Scoop Review of Books

The battle for nuclear sanity

Peace, Power and Politics: How New Zealand Became Nuclear Free by Maire Leadbeater (Otago University Press, $55)
Review by Cameron Walker


In 1992 Elsie Locke, the mother of Maire Leadbeater, published Peace People: A History of Peace Activities in New Zealand. Peace People charted anti-war and peace activism in New Zealand from the Nineteenth Century Land Wars through to 1975. Peace, Power and Politics continues the history of these movements through to the year 2000.
Through her involvement in the campaigns for nuclear disarmament, East Timorese independence and more recently human rights in West Papua, Leadbeater has developed a reputation as an astute researcher. These skills are well applied in this book.

The first half of the book focuses on the enthusiastic movements that, through careful research, patient lobbying and direct action protest on land and water, eventually made opposition to nuclear weapons and nuclear energy the majority public opinion in this country. The second half documents peace and anti-war campaigns that continued after the passing of the anti-nuclear legislation, including mobilisations against the 1991 Gulf War, frigate purchases, French nuclear testing, the construction of Waihopai spybase and the blockade of Bougainville.
Many of these later campaigns have not been documented in a book before.
Throughout the book are photographs, cartoons, posters and other illustrations which in conjunction with the text give a great sense of the events described.
Active nuclear weapons on US ships in Wellington Harbour
Some of the details of nuclear ship visits between the end of World War II and 1984 can make for unsettling reading. When the USS Providence, a US Navy guided missile destroyer, visited Wellington in 1968, after a tour of duty in Vietnam, one of the vessel’s senior officers admitted to journalists in an unguarded moment that active nuclear warheads were on board. Stories like this help explain why there was such large opposition to nuclear ship visits.
Many accounts of New Zealand’s nuclear free policy end with the passing of the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act in 1987 but this book includes a chapter on the early 1990s campaign to protect the legislation when senior members of the then National government’s cabinet, most notably Foreign Minister Don McKinnon, unsuccessfully tried abandoning the nuclear free policy.
Documenting the wider Pacific movement: New Caledonia and Fiji
Another strength of this book is that it documents the wider Pacific nuclear free movement and solidarity groups formed in New Zealand to work alongside those in the Pacific region bearing the brunt of nuclear testing, military coups and neo-colonialism by the US and France.
During the 1980s the French authorities engaged in violent repression of indigenous Kanak activists in New Caledonia – a territory which is New Zealand’s closest overseas neighbour, geographically even closer than Australia. This prompted the formation of New Zealand Kanak support groups, which agitated the French authorities enough that New Zealand activists, including Leadbeater were denied visas to visit New Caledonia.
Another chapter details the effects Colonel Rabuka’s 1987 coup in Fiji against the democratically elected Fiji Labour government, of Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra, had on the anti-nuclear movement in New Zealand and the wider Pacific region. Bavadra was a strong opponent of nuclear testing and visits by US warships. Ronald Reagan failed to condemn the coup. A Sydney Morning Herald article also quoted an unnamed Pentagon source as saying ‘[W]e’re kinda delighted… All of a sudden our ships couldn’t go to Fiji and now all of a sudden they can…’.
The New Zealand based Coalition for Democracy in Fiji, which involved the peace movement, trade unions and anti-coup New Zealand Fijians, frantically campaigned for the New Zealand government not to accommodate the new coup regime.
Leadbeater discusses the divisions the Fiji coup caused amongst activists who had previously worked together in the nuclear free movement. Three Maori activists Atareta Poananga, Titewhai Harawira and Pat Hohepa visited Fiji to meet Rabuka’s Taueki movement and congratulated the Colonel for his “stand against colonialism”. Their pro-coup stand was condemned by other prominent voices within Maoridom, such as the academic Ranganui Walker who wrote in a 1987 issue of the Listener: “[I]f we acquiesce to government by the gun in Fiji how can we condemn it in New Caledonia and elsewhere?”.
Leadbeater noted ”[T]he view that the colonel was an anti-colonialist was hard to reconcile with Rabuka’s cosiness with Fiji’s pro-Western elite”.
Mobilisations against the Gulf War and sanctions
The New Zealand public was largely opposed to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Peace, Power and Politics argues convincingly that groundwork conducted by those who mobilised against the 1991 Gulf War and the crippling sanctions against Iraq made the public much more receptive to the case against the 2003 invasion.
The sanctions imposed in the 1990s and early 2000s prevented Iraq from importing life saving medicines and medical equipment or building materials necessary to repair damage done to essential infrastructure during the 1991 war. Iraq was unable to export goods either, causing the economy to fall into disarray. New Zealand sent frigates to help enforce the sanctions, intercepting Iraqi ships attempting to carry dates to export markets.
New Zealand and ex-pat Iraqi doctors set up the Iraqi Sanctions Medical Alert Group in 1998 to bring attention to the suffering the sanctions were causing Iraq’s civilian population. According to UNICEF by 1999 the sanctions had caused the preventable deaths of 500,000 children. The Iraqi Sanctions Medical Alert Group toured Dennis Halliday, the UN Relief Co-Ordinator in Iraq who resigned in disgust over the sanctions in 2000. During his visit the newly elected Labour government announced it no longer supported blanket sanctions on Iraq.
Another chapter focuses on the history of the Government Communication Security Bureau’s Waihopai spybase, near Blenheim, which has attracted protest ever since its planned construction was first announced in 1987. This chapter is an excellent backgrounder to last year’s debate about the GCSB Amendment Act.
Peace, Power and Politics provides a welcome reminder of how, in the not too distant past, popular movements successfully challenged government policy on nukes and war making.
In an era where the New Zealand government is deepening military and intelligence ties with the US, increasing the possibility our country will be dragged into more completely unnecessary conflicts, this book is very important.

Otago Daily Times review
New Zealand Herald profile


Cameron Walker is a BA/LLB student at the University of Auckland.