Peace, Power & Politics: How New Zealand Became Nuclear Free
by Maire Leadbeater
Otago University Press, 2013
Kevin P Clements, National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago.
Maire Leadbeater is Elsie Locke’s daughter. She has inherited Elsie’s passion for writing and peace and like her mother combines both in this book. This book is a sequel to Elsie’s 1992 book Peace People: A History of Peace Activities in New Zealand. Peace People. The original book focused our attention on anti-war and peace activism in New Zealand from the Nineteenth Century Land Wars through to 1975.
Maire’s book is a worthy sequel to Elsie’s but concentrates on the anti nuclear and other peace movements from the late 1950s through to 2000. Maire is extremely well placed to write this book since she has been a peace campaigner as well as an excellent chronicler and historian. We were both active members of the Youth Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, for example, in the 1960s and both of us have tried to make academic as well as political sense of all the diverse ebbs and flows of the New Zealand Peace movement over the last 65 years.. In addition to her anti nuclear engagement Maire has also been acvtively involved in the movements for East Timorese Independence and the Free Papua movement as well. This book, therefore, not only reflects a preoccupation with how NZ became nuclear free it also imbeds this movement in the struggles for Melanesian and Polynesian independence and the growing regional concerns with the dangers of nuclear and other kinds of environmental pollution.
The first half of the book focuses on all the different movements aimed at ensuring New Zealand unilaterally dissociate itself from nuclear weapon madness and the dangers of so called peaceful nuclear energy. The second half of the book documents all the different peace and anti war campaigns that characterised the 1990s. This includes mobilisations against the 1991 Gulf War, the reconfiguring of the New Zealand defence Force , a growing opposition to surveillance generally ( the Waihopai spy base in particular) and an analysis of a number of different resistance movements in Melanesia and elsewhere. To some extent the second half of the book is more interesting than the first which has been rehearsed in a number of other volumes over the years.
Maire is a meticulous researcher, chasing down facts, incidents and potential accidents that helped generate a generalised distress with the presence of nuclear armed and powered ships in New Zealand waters. There were a number of triggers that fuelled anti nuclear concern. New Zealanders didn’t realise, for example, that ships which visited New Zealand in the 1960s ( like the USS Providence in 1968 ) were carrying nuclear weapons into our harbours. When we became conscious of these visits and their deadly cargo public opinion started to shift against them very quickly even though official resistance to the peace movement remained strong.
The anti nuclear movement, however, prevailed and New Zealand’s anti nuclear policy now has strong bi partisan support. The big on going challenge is how to ensure that NZ does not sit on its laurels and that we work with friends, allies, and potential enemies to rid the whole world of such weapons. The fact that the National Government abolished the Minister for Disarmament and gutted the arms control and disarmament capacity of Foreign Affairs suggests that we are comfortable with symbolic stands as long as they do not require the commitment of staff and resources to give them material impact. Maire’s book does an excellent job of describing how all the different anti nuclear streams became an irresistable movement.
In the second half of the book she neatly weaves anti nuclear activities with wider solidarity with the Independence movements in French Polynesia; opposition to military coups in Fiji; the struggle for East Timorese Independence and the Human Rights and Independence Movements in West Papua. What is interesting in this book is the ways in which different types of movement activities lay the groundwork for later activism. Maire makes an excellent case for the ways in which the 1991 opposition to the First Gulf war, for example, helped generate widespread opposition to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.
As described in this book the the New Zealand Peace movement has been extraordinarily responsive to a wide range of regional and global challenges to the peace. With the advantage of hindsight the Peace Movement has been prescient in many of its pre-occupations and predictions. Its diagnosis of the direct and indirect medical consequences of nuclear testing were spot on. Concern about the long term negative consequences of military coups in Fiji has proven right. The generalised anxiety about the wisdom of occupying Iraq has also been proven right. More recently, opposition to NZ’s engagement with Echelon and the UKUSA intelligence arrangements ( focused on the Waihopai spy base) has also been vindicated in the light of the Snowden revelations and the challenges posed by the gathering of meta data by the UK, the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
To some extent, the NZ Peace movement has grown complacent over the past 14 years. Both the last Labour Government and the current National Government have worked to restore military and intelligence ties with the US ( most of which were suspended after the Nuclear Free legislation was passed in 1985). This new closer relationship with the US poses all sorts of problems for the retention and on going utility of our nuclear free status. It also makes it more difficult to exercise independent judgement on key foreign policy issues. One of the key messages of this book is that the Peace movement cannot afford to let its guard down. We need whistle blowers, artists, cartoonists, musicians, bloggers , writers, activists to keep advocating the values of building cultures and structures of peace to replace the cultures and structures of violence. Leadbeater reminds us that this task will take a long time. Her book, however, is a wonderful documentation of the historical legacy that the next generation of NZ peacemakers has to build its own movements on. We just have to hope that they will rise to the occasion when and as required . This book demonstrates clearly how many New Zealand post war baby boomers made sense of their world and did what they could to advance the independence of oppressed peoples, end nuclear catastrophe, work for privacy and promote the security that flows from co-operative non offensive approaches to defence and security, I heartily commend it to anyone seeking to understand the struggle for peace and justice in Aotearoa-New Zealand