“I Can Smell The Uranium On Your Breath” — Anti-Nuclear New Zealand 30 Years On

It was the quip that made headlines world-wide thirty years ago, firmly imprinted on our memories to go down as one of New Zealand’s proudest moments.

After years sitting on the edge of the map, duly playing our role as the subservient subject to more powerful states, our Prime Minister stood against the world’s biggest super-power in moral defiance, batting every curveball that the opposition threw his way, and sending them sailing out of the park in a whirlwind of reason, passion and wit.

Suddenly we were punching above our weight in the world arena, and on cultural, intellectual and moral grounds, we had won.

The year was 1985, and for many months, pressure had been building on New Zealand to accept that nuclear weapons were an unfortunate, but necessary arsenal in the military toolkit of any self-respecting western nation.

Against all diplomatic advice, David Lange, the 32nd Prime Minister of New Zealand, accepted an invitation to argue the affirmative in a debate at the Oxford Union that “Nuclear Weapons are Morally Indefensible.” His opposition in the debate was an American team lead by TV evangelist and Moral Majority founder Rev. Jerry Falwell - a man who based his views, politics and public persona around the very notion of morality.

Today, on the 30th anniversary of New Zealand’s bold coming out as a peace-loving nation, we examine the impact that Lange’s speech in the debate had on our young nation, how it has shaped our culture, and its relevance to this day.

Prominent Kiwis share their views on New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance at New Frontiers.

A monumental stake to place in the sand of the global geopolitical landscape, Lange’s decision to go to Oxford was built on the independent foreign policy and peace efforts of many other committed Kiwis and governments in the previous decades. Speaking out as a conscientious objector, future Prime Minister Peter Fraser was imprisoned for refusing the draft during the First World War.

In 1951, with the formation of the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand and United States) agreement, New Zealand closely aligned itself to the United States. Yet in the following years, the enthusiasm for nuclear weapons by the US military was a source of contention that would not rest.

Meanwhile, New Zealanders were beginning to discover the natural beauty of our own country, as more national parks were designated during the 1950's and 60's. Our national narrative of prosperity began to change from a slash-and-burn mentality to make way for farmland and plantation forestry, to one of conservation and preservation of our natural capital.

In the 1960's France began conducting nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll, the tiny Pacific-French territory in our own back yard. Many New Zealanders were against the testing, and in 1973 Prime Minister Norman Kirk sent Navy Frigates to Mururoa to protest, on one occasion with Cabinet Minister Fraser Colman onboard. Beyond the potential fallout ramifications of New Zealand’s close proximity to the tests, Kirk saw our smallness and global isolation as an opportunity to mediate between small countries and superpowers to whom we posed no threat.

Between 1978 and 1983, New Zealanders’ opposition to visits by nuclear-armed US ships rose from 32% to 72%, and by the mid 80’s, the distain of the New Zealand public for nuclear weapons, (and for many, nuclear power in general), had reached pressure cooker levels.


In his autobiography, David Lange attributes the speech as the highlight of his political career, referring to it as “not one of the best [speeches] I’ve ever made, but it was the one which mattered most”.

Highlights of Lange’s address, broadcast after his death in 2005.

(A full transcript and audio is available here.)

In this David and Goliath-style battle with much potential for heated emotion and a descent into mud-slinging chaos, Lange held his integrity throughout. The Labour Party won the 1984 election on the promise of a nuclear-free-New-Zealand as a flagship policy, and in a subtle dig at the prevalent stereotype of politicians world-wide, he highlighted that he was a man of his word.

His energetic, passionate oratory was full of dry wit and improvisation, appealing not just to rational minds, but to hearts as well. In the spirit of lively debate, he used a sharp sense of humour throughout his address, playfully turning frequent opposition interjections on their head.

“I’m going to give it to you if you hold your breath just for a moment…
I can smell the uranium on it as you lean forward!”
David Lange at Oxford

He did not denigrate nation states directly, freely acknowledging that adoption of nuclear weapons by some nations was pursued in good conscience, with the intention of preserving life and freedoms.

Nor did he argue for the disestablishment of those nations’ significant nuclear arsenal. He recognised the privileged position in which New Zealand stood, as an isolated island nation far away from potential hostile states.

Rather than attack nations and their homeland defence policy, he targeted his oral barrage at the character of nuclear weapons themselves.

I also feel a considerable sympathy for the members of the opposite side, who have this extraordinary sense of destabilisation, at the imminent prospect of peace breaking out.”
David Lange at Oxford

Lange’s decision to take a moral stance and establish New Zealand as a non-nuclear champion was far from cost-free.

Despite the fact that Reagan himself had publicly declared in 1984 that he eventually wanted to abolish nuclear weapons, the response from the United States was swift. Flow of intelligence to New Zealand decreased, and shortly after New Zealand formalised our position with the passing of the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act in 1987, the US passed its own Act that downgraded New Zealand from the position of ‘ally’ to ‘friend’.

“We have been told by some officials in the United States administration that our decision is not, as they put it, to be cost-free; that we are in fact to be made to pay for our action. Not by our enemies, but by our friends. We are in fact to be made an example of; we are to be ostracised, we are to be convicted of some form of heresy and put on probation.”
David Lange at Oxford

Reaction from France was even worse. The French Government attempted to block access to the European Economic Community market, and New Zealand exports to France were boycotted. The real low blow came on 10th July 1985, when French secret service agents detonated a bomb on the Greenpeace anti-nuclear flagship vessel the Rainbow Warrior, while it was moored in Auckland Harbour. The explosion sunk the ship, killing one crew member, injuring several others, and cementing New Zealanders’ resolve to stand our ground in the face of international bullying.

Rainbow Warrior after the 1985 bombing by French secret service agents. Photo: John Miller, Greenpeace

Save for the abhorrent attack on the Rainbow Warrior, Lange would have been well aware of the repercussions of both New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy, and in his appearance in the well-publicised Oxford debate. Just days beforehand, Lange had met with US officials who outlined the likely retaliation measures.

Taking a stand against superpowers in the face of trade sanctions and political backlash, was what made Lange’s decision to go to Oxford so courageous. He made a decision based on moral grounds, with respect for a common humanity that spanned geopolitical boundaries.

Asserting that nuclear weapons are “contrary to the whole ethos of humankind”, one of Lange’s key arguments highlighted the level of de-personalisation created by nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons and their associated fallout know no boundaries or borders, they do not recognise friend from foe. They do not differentiate child from soldier, state policy from civilian living, or human affairs from those of the oceans or the biosphere. We need to ask ourselves, if humankind ever did descend into all-out nuclear war, what possible better future could we ever hope to achieve through such means of wide-spread destruction?

“The means of defence terrorise as much as the threat of attack.”
David Lange at Oxford

Over the past 30 years, New Zealand has grown into its own, as a well-recognised face of the global non-nuclear movement. While the large majority of the Southern Hemisphere is free of nuclear weapons, New Zealand has celebrated the first mover cultural advantage.

Lange put us on the map, as a nation with a high degree of integrity in our domestic and foreign affairs, prepared to pay the cost for standing by our principles. We have earned the trust of other nations, and have slowly but steadily made progress towards repairing our relationship with the United States.

Our anti-nuclear views extend further into our general attitude towards peace. We have had minimal involvement in global conflicts in recent decades, largely playing the role of peacekeeper. Investors, visitors and foreign dignitaries have a high degree of confidence in Kiwis as people who stay true to their word.

Ask any New Zealander what makes them proud about the history of our nation, and chances are the refusal of New Zealand to adopt nuclear weapons will be a highlight, from people occupying all positions along the political spectrum.

Being anti-nuclear is as part of the Kiwi national psyche as rugby and hokey pokey ice-cream from the Four Square in summer. Recorded excerpts of Lange’s speech have been reworked into popular culture time and again. Electric Wire Hustle’s “Burn” opens with his powerful closing remarks in the debate, while one of our favourite sons of hip hop Tiki Taane dedicated an entire song to our former prime minister, “David Lange You Da Bomb!”

“The people of New Zealand reached a very straightforward conclusion: that nuclear weapons which would defend them; they believed, caused them more alarm than any which threatened them, and accordingly, they deem it pointless
to be defended by them.” — David Lange at Oxford

30 years on, are nuclear weapons still indefensible?

The world has changed much since David Lange took centre stage in Oxford, winning over hearts and minds world-wide. State militaries are continually employing new tactics and technologies to fight increasingly savvy opposition forces. We are bombarded every day with messages warning of terrorist attacks, corrupt state regimes, scarcity of resources, overpopulation and cybersecurity threats. Some may raise the question of whether in this modern climate of heightened security risk, the possession of nuclear weapons is morally justified? Are they are a necessary element of modern defence?

The answers to these questions, were suggested thirty years ago within the text of Lange’s oratory, which at times took on a philosophical element. Addressing one of the key assertions of the opposition that nuclear weapons were the “armour of good against evil”, he pointed out the failed attempts of attempting to eliminate evil throughout history.

While historical hero and villain narratives almost always have good triumphing over evil, in reality the bogeyman persists in perpetuity; evil does not disappear. Lange recognised the reasoned logic, that in arming oneself with nuclear weapons to protect against an enemy, one would only serve to strengthen the enemy’s resolve to match firepower.

Exposing the flawed logic in these tit-for-tat tactics, he asserted that there is no ‘good’ that can come of nuclear weapons, and their very existence corrupts the best of intentions; that the means in fact perverts the end.

“The will of the good in weaponry’s terms is corrupted by the terrible force of the weapon, into the will of the evil.”
David Lange at Oxford

If indeed the nuclear debate were about the ‘good’ reigning supreme, Lange exposed a certain element of hypocrisy in retaliation measures dolled out by the United States against an ally.

If, as argued, the role of nuclear weapons is to protect free, democratic states, surely there is little logic in punishing an ally for enacting foreign policy that had been directed by a free, democratic election. In international politics, as in war, aggressive bullying tactics rarely result in an agreeable outcome.

“To compel an ally to accept nuclear weapons against the wishes of that ally is to take the moral position of totalitarianism, which allows for no self-determination, and which is exactly the evil that we are supposed to be fighting against.”
David Lange at Oxford
Lange in the 1980's. Photo: Horowhenua Historical Society Inc

The threats faced by humankind and the planet today are immense. Yet if history has taught us anything about military conflict, it is that there are no winners. Lange’s words ring true to this day, and it is more important than ever to promote non-violent communication, and negotiate to peaceful resolutions to conflict. Shared understanding and empathy will be linchpins in working towards this future, which when we dig deep into ourselves, may well be closer than we imagine.

The ability of nuclear weapons to inflict indiscriminate catastrophic destruction, sounds a warning still as relevant today as it was thirty years ago: that we must never lose sight of common humanity that binds us together, and bow to the false promise that nuclear weapons bring.

— Article by Alina Siegfried —