to reconcile its historic opposition to the nuclear-free policy and its desire to remain in ANZUS with the growing recognition that New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy was here to stay. Internal debates within the National Party and thorough lobbying and public mobilisation kept the pressure on, until in 1990 Jim Bolger stated the party’s support for an unambiguous nuclear-free stand. After further mobilisation through the National Government’s first term, Jim Bolger confirmed that the anti-nuclear policy would remain the same for the 1993 election. As Leadbeater writes: “A conservative government had bent to the will of the people.”

This second half includes the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior and also expands the scope of analysis to show the many threads to the peace movement. It includes a fascinating chapter on how New Zealand secured an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legality of the use of nuclear weaponry. Leadbeater shows how a campaign begun by a retired Christchurch magistrate – Harold Evans – reaches the UN General Assembly. When a vote is taken, New Zealand breaks ranks with the West to join 77 other states in the Non-Aligned Movement in voting for an advisory opinion. Leadbeater also lays out the ongoing struggles in the Pacific, from the Fiji elections and coup of 1987 to the renewed French nuclear testing in 1995. The French nuclear testing of 1995 highlights an interesting transition that has occurred since 1975. By 1995, the New Zealand Government is openly and vociferously opposed to the testing – on both sides of the House. This makes a powerful contrast to the small collection of passionate peace activists who the reader meets at the beginning of the book. Leadbeater captures how the meticulous planning of seemingly isolated events combined to create an avalanche of public opinion.

Amidst this detail, some pieces of the puzzle are left out. Leadbeater paints a powerful picture of the activities engaged in by the peace movement, and it is clear that over time the peace movement comes to occupy a central and revered position in the eyes of the wider public. However, the clash of ideas that must have occurred is strangely absent: the other side of the debate goes largely unmentioned. Occasionally, US officials who are critical of New Zealand’s idealism feature, but absent are the debates that must have occurred in families, in workplaces, and in newspapers across the country as people challenged the demands of the peace movement which must have seemed radical at times.

In an era when protest is perhaps less alive than it once was, it would have been helpful to hear more about the backgrounds of those involved in the peace movement. Individual leaders in the movement are profiled, but one wonders who the rank and file were that were breaking with the rhythm of their lives to demonstrate and to call for change. Although much has changed in the intervening years, understanding the social dynamics of the movement could offer valuable lessons to those who are continuing to advocate for justice and a better world.

These are small quibbles in the context of a well-written and thoroughly researched account of a formative chapter in the nation’s history. As memories of these events fade into a distant past and the mass of activity associated with them is reduced to the simple phrase, “A nuclear-free New Zealand”, Leadbeater brings this period alive. She intersperses a thorough historical account with her own experience of grassroots organising, and in doing so offers both a comprehensive overview of the peace movement and a sense of the excitement which must have been felt by all those who took part. To conclude on a personal note, as a member of the generation struggling to avert the climate crisis, the process of social change can feel daunting and rather lonely. There is something deeply motivating about seeing how, after more than twenty years of gritty organising, the nuclear-free movement came out on top. As such, this book is a timely reminder of the power, the potential and the promise of social change.

Louis Chambers