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The Anzus collapse revisited: Friendly Fire, by Gerald Hensley

Gerald Hensley is a self-effacing narrator who ushers us behind the scenes of the great falling out between new Zealand and the united States over nuclear ship visits.

Nuclear submarine USS Haddo entering Auckland with an escort of protesters and police launches in 1979. Photo/NZH

Was it all a colossal misunderstanding? A farce? Our finest hour? Or, as a journalist put it at the time, “the most expensive form of middle-class psychotherapy yet practised in this country”?

The great falling out between New Zealand and the United States over nuclear ship visits was certainly, as Gerald Hensley says at the outset of his book, a strange story. Nearly 30 years on, it still seems slightly unreal.

So sudden, too. One minute (broadly speaking) New Zealand was a loyal junior partner in the Western military alliance led by the US; next minute it’s giving Washington the finger. Why that happened raises more questions than Anzus. Hensley tends to skirt those questions. His book is not a general history of the ship row but an insider’s take on the political and diplomatic machinations that oiled its wheels.

He was head of the Prime Minister’s Department for most of the period described; he witnessed much of what happened first-hand, and also in writing this book has accessed a small library of official papers.

His control of the material is masterful. It’s hard to think of another book by a government insider so elegantly written, so leavened with wit, irony and a sense of history. As befits a career diplomat, the word “I” barely appears. Politely but firmly this self-effacing narrator ushers us behind the scenes of a political drama and talks us through the much-amended script.

He also, of course, had a front seat at the three-ring one-man circus called David Lange. “This story often shows the lesser David,” he wisely says, “but it needs to be kept in mind that there was another David as well” – the one whose “brilliance and generosity of spirit” left an enduring mark.

Right. The rest is evasiveness, ambiguity, downright duplicity, politics as blarney, “policy by blurt”. For Hensley, Lange was largely to blame for the breakdown in communications between Washington and Wellington; the implication is that the row might have been resolved without loss of honour on either side had a staider, steadier politician been at the helm.

Hensley strains to be fair to the nuclear-free movement and indeed the New Zealand people, the majority of whom consistently opposed having nuclear-armed ships in their ports. But it’s clear where his sympathies lie. The Americans here are generally portrayed as sensible, fair, forbearing, puzzled and hurt by “this baffling and moody nation”, very much the long-suffering parent coping with a wayward child.

Why, then, did it happen? Hensley’s most plausible thesis: nascent nationalism found a cause around which it could rally. After the 70s, he writes, “an uneasy nationalism floated in the air, like gas in a mine, and Anzus was the spark that touched it off”.

Significantly, he points out, government dropped by a generation when Lange’s lot came to power. The very security, underwritten by America, in which the baby boomers had grown up gave them the confidence to cock a snook at it. Plucky little Aotearoa was the mouse that roared. As Geoffrey Palmer beamed after Lange’s triumph at the Oxford Union debate, “People are now feeling good about being New Zealanders.”

The US (and Britain) took this with a fearful seriousness. “You will pull a thread that unravels Western security,” a British admiral warned Lange. There was genuine alarm that (in one of Hensley’s many witty phrases) “New Zealand, drinking at the bar of world opinion, might grow expansive and order anti-nuclear refreshment for everyone”.

Hensley believes Anzus’s collapse was bad for New Zealand. A longer, wider view might suggest that, in the end, no great harm was done. Not gas but fresh air was pumped into the mine.


Denis Welch was the Listener’s political columnist from 1984-92. He is author of Helen Clark: A Political Life.