Remembering the Rainbow Warrior: Part 1

30 years ago today on 10 July 1985, the only international act of terrorism against New Zealand to have been committed thus far, took place. It was an act by a supposed ally, frustrated at New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy and angered at the peaceful protest activities it was supporting off shore from its nuclear testing ground.

That supposed ally was France, and the nuclear testing ground in question is Mururoa Atoll.

To understand how this act of terrorism came about we need to first look at nuclear testing in the Pacific, the protest movement that sprung up around it, and the effects it had on the locals.

Nuclear testing started in the Pacific in 1946, when the Americans assembled an assortment of surplus warships left over from World War 2, as well as captured Japanese and German warships at Bikini Atoll and used them as a means to determine the effects of a nuclear explosion on warships, but also to sink them. At the time, the Americans were the only power to have nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union was still three years away; Britain six years away; France 14 and China 18. The Cold War, despite the deteriorating international situation had not yet started as much of Europe was preoccupied with rebuilding from six years of war.

In the 1960’s both Britain and France established nuclear testing sites. The British had tested a couple of nuclear devices at Marilinga in the Australian desert, but chose to establish a testing ground at Christmas Island. To do this they had to evict the local population.

At the time the fear of “Reds under the Bed” was being propagated by American politician Joseph McCarthy. The fear that there might be a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union was growing, not helped by Civil Defence bulletins and docudrama type programmes such as Sound an Alarm. Despite the now obviously misleading information given then about the nature of a nuclear exchange – i.e. there being an “all clear”, that life might be able to some how return to normal, having seen the immense damage wrought by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, not everyone was convinced. The development of long range bombers such as the B-52 Stratofortress and Tu-95 Bear, of long range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads and the exponential increase in destructive power of nuclear devices with the advent of the thermonuclear warhead, all increased the risk of a nuclear exchange happening.

Nuclear testing accelerated dramatically. Between 1945 and 1998, a total of 2053 nuclear tests were recorded around the world, of which a significant number occurred at testing grounds in the Pacific basin. These were atoll islands atop extinct volcanoes that had eroded back into the sea, on top of which coral reefs had become established. The indigenous populations had arrived on outrigger canoes several hundred years earlier. No thought was given to compensating them or otherwise providing rehabilitation. In French Polynesia, this combined with local nationalism to aggravate the French Government.

The environmental consequences of a nuclear test, one can imagine are severe. The consequences of such activity on fragile coral atolls must have therefore been devastating. The water became polluted from fallout, and there was concern that the residue left behind in the hard volcanic rock from the explosions might seep through rock cracked by the shockwaves and get into the ocean. And there were some dreadful accidents to go with the tests in the Pacific, such as bombs being more powerful than expected, with much bigger releases of radiation than those planned for.

In New Zealand concern about nuclear testing began to appear in the 1960’s with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament though there had probably been unestablished concern groups before then. The concerns mainly stemmed from the tendency of National-led Governments permitting nuclear powered/armed ships to visit New Zealand, which National viewed as a necessary thing to protect us from the Soviet menace. In the 1960’s and 1970’s Royal New Zealand Navy ships sailed to observe nuclear testing at Mururoa and Christmas Island. Whenever a Labour Government took office, the ban would be reinstated to the annoyance of allies who thought New Zealand was not pulling its weight on issues of international security. In 1973, New Zealand Prime Minister was found dead. Some suspect, though there is no evidence to suggest so, that it was the work of the C.I.A. acting on American frustration with his anti-nuclear stance, and in particular sending a Royal New Zealand Navy frigate to monitor the protests.

In 1975, National won the election again. Prime Minister Robert Muldoon opened New Zealand up to the United States nuclear powered/armed ships. It was not long before the protest flotillas were sailing to Mururoa, where France was actively conducting nuclear tests. Despite nuclear weapon limitations being set by the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties I and II, the destructive power of a device and the accuracy of the delivery system meant that tactics were changing. Now thoughts to a potential pre-emptive first strike before the enemy knew what is happening  were being given. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament regularly held marches.

It was the visit by a nuclear submarine that brought the situation to a flash point in early 1985. It was one of several that happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But by this time there had been a change of Government to a Labour one. In response to intense public pressure, U.S.S. Buchanan was barred entry to New Zealand. This was seen by Australia and the U.S. as a rejection of our responsibilities to the A.N.Z.U.S. alliance and they began to freeze New Zealand out. Labour Prime Minister David Lange attended a famous debate where he told his debating rival that he could smell uranium on his breath. It was a moment of humour in an increasingly tense stand off. France was getting annoyed. The United States was threatening to boot New Zealand out of A.N.Z.U.S.

Something had to give. But what? And where? The answer would not be long coming.

Find out in Part 2.

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