'Friendly Fire' claims Lange didn't tell Palmer about US ship visit

Sir Geoffrey Palmer on The Nation

Former Prime Minister David Lange did not tell his deputy, Geoffrey Palmer, that he was talking to The Americans about admitting a naval vessel, the USS Buchanan, into New Zealand in early 1985.

Speaking on TV3’s “The Nation” Sir Geoffrey said s that though he knew Mr Lange was working on the ship issue with the Americans, Mr Lange left for the Tokelau Islands in January 1985 without telling him anything.

“I knew that he was working on this issue, but I had no knowledge of the detail and he hadn’t talked to me about it at any length because he only got the request I think the day before he left to go to the Tokelau,” said Sir Geoffrey.

News of the visit leaked while Mr Lange was away and Mr Palmer was left to manage the situation.

He also found that here was a bundle of Cabinet papers from various Government departments discussing the visit.

Sir Geoffrey sent the papers and a note he typed himself with one of Mr Lange’s staff on an Air Force plane to meet him when he arrived in Samoa from the Tokelau Islands.

The note contained details of growing concern in the Labour Party and within the Peace movement that the Government might admit the ship.

The head of David Lange’s office during the ANZUS crisis in 1984 – 85 claims the prime Minister played a double game with the Americans and his own colleagues over the nuclear ship row with the USA.

Gerald Hensley has made the claims in a new book, “Friendly Fire.” >

“The Labour Party conference in September was very strong about the need, no ifs no buts, no nuclear weapons, and David Lange in public kept giving that message,” said Mr Hensley.

“That alarmed the Americans because they had understood from his private discussions that he was going to try to change things, and when they saw over September October a steady repetition of the fact that the policy was non-negotiable, there could be no compromise whatsoever, they began to doubt whether he was really serious about trying to find a way through.”

Sir Geoffrey though has contested claims in the book that he refused officials’ advice when he went to America to try and negotiate a settlement and also denies he said New Zealanders were a uniquely spiritual people.

Mr Hensley claims he has been told this by two Foreign Affairs officials who sat in on Sir Geoffrey’s meetings there in 1985.

But Sir Geoffrey told “The Nation” the account was garbled.

“The whole of Gerald's account of this is garbled I'm afraid because he wasn't there,” he said.

“The trouble with Gerald's book is that it is a narrative of an extremely good diplomatic history put together from diplomatic sources, many many sources. 

“The difficulty with it comes with an angle of narration.  It is the angle of narration of someone who is opposed to the policy, that is to say who thought that we should have stayed in ANZUS and if we had to sacrifice the anti-nuclear policy we should have done so. “  

Mr Hensley says Mr Lange asked the Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Euan Jamieson, to go to Hawaii in late 1984 to find a suitable US naval vessel to come to New Zealand.

“It was Lange's decision,” he said.

“Nothing ever went to Cabinet on this. 

“At this stage when Jamieson was going to Honolulu Merv Norrish the Secretary of Foreign Affairs offered the Prime Minister a draft Cabinet paper to brief Cabinet on where the negotiations were going, and David Lange waved it away and said I'll brief them myself, but he never did.”

The affair came to head after news that a ship visit was planned was leaked and Mr Lange eventually agreed in 1985 to stop the visit.

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The point about the US and RN fleets from 1959 to 1989, the peak of the cold war, is that the frigates, destroyers, cruisers, attack submarines and carriers (as distinct from massive response ballistic missile subs) operated as a second-line nuclear deterrent that represented a usable and credible potential response to Soviet subs attacking carriers, nuclear subs, warships and shipping.
Conventional weapons were of little use against nuclear submarines and possibly even conventional subs as the Argentine sub St Luis demonstrated when it came very close to success against the taskforce in 1982 (hitting the bottom of HMS Alacricity with one torpedo and hitting the Alacricity's towed decoy with a second torpedo which failed to detonate).
In 1984 only the USN nuclear attack subs with the fast and reliable Mk 48 torpedo had any conventional capability against nuke subs. The British alternative, the Tigershark, was deemed too inaccurate to use against the Belgarno, which was sunk by an unguided salvo of 3 WW2 torpedoes with a range of 4 miles. Tested later that year, Tigershark failed 5 times out of 5 to even hit a surface target.
However, it appears most American nuclear subs also carried the nuclear Subroc missile until the end of the cold war, as it was essential to be able to engage soviet subs immediately and not have to wait 10 or 20 minutes while a torpedo chased. If they were chasing a missile or cruise missile sub - trailing it for 20 minutes with a modern torpedo hardly made sense if it was obliterating cities, ships and possibly your sub in the interim. There was no conventional version of Subroc - they were all nuclear-armed.
Having said that, not all nuclear weapons were the same, and the Danish solution did make sense and NZ's absolutist situation was absurd. A divisible deterrent didn't make sense and even in reality neither the Perry Class or Buchanan type destroyers were in political, naval or nuclear reality incapable of operationally using nuclear weapons.
A Danish solution which would have made an anti-nuclear statement and imposed insurance guarantees which would have barred any nuclear-powered vessel and would have banned subs of secondary strategic and those likely to carry nuclear Tomahawks. The other vessels likely to have carried nuclear Tomahawks, the Iowa class battleships, were a political and PR gesture unlikely to serve for long as they were too old, vulnerable as cruise missile citidels and there big gun ammunition was too old to be accurate.
The other category of ships that would have carried more than 5 kiloton nuclear depth charges were the remaining conventional strike carriers, but after the Vietnam War with its need for Sth Pacific R&R passed the US would have had little interest in sending them.
Palmer's answer that he applied a legal judge's reasoning to the issue of the USS Buchanan and it didn't meet the test is not a wise test for executive defence decisions, but in the context of small NZ is reasonable.
The Buchanan was coming from Japan. Japan tacitly acccepted many nuclear-armed US vessels, including carriers that were certain to be carrying nuclear arms. If the Buchanan offloaded its arms before it left Japan at a Japanese base it says a lot about US respect for nuclear-free declearations.
It is obvious that the Buchanan's class of mid-level destroyers would have been likely to have often carried nuclear arms in the 1960s and 1970s. If it had fired a nuclear Ascroc it would have suffered a degree of shock back structual damage- like any US destroyer in the 1960s but probably not enough to disable the ship, and if it had been defending a significant US warship or carrier, it is unlikely it would have hesitated a second in firing a nuke Asroc.
Of course, the chance of it carrying a nuclear Asroc was low given its old short-ranged sonar, but for NZ to designate the Buchanan or OPH frigate as nuclear-free amounted to a deliberate attack on US security interest which in 1984 was facing - as Bob Hawke pointed out - the most potent, fast, silent fleet of nuclear subs ever.

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