The deputy Prime Minister during the 1985-86 ANZUS dispute, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, last night offered a new insight into the crisis which suggests that at least one key member of the US administration at the time sympathised with the New Zealand position.

The US formally ended its defence alliance with New Zealand because of this country’s ban on nuclear powered and armed ships at a meeting Manila in June 1986  between US Secretary of State and George Shultz and New Zealand Prime Minister, David Lange.

Shultz famously said: “”We part company as friends, but we part company, as far as the alliance is concerned.”

Attention at the time – not surprisingly — focussed on the second part of that sentence.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer

But last night Palmer suggested Shultz was a reluctant departee and that maybe the first part of the sentence with its reference to “friends” was just as important.

He was speaking at a symposium at Parliament organised by the Public Advisory Committee for Disarmament and Arms Control.

Shultz had been a Marine during World War Two and had served in Samoa and as a second lieutenant led US troops onto the Tuvalu northern atoll of Naunumea, expecting to encounter Japanese.

Instead, he found only Tuvaluans who he addressed in Samoan.

They responded in English.


He often told this story to New Zealanders perhaps as a way of indicating his empathy with the South Pacific.

Palmer said that Shultz told him in September 1985 that he knew New Zealanders.

“They were from a small, law abiding country with a very direct sort of democracy,” said Palmer.

“They were not going to accept the ambivalences on the issue that were accepted in some quarters. “

That was an indirect reference to the US Navy position which was essentially that if New Zealand didn’t ask whether a ship carried nuclear weapons, then there would be no need for the US to breach its “neither confirm nor deny” policy.

Palmer continued to paraphrase Shultz.

“Deception and dissembling would not work with New Zealanders.

“ He was saying the US required more ambiguity than New Zealanders could live with. ‘We can’t go there. You will have to decide what to do now.’ said Palmer.

The conventional wisdom up till now has always been that the US failed to understand how New Zealand had arrived at its anti nuclear position and that was why its response was so blunt.

But Palmer’s speech last night suggests that Shultz fully understood the New Zealand position, and possibly even sympathised with it, but that he was powerless to change the hardline views of other parts of the Reagen administration, particularly Defence headed by Casper Weinberger.

Palmer notes the way the policy has evolved over the past 30 years and said the 1991 US decision to remove nuclear weapons from their ships reduced the significance of the “neither confirm nor deny” policy and the underlying dispute with New Zealand. 

But he warned that the improving relationship of New Zealand with the United States may pose some challenges in advocating for action on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons agreed in New York on 8 July 2017.

“The successful negotiation of this Treaty is the most stunning achievement in nuclear disarmament for many years,” he said.

New Zealand voted for this while most of its traditional allies; the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Australia and Japan all voted against it as did Russia.

Palmer said it would be a stern struggle to turn around the attitudes of the nuclear weapons states and their supporters.

“The only secure protection for humanity is to ban the nuclear bomb and eliminate it.  

“It will not be possible to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds on this issue.”

“New Zealand’s history of courage and determination in the anti-nuclear struggle have given us a significant voice. 

“Let it be heard.”