Ship visits and public opinion
The visit of the nuclear-powered frigate USS Texas in 1983 sparked protest in New Zealand. An election was just around the corner, and the issue of nuclear ship visits would play a prominent part in the campaign.
Visits from warships like the Texas had been a controversial topic long before the 1984 election. Two nuclear-powered cruisers, the USS Truxtun and the USS Long Beach, had attracted protest when they visited New Zealand in 1976. On each occasion, Civil Defence established a public safety headquarters for the duration of the visit. Similar action was taken for the visits of the submarines USS Pintado in 1978 and USS Haddo in 1979. Clearly there was recognition of the risks posed by this technology.
At issue was whether these ships were nuclear-armed as well as nuclear-powered. American policy was to 'neither confirm nor deny' this, and most allies chose not to ask – an arrangement that made many people uncomfortable.
Public opinion was increasingly in favour of banning these visits. Between 1978 and 1983 opposition to nuclear-armed ship visits rose from 32% to 72%. Few New Zealanders felt threatened by the Soviet Union (Britain and America's great bogey), but they feared the nuclear bomb and agreed with David Lange that ‘there’s only one thing worse than being incinerated by your enemies, and that’s being incinerated by your friends’.
The National government led by Robert Muldoon saw these visits as an important expression of New Zealand’s support for ANZUS and the country’s relationship with the United States.