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The Cold War

Page 6 – Protest and dissent

Questioning the Cold War

The fall of South Vietnam in 1975 did not have the dire consequences predicted by ‘domino’ theorists. Although the Indochina dominos – Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos – fell to communism, the rest of South-East Asia remained politically stable. With boundaries in the region settled, the focus of the Cold War shifted away from Asia and the need for ‘forward defence’ diminished. These changes, together with the anti-Vietnam War movement, ushered in a new era of debate about Cold War policies and New Zealand’s place in the world.


The doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) states that the full-scale use of weapons of mass destruction by two opposing sides would result in the complete annihilation of both attacker and defender. Developed by US mathematician John von Neumann, MAD was seen as helping prevent a direct full-scale conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

These challenges to the Cold War consensus were, in part, fostered by the rise of the non-aligned movement in the 1960s. Led by Indonesia, India, Yugoslavia, Egypt and Ghana, the movement comprised countries which did not want formally to ally themselves with either Cold War power bloc. The United States and the Soviet Union soon found themselves competing for favour among the non-aligned states. Neither side made major gains, although their support of client states in Central America and Africa caused periodic alarm.


Behind this diplomatic manoeuvring, both ‘superpowers’ continued to enhance and enlarge their arsenals of nuclear weapons. Despite this nuclear build-up, the prospect of ‘mutual assured destruction’ limited the threat of direct confrontation. This became apparent after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when, faced with the threat of war, the Soviet Union withdrew nuclear missiles it had begun to instal in Cuba. From 1969 both sides entered negotiations to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons. This period of co-operation was known as ‘détente’.

Peace movement

The Cuban crisis turned global opinion against the proliferation of nuclear arms. New Zealanders joined a growing international peace movement concerned at the devastating potential of nuclear weapons. Nuclear testing in the Pacific by Britain, the US, and France during the 1950s and 1960s heightened these fears. In 1974 the Labour government proposed the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the South Pacific, and this was eventually ratified in 1985.

How to cite this page

Protest and dissent, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated