The enemy within: Democracy and ‘Boys’ in the backroom

Nov 18, 2023
Two flags. Flag of New Zealand. Flag of the United States.

The US national security establishment has long-standing, pervasive and influential linkages with civil and military bureaucracies throughout the world who see their primary role not as serving their own governments but subordinating them to the interests of the United States. There is need for constant vigilance against this enemy within.

It’s a familiar story, and one that will come as no surprise to readers of Pearls and Irritations. Merely that it happened on the other side of the Tasman, in New Zealand. A party comes to power in a ‘democracy’, winning an election with various campaign pledges, one of which annoys and displeases Washington. The time is the mid-1980s, the party NZ Labour led by David Lange and the policy revolves around making New Zealand ‘nuclear-free’ and in particular not allowing visits from US Navy ships bearing nuclear weapons. The usual suspects gather and conspire in the backroom – officials from Defence, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. The men – and then it was just men – were at the centre of the spider’s web of the state bureaucracy. What is unusual about this story is that it appears that they were defeated.

The story is told by someone who, serendipitously, was involved in the affair and has just come public about it. Nicky Hager, is a well-known investigative journalist, and co-author most recently of Hit & Run, an exposé of killings of civilians by the NZ SAS in Afghanistan – yet another unhappy parallel with Australia. Hager was not then a journalist but a 26-year-old anti-nuclear activist who was the spokesperson and strategist for the campaign in Wellington, the capital. He revealed his role, and his knowledge of the setback to the US lobby over the issue of ship visits, on 4 November when giving the 2023 Michael King Memorial Lecture. The late Dr Michael King was an eminent historian who did much to restore Māori to the historical stage and wrote books for ‘curious and intelligent general readers, Māori and Pakeha, who are not historians’.

In his lecture Hager deftly sketches in the challenges, and conspiracies, facing the incoming Lange government in 1985 when it was deliberating whether to accede to a US request for a visit by the USS Buchanan. The last visit, during the time of the National Party government of Robert Muldoon had been by the nuclear-armed and powered USS Texas. The nuclear status of the Buchanan was, publicly at least, uncertain because of the US Government’s ‘neither confirm nor deny’ policy. It was a test case, and a slippery one at that.

Hager gives the background and the implications of the visit:

Less than a year after the Texas visit, David Lange’s Labour Government was elected to power and – to the disbelief and then anger of the US and Australian governments – the nuclear-free policy was adopted by Cabinet. A few years after that, public opinion was so strong that the National Party adopted the nuclear-free policy as well. It was made of generations of public feeling about nuclear weapons and anti-war feelings dating from the horrors of WWI and later the Vietnam war. No government has dared to change it since.

The big question was whether the Lange government would do what Bob Hawke had recently done in Australia, and which was also a feature of Japanese policy, namely of publicly proclaiming adherence to opposition to nuclear weapons while in practice ‘trusting’ the US not to introduce them on their territory. It was assumed that NZ would follow that slippery path.

In Hager’s words:

In short, there was a quietly confident assumption among the opponents that David Lange’s Labour government would drop the policy or agree to a meaningless “trust”- based nuclear-free policy as these other countries had done. Plans were being made during the second half of 1984 for a visit to New Zealand by a US destroyer, which would serve as a test case for the sell-out of the nuclear free policy.


Those involved in the counter-campaign had also been preparing for months. They had on their side particularly the threat that New Zealand’s Anglo-American allies would be furious and punish New Zealand if Labour didn’t back down on the nuclear policy.

That’s the background but what follows could come from a spy novel.

The new Cabinet was scheduled to meet to decide on the USS Buchanan visit. Lange was overseas but due to arrive back in time for the decision on that issue. In the six months since the election, the usual suspects had been meeting in the backroom. The names are specific to the occasion, but the positions are generic:

….an informal group of senior officials was formed to try to stop the nuclear free policy harming the ANZUS alliance. They were all the most senior officials responsible for New Zealand’s military and foreign policy. To be specific, the group consisted of the Secretary of Foreign Affairs Merv Norrish, the Chief of Defence Staff Ewan Jamieson, the Secretary of Defence Denis McLean and head of the Prime Minister’s Department Gerald Hensley. They met informally during the crucial six-month period devising and attempting to push through the plan…

The plan was to get the government to fudge on the Buchanan, on the grounds that it was ‘likely’ that it was not nuclear-armed. This would set a precedent so in time the nuclear-free policy would be dead in all but name.

The group provided the Minister of Defence, Frank O’Flynn, with a long and technical dossier in the hope of bewildering him. Bewildered he was, but had the nous to realise it and the character to confront his lack of expertise. He turned to his daughter for suggestions as to whom he could turn for advice, a non-official second opinion. Yes, she could recommend a friend from her university days who was very knowledgeable on such matters – one Nicky Hager.

The details of how he turned the tables on the backroom boys are given in his lecture, a fascinating vignette. The Cabinet met and decided against the Buchanan, and the NZ nuclear-free policy remains to this day. However Hager’s conclusion is freighted with importance far beyond that particular occasion and specific issue:

I realised that the greatest opponents of the nuclear free policy were not the National Party, or some pro-military groups, or even the US Government. Our greatest opponents were the New Zealand officials. They were also the greatest opponents of the Government they were supposed to serve, a government that had campaigned and been elected on the promise of a nuclear ban, and which was then trying to fulfil its promise [emphasis added].

The US national security establishment has long-standing, pervasive and influential linkages with civil and military bureaucracies throughout the world who see their primary role not as serving their own governments but subordinating them to the interests of the United States. The catastrophic mistakes of the past, such as Vietnam and Afghanistan, were produced not only by politicians but the officials who advised and manipulated them.

As Nicky Hager’s lecture illustrates, there is need for constant vigilance against this enemy within.

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