NZ in the world - 1945-87

Page 2 – Overview

Before the Second World War New Zealand's international relations were straightforward; we looked to Britain for our security and economic well-being. Japanese expansion in the Pacific shattered this comfortable world view. After the British surrender of Singapore in February 1942 New Zealand could no longer rely on Britain for its defence. The Pacific War drew New Zealand closer to the United States. Close to 100,000 American soldiers were stationed here from 1942. After the war New Zealand and Australia looked to the United States for its regional security culminating in the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951.

New Zealand maintained its commitment to collective security when it became a foundation member of the United Nations in 1945. It also sought to maintain its relationship with Britain through the British Commonwealth of Nations.

During the Cold War New Zealand sided firmly with the anti-communist nations led by the United States. As a part of this commitment New Zealand joined regional alliances such as SEATO. New Zealand forces also saw action in Korea, Malaya and Vietnam. In 1951 the Cold War was fought out much closer to home during the bitter waterfront dispute. The rhetoric of the Cold War saw opposing sides denounced each other as ‘Nazis’, ‘Commies’, ‘traitors’ and ‘terrorists’.

New Zealand played an important role in the Pacific region. As well as being a source of financial aid and support New Zealand assisted island states such as Western Samoa, the Cook Islands and Niue achieve independence. New Zealand also participated in various Pacific organisations aimed at promoting political and economic stability in the region.

On the wider international stage the two dominant issues as far as New Zealand was concerned were sporting ties with South Africa and the nuclear debate.

Many countries had stopped all sporting contact with South Africa in protest over its racist apartheid policies. The All Blacks and South African Springbok rugby teams had a fierce rivalry going back to 1921. When the All Blacks toured South Africa in 1976 there were calls from a number of countries to punish New Zealand by banning it from the upcoming Montreal Olympics. When the IOC refused to ban New Zealand nearly 30 African nations boycotted the games. In 1981 the Springbok tour to New Zealand saw protest and violence on an unprecedented scale.

From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s the nuclear debate in New Zealand centred on two key issues: opposition to French nuclear tests at Mururoa and opposition to American warships' visits to New Zealand. On both issues New Zealand gained the reputation as a small nation willing to stand up to the ‘big boys’ in maintaining its own independent foreign policy.

In July 1985 French secret service agents sunk the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour. New Zealand captured and imprisoned two of the French agents involved. France reacted by making it known it would make it hard for New Zealand to trade with Europe. Relations between the two countries deteriorated badly. The United Nations intervened in a bid to mediate and bring about a settlement.

Almost simultaneously New Zealand was becoming embroiled in a dispute with its major defence partner the United States. The Labour government elected in 1984 banned ships that were either nuclear-powered or capable of carrying nuclear weapons from entering New Zealand waters. This challenged the United States policy of neither ‘confirming nor denying’ the nuclear status of any of their ships. New Zealand's relationship with the United States was downgraded from ally to ‘good friend’ and ANZUS was no more.

How to cite this page

'Overview', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 4-Aug-2014