Domestically, the Cold War influenced New Zealand politics. In 1949 the New Zealand National Party came to power under a platform aimed at safeguarding the country against communism and socialism. The National Party retained power in New Zealand for much of the remainder of the Cold War.
New Zealand formalized its relationship with the United States via the September 1951 Australia–New Zealand–United States (ANZUS) Pact. The ANZUS Pact provided New Zealand with some assurances that the United States would come to its assistance if attacked, while New Zealand's interpretation of the pact served as its guide for Cold War foreign policy. The treaty is significant in that it was the first one signed by New Zealand without the United Kingdom and ultimately led to New Zealand's participation in various Cold War conflicts around the world.
New Zealand was one of the first countries to respond to the call by the United Nations (UN) for troops in support of the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) after that country was invaded by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) on 25 June 1950. On 26 July, the New Zealand government voted to raise a volunteer force, known as Kayforce, to serve with UN forces in Korea. Kayforce remained in Korea until 1957, almost four years after the July 1953 armistice. Nearly 6,000 New Zealanders served in Korea during this period, with 33 killed in action.
Concurrent with the Korean War, New Zealand responded to British appeals for support during the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960). New Zealand contributed a number of different types of forces to the Commonwealth cause against the communist insurgents, and in the process fifteen New Zealanders died. New Zealand also contributed to the Commonwealth force that operated in Borneo during Indonesia's konfrontasi policy during 1963–1965 and remained involved in the region until October 1966, after which time its Cold War focus turned to the conflict in Vietnam.
New Zealand's involvement in the Vietnam War began in 1962, when it sent a small number of military advisors to the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) in support of that country's war against communist insurgents. In May 1965, New Zealand agreed to add an artillery battery to its Vietnam contingent. Prime Minister Keith Holyoake (1957, 1960–1972) helped push through parliament a resolution to introduce additional forces in June 1966 that fell under the operational control of the Australian Task Force positioned in Phouc Tuy Province. Approximately 3,900 New Zealanders served in Vietnam during 1962–1972, with a peak strength of 543 in January 1969. Thirty-eight soldiers were killed in the war.
In 1972, New Zealand elected the Labour Party to power, altering the country's foreign policy objectives and Cold War experiences. The Labour Party had opposed New Zealand's Vietnam War participation and believed that an adjustment in that country's alliance system was required in order to avoid future foreign entanglements. Prime Minister Norman Kirk (1972–1974), who oversaw New Zealand's withdrawal from Vietnam, pushed for a more independent foreign policy that limited American and British influences in favor of action better suited toward New Zealand's regional goals. The first test of this new policy emerged in the Middle East. When the United States called for a trade embargo against Iran after Iranian students had taken hostages from the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, New Zealand refused to go along. The first significant movement away from New Zealand's traditional Cold War policy would culminate six years later with a break between the two Cold War allies.
While New Zealand's Cold War experience often occurred beyond its borders, the perceived threat of communist agent provocateurs was always present during the period. One prominent example was the case of William Ball Sutch who, in September 1974, was charged under the 1951 Official Secrets Act with passing information to Soviet embassy officials. Sutch, New Zealand representative to various UN offices and secretary for the Department of Industries and Commerce, was accused of being a communist. He was acquitted in February 1975 after an investigation yielded no evidence that he had passed information or had been a member of the Communist Party. The episode, however, was a reminder that the Cold War mentality that pitted the Western world against communism could permeate even a remote island-nation such as New Zealand.
Toward the end of the Cold War, the New Zealand government reassessed its international position. In January 1985, when the U.S. Navy destroyer Buchanan was scheduled to make a visit to Auckland, Labour Party Prime Minister David Lange (1984–1989) asked for assurances that the ship carried no nuclear weapons. Because it was American policy not to identify whether one of its ships possessed nuclear weapons, the visit was denied. This event precipitated a rift between the two countries during which the United States canceled nearly thirty combined military exercises and stopped sharing intelligence information. In August 1986, the rift widened when the United States officially proclaimed that it no longer considered New Zealand a participating member of the ANZUS Pact, and New Zealand was thus no longer eligible for U.S. security guarantees.
This rupture in relations occurred near the end of the Cold War. It was probably no coincidence that the two events were contemporaneous. The end of the Cold War called for a reevaluation of foreign policy objectives for all involved. For New Zealand, whose reliance upon the United States resulted in its participation in a number of Cold War battles, the end of the Cold War meant an opportunity to realign itself toward regional matters. The rift did not last long, as the two countries, which shared similar histories and traditions of democracy, searched for accommodation and consensus following the Cold War.
Ronald B. Frankum Jr.
Hawke, Gary Richard. The Making of New Zealand. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.; McGibbon, Ian. Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.; Oliver, W. H., ed. The Oxford History of New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Oxford University Press, 1981.