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The Cold War

Page 2 – Overview

Fighting the communists

New Zealand’s participation in the Cold War was shaped by its decision to support the Western powers in their confrontation with the Soviet Union after the Second World War.

Why a Cold War?

Cold War: a state of political and military tension between two countries or power blocs that stops short of full-scale war. This term was first used to describe post-war tensions between the Western powers and the Soviet Union during a speech by US presidential advisor Bernard Baruch in April 1947. It was popularised by writer Walter Lippmann in his book Cold War (1947).

During the late 1940s New Zealand agreed to support Britain in the Middle East in the event of war with the Soviet Union, and sent troops to Korea (1950-1953) when communist North Korea invaded US-backed South Korea. In 1951, New Zealand and Australia strengthened Pacific security by signing the ANZUS military defence treaty with the United States. At home, Cold War paranoia saw Communist Party members removed from government jobs, while strikers during the 1951 waterfront dispute were labelled communists for disrupting the war effort in Korea.

The emergence of communist China and the spread of political instability through former European colonies in South-East Asia saw New Zealand join the anti-communist South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) in 1954. They backed up this commitment by providing troops to counter a communist insurgency in British-ruled Malaya (1949-1960) and sending combat forces to South Vietnam (1965-1972) during the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, protests at home raised questions about New Zealand’s foreign policy. Many felt that the government’s policy of defence via alliances was misguided and increased the likelihood of New Zealand getting dragged into foreign wars.

Nuclear stand-off

Anti-war protests were part of a broader scepticism about Cold War ideology that emerged during the 1960s. The rise of the non-aligned movement demonstrated that countries in Asia, Africa and South America were tired of Cold War rivalries, while the Cuban missile crisis (1962) turned global opinion against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Cold War leaders

New Zealand

Peter Fraser (1940-49)
Sidney Holland (1949-57)
Walter Nash (1957-60)
Keith Holyoake (1960-72)
Norman Kirk (1972-74)
Bill Rowling (1974-75)
Robert Muldoon (1975-84)
David Lange (1984-89)

United States

Harry S. Truman (1945-53)
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-61)
John F. Kennedy (1961-63)
Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69)
Richard Nixon (1969-74)
Gerald Ford (1974-77)
Jimmy Carter (1977-81)
Ronald Reagan (1981-89)

Soviet Union

Joseph Stalin (1922-52)
Nikita Khrushchev (1953-64)
Leonid Brezhnev (1964-82)
Yuri Andropov (1982-84)
Konstantin Chernenko (1984-85)
Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91)


Mao Zedong – People’s Republic of China (1949-76)
Ho Chi Minh – North Vietnam (1945-69)
Ngo Dinh Diem – South Vietnam (1955-63)

Some New Zealanders joined a growing international peace movement concerned at the devastating potential of nuclear weapons. Nuclear testing in the Pacific by Britain and the United States (1957-1961), and France (1966–74) 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.

Cold War tensions escalated again during the 1980s as both sides enhanced and enlarged their arsenals of nuclear weapons. The confrontation intensified further after the Soviet Union and United States began deploying missiles across Europe. This stand-off sharpened New Zealand’s apprehension about nuclear weapons and there were vocal fears that the ANZUS alliance with the United States would drag the country into a nuclear war.

These concerns came together in opposition to the presence of nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed ships in New Zealand ports. In 1985, the Labour government declined the visit of an American destroyer – USS Buchanan – leading the United States to formally suspend its ANZUS security guarantee to New Zealand. Despite this outcome, the depth of sentiment in New Zealand saw the National government retain an anti-nuclear stance when it came to power in 1990. By then the Cold War was approaching its end. Soviet control in east and central Europe collapsed after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. The break-up of the Soviet Union itself at the end of 1991 completed the process.

How to cite this page

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