Hard News by Russell Brown

David Lange's speech notes March 1 1985

[Handwritten note, top of document: VIF NUCLEAR WEAPONS NZ]




There is no moral case for nuclear weapons. The best defence which can be made of their existence and the threat of their use is that they are a necessary evil, an abhorrent means to a desirable end.

I hold that the character of nuclear weapons is such that their existence corrupts the best of intentions; that the means in fact perverts the end. I hold that their character is such that they have brought us to the greatest of all perversions, the belief that this evil is necessary when in fact it is not.

I make my case against nuclear weapons the more vigorously because I distinguish between them and all other forms of coercive or deterrent power. I have no case to make against the policeman’s truncheon. I accept that the state must arm itself with military force to protect its citizens against aggression or to defend the weak and helpless against aggression.

I do not accept that the state must for those reasons arm itself with nuclear weapons. That is a case I do not easily or lightly make in Europe where governments have held it their duty to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. I do not doubt for one moment the quality of the intention which led to that decision.

I freely acknowledge that the nuclear deterrent is maintained in good conscience with the honourable intention of preserving the life and freedom of the people of Western Europe. Those governments are faced with the close presence of an alien and relentlessly oppressive regime and feel it their duty to prepare for their own defence by membership in a nuclear alliance. That is an assessment I understand and respect. I do not argue here or anywhere else for unilateral disarmament.

If I make that acknowledgement, I must then deal with the argument that it is the intention which determines the moral character of the action. My contention is that the character of nuclear weapons is such that it is demonstrably the case that they subvert the best of intentions.

There is a quality of irrationality about nuclear weapons which does not sit well with good intentions. A system of defence serves its purpose if it guarantees the security of those it protects. A system of nuclear defence guarantees only insecurity. The means of defence terrorise as much as the threat of attack. In Europe, it is impossible to be unaware of the intensity of military preparedness. In New Zealand, the visitor must make an effort to find a military installation or indeed any sign of military activity, although it exists. There is no imperative in New Zealand to prepare for war; the result is that I feel safer in Wellington than I ever could do in London or New York.

Europe and the United States are ringed around with nuclear weapons, and your people have never been more at risk. There is only one thing as terrifying as the nuclear weapon pointed in your direction and that is the nuclear weapon pointed in your enemy’s direction: the outcome of their use would be the same in either case, and that is the annihilation of you and all of us. That is a defence which is no defence; it is a defence which disturbs far more than it reassures. The intention of those who for honourable motives use nuclear weapons to deter is to enhance security; they succeed only in enhancing insecurity. The machine has perverted the motive. The weapon has installed mass destruction as the objective of the best-intentioned.

The weapon has its own relentless logic, and it is unhuman. It is the logic of escalation, the logic of the arms race. Nuclear weapons make us insecure, and to compensate for our insecurity we build and deploy more nuclear weapons … we know that we are seized by irrationality, and yet we persist.

We all of us know that it is wholly without logic or reason to possess the power to destroy ourselves many times over; and yet in spite of that knowledge the nuclear powers continue to refine their capacity to inflict destruction on each other and all the rest of us. Every new development, whatever its strategic or tactical significance, has only one result, and that is to add to an arsenal which is already beyond reason.

There is an argument in defence of the possession of nuclear weapons which holds that the terror created by the existence of nuclear weapons is in itself the fulfilment of a peaceful purpose: that the fear they inspire will prevent their use. I pass over here the preparations which are constantly being made for the winnable or even survivable nuclear war; I would ignore those and wholeheartedly embrace the logic of the unthinkable war if it could be established that the damage which would result from the collapse of that logic would be confined to the nuclear weapon states. Unfortunately and demonstrably it would not. We in New Zealand used to be able to think that we could sit comfortably while the rest of the world destroyed itself; not we know that if the nuclear winter comes we shall join all the rest of you. It is a strange and dubious moral purpose which holds the whole world to ransom.

There is another assertion of the good moral character of nuclear weapons which holds that they are the armour of good against evil. It is the argument of the Crusaders: the evil which cannot be defeated by persuasion or example is to be subdued by threat of annihilation. The obvious difficulty here is that evil has declined to be subdued; it will not accept annihilation; every attempt to subdue it strengthens its resolve to arm itself further. The will of the good is corrupted by the terrible force of the weapon into the will of the evil.

All of us everywhere, wherever we are, whatever we believe, live in fear of nuclear weapons. That is a community of interest which binds us all; it is common ground enough for all of us to wish to see the elimination of all nuclear weapons; yet nuclear weapons proliferate. They govern us. Their existence diverts attention from the fact that there are other ways of resolving the difficulties and tensions which will always abound in the world. Nuclear weapons are not needed. All the arguments which can be brought forward in support of this evil come to nothing in the fact of its ultimate irrelevance. I do not make that assertion because I have some simple answer to the existence of nuclear weapons: all of you in Europe know that negotiating an end to nuclear weapons could hardly be more difficult, just as all of you know that we cannot negotiate control of them while the nuclear powers embrace the logic of escalation.

In New Zealand it is easy to accept that there is no need for nuclear weapons. The collisions and confrontations which take place in Europe are very far away from us. New Zealand is remote; it faces no threat; our close neighbours are like-minded states. We have been to war several times in this century, but never because we were attacked. It makes no sense for a country which faces no threat to seek to surround itself with nuclear weapons. It makes no sense for that country to ask its allies to deter enemies which do not yet exist with the threat of nuclear weapons. It makes not sense for a region which is the most stable in the world to allow itself to become a strategic arena for the nuclear powers. Having considered all this, the people of New Zealand reached a straightforward conclusion: the nuclear weapons which defended them caused them more alarm than any which threatened them, and it was accordingly pointless to be defended by them.

In the South Pacific, it is not difficult to achieve the balance of force which allows you cheerfully to dispense with nuclear weapons. If you remove the nuclear weapons of your friends and allies you put all the nuclear powers on the same footing. The South Pacific is not the North Atlantic. Nuclear weapons cannot be removed from Europe simply by dismantling the NATO arsenal; do that, and the other nuclear arsenal will still be here. But in the South Pacific there is at this moment the chance to turn away from the inhuman logic of nuclear weapons, to stand aside from the irrationality of the arms race and the doctrines of nuclear confrontation.

The government of New Zealand has excluded nuclear weapons from New Zealand; more than that, I hope that it and other governments in the South Pacific will shortly ask all the nuclear powers to honour a South Pacific Nuclear [Free] Zone. New Zealand has done that while honouring its longstanding commitment to the conventional defence of the South Pacific; to the economic and social development of the South Pacific; and to the security of South East Asia.

What has happened to New Zealand since the Labour Government was elected last year and began to implement its long-established policy is itself a commentary on the way in which nuclear weapons have assumed a moral life of their own.

New Zealand is not and has never been part of the strategic defences of the West. The nuclear weapons which our allies have in the past brought to New Zealand are tactical weapons. It is our view in New Zealand that being part of somebody else’s tactical nuclear battle is as undesirable as being part of somebody else’s strategic nuclear battle; but my point is that the decision of the New Zealand Government in no way weakened the deterrent power of the Western alliance. Yet we have been accused of undermining the West and giving comfort to the Soviet bloc. We have been told by officials in the United States Administration that our decision is not, as they put it, to be cost-free; that in fact we are to be made to pay for our action. Not by our enemies, but by our friends. We are to be made an example of; we are to be ostracised and anathematised until we are compelled to resume our seat in the dress circle of the nuclear theatre. We have been told that because others in the West carry the fearful burden of a defence which terrorises as much as the threat, we too must carry that burden. We are actually told that New Zealanders cannot decide for themselves how to defend New Zealand but are obliged to adopt the methods which others use to defend themselves.

Lord Carrington, the Secretary-General of NATO, made a case in Copenhagen recently against the creation of nuclear weapon free zones. He argued that if the people of the United States found themselves bearing the burden alone, they would tire of bearing it. That is exactly the point. Genuine agreements about the control of nuclear weapons do not cede the advantage to one side or the other: they enhance security, they do not diminish it. If such arrangements can be made, and such agreements reached, then those who remain outside those arrangements might well and truly tire of their insecurity. They will reject the logic of the wapon and assert their essential humanity. They will look for arms control agreements which are real and verifiable.

There is no humanity in the logic which holds that my country must be obliged to play host to nuclear weapons because others in the West are playing host to nuclear weapons. That is the logic which refuses to admit that there is any alternative to nuclear weapons, which plainly there is.

It is self-defeating logic, just as the weapons themselves are self-defeating: 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. Any claim to a moral justification for the West’s possession of nuclear weapons is thereby eliminated. We are no better than they are.

The great strength of the West lies not in force of arms but in its free and democratic systems of government.

That is why, in spite of all the difficulties New Zealand has got into with our friends and allies, I am not disheartened. I came to Great Britain by way of the United States, where I put my case to the American people through the news media without any kind of hindrance from the United States Administration. Members of Her Majesty’s Government have made it plain to me that they do not hold the views I hold, but nonetheless I am here and I can say freely whatever I please; just as any member of Her Majesty’s Government would be welcome in New Zealand to expound any line of argument in any forum she cared to use. That is the true strength of the West.

It is a strength which is threatened, not defended, by nuclear weapons. The appalling character of those weapons has robbed us of our right to determine our destiny and has subordinated our humanity to their manic logic. They have subordinated reason to irrationality and placed our very will to live in hostage. Rejecting the logic of nuclear weapons does not mean surrendering to evil; evil must still be guarded against. Rejecting nuclear weapons is to assert what is human over the evil nature of the weapon; it is to restore to humanity the power of the decision; it is to allow true moral force to reign supreme.

These notes were retyped from official speech notes supplied by the New Zealand Parliamentary lirbrary. Thanks are due to Felicity Rashbrooke of the library and Melanie Stassen of Infofind.