New Zealand's Nuclear History

Patrick Conaton
February 22, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Signatory Countries of the ANZUS Treaty. [3] (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In an age of nuclear energy and growing global power imbalances, security is the affirmed backbone of civil states. Security, however, is not a matter of military strength or capability. As is the case with New Zealand, smaller nations are at the will of larger, more militarily advanced countries that could quickly quell any significant military developments. [1] Instead, for New Zealand "it is entirely appropriate, therefore to pursue national security through vigorous social and economic policies at home, with very active trade and diplomatic initiatives internationally." [1] New Zealand international affairs are defined politically, not militarily.

Foreign Policy

New Zealand has never been in the conversation over nuclear weapons. Instead they have always leaned on the United States or the United Kingdom for these matters. [1] New Zealand nuclear sentiment has been grounded in pacification but only in the past few decades have they grown enthusiastically. In the 1984 peace movement, New Zealand was declared a nuclear free nation, imposing bans "on the entry of nuclear-armed and/or powered warships to New Zealand ports." [1] In 1987, New Zealand passed the Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act. However, their new nuclear policy damaged military relations with the United States, namely violating terms of the Australia, New Zealand, and United States Treaty (Fig. 1). Ultimately, New Zealand was condemned "for ignoring the 'realities' of nuclear deterrence in the international system, and for seeking to redefine ANZUS as a conventional alliance while benefitting from the peace established by the threat of mutually assured destruction." [2] Since, New Zealand's foreign policy has been aligned with neutrality, non-alignment, and nuclear-free, especially as it pertains to nuclear weapons. [2]

Fig. 2: USS Buchanan visiting Sydney, Australia 1985. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

ANZUS Treaty

The ANZUS treaty was enforced in April 1952 when Australia, New Zealand, and the United States ratified the security treaty. Each party found it in their best interest to form this Pacific Pact, the United States for pacific allies and New Zealand and Australia for a mightier one. The ANZUS Treaty was truly a security blanket for New Zealand as the United States was sworn to protect them under any circumstance, even nuclear. [3] Under the treaty, United States vessels were welcome in New Zealand ports. As ANZUS was "essentially a maritime alliance," nuclear-armed warships patrolling and passing through the pacific would undoubtedly need to stop at New Zealand or Australia. [2] With New Zealand's non-nuclear sentiment strengthening in the decades following the signing of the treaty, they became increasingly more "concern[ed] about the nuclear arms race and the intrusion of superpower militarism in the South-West Pacific." [2] In 1985, New Zealand outwardly refused a visit from a nuclear United States vessel, the USS Buchanan (Fig. 2). As such, New Zealand was barred from the treaty and New Zealand established itself as a nuclear-free zone. [2]

© Patrick Conaton. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] K. Clements, Back From the Brink: The Creation of a Nuclear-Free New Zealand (Unwin Hyman, 1989).

[2] M. Pugh, The ANZUS Crisis, Nuclear Visiting and Deterrence (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[3] A. Watt, "The ANZUS Treaty: Past, Present and Future," Australian Outlook 24, 17 (2008).