US warship's historic visit comes under fire on two fronts – NZ's peace movement and America's new hardline president

USS Sampson, while supporting Indonesian-led search efforts to locate Air Asia Flight QZ8501.
Reuters /US NAVY

USS Sampson, while supporting Indonesian-led search efforts to locate Air Asia Flight QZ8501.

A kayak is wedged up against the deep grey of an American submarine that looks like a mechanic whale splattered with paint the colour of radioactive yellow warning signs.

It's edging dangerously close to the propeller, from the power of the giant vessel and the wake of motor boats zipping around incoherently. Helicopters overhead whip up salt spray, forcing sails of the yachts in the protest flotilla to hit the water and land perilously in the path of the USS Haddo coming into Waitemata Harbour.

On this warm but gusty January day in 1979, rubber police zodiac dinghies had the unenviable task of policing at sea, they played bumper boats with protesters on yachts, and motorboats, nudging them away. Activist Stephen Sherie evaded them by zipping next to the gradually overturning kayak to pluck freelance writer Terry Bell to safety.

Nuclear protester Stephen Sherie atop the United States submarine Haddo in Auckland's Waitemata Harbour, January 1979. ...

Nuclear protester Stephen Sherie atop the United States submarine Haddo in Auckland's Waitemata Harbour, January 1979. USS Haddo.

When Bell was relatively safe and sound in the motorboat, on a whim Sherie jumped onto the paint-splattered warship, boarding the enemy. Wearing an ill-fitted life jacket fastened tightly around his waist and short rugby shorts, he put his arms up in the air in a sort of victory sign, riding the submarine as it tried to get past a blockade of boats to enter the harbour.

Kiwis threatened with knife in California amidst wave of race-fuelled post-election violence in the US
Barack Obama hopes to visit New Zealand before his presidential term ends
Jonathan Milne: A childish story of the Great Rumbunctious Row of Roskill
Snapshot of USA envoy's last days: Barack Obama may come – but Ambassador Mark Gilbert will go
Danielle McLaughlin: Trump must be a better man
David Slack: Pencils at the ready, please ...
* Jaquie Brown: Let's be receptive to change – even if it is Trump

The next day, the image of Sherie riding the USS Haddo was spread across the front page of the Auckland Star and the anti-nuclear demonstration at sea was headlined: "Hot Welcome for Yellow Submarine".

Nuclear Protester Shephen Sherie on United States submarine Haddo in Waitemata Harbour, January 1979. USS Haddo. ...

Nuclear Protester Shephen Sherie on United States submarine Haddo in Waitemata Harbour, January 1979. USS Haddo. Auckland Star historical photo archive.

Sherie was convicted and charged with "being unlawfully on board a boat" and fined $275. Bell was left stranded in his underwear after the protest finished and had to walk home up Queen Street.

It was an exciting time to be around, there was a groundswell with the weight of public opinion behind it, the anti-nuclear voice wasn't just a fringe few -  between 1978 and 1983, opposition to nuclear-armed, or powered ship visits had risen from 32 per cent to 72 per cent.

David Lange's Labour Government was elected in 1984 on an anti-nuclear platform, just a year after the last nuclear warship the USS Phoenix was met by a protest flotilla. When the Government turned away the USS Buchanan in 1985,  it spelled the start of a long, chill between the two countries..

President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally ahead of the US election in Henderson, Nevada, U.S., October 5, 2016.

President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally ahead of the US election in Henderson, Nevada, U.S., October 5, 2016.

Now, 33 years later, an American navy destroyer, the USS Sampson, will this week join the warships from 13 other countries as part of the Naval Review to commemorate New Zealand's 75th naval anniversary. The USS Sampson will arrive on New Zealand's terms, with our nuclear-free policy acknowledged, bringing an end to the long standoff. This diplomatic thaw signifies a new high in New Zealand-US relations, with one major piece of punctuation.

Ad Feedback

That is the question mark of whether the seemingly rosy relationship can stand the chilling effect of president-elect, Donald Trump.


Naval ships from several countries anchor off shore while taking part in ceremonies marking the Canadian Navy's 100th ...

Naval ships from several countries anchor off shore while taking part in ceremonies marking the Canadian Navy's 100th anniversary in Victoria, British Columbia.

The initial casualty for New Zealand with the rise of Trump is the hard-fought Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, between 12 nations in the Pacific, that New Zealand put around eight years into negotiating. It is completed but not ratified. It is unlikely US President Barack Obama can hustle it through, or secure the Republican's vote in the Senate before he leaves office.

While Trump threatened to tear up trade agreements in an election campaign characterised by anti-free trade, protectionist rhetoric, Key isn't entirely conceding. He says Trump's rhetoric around TPP, in particular, should be "taken with a grain of salt".

"He has fundamentally been opposed to any of the trade deals Obama's been involved in, or Clinton – so I think in a way he's more philosophically opposed to President Obama's agenda than he is necessarily to the deal."

USS Texas arrives in New Zealand waters.

USS Texas arrives in New Zealand waters.

Key says he's not giving up, but admits it could be a major wait.

Ahead of the election US Ambassador to New Zealand Mark Gilbert, a former professional baseball player and merchant banker, was optimistic Obama could push TPP through but after the election he wasn't as sure.

Anti Nuclear protests in Waitemata Harbour, Auckland.

Anti Nuclear protests in Waitemata Harbour, Auckland.

Gilbert told political reporter Vernon Small he believes trade will flourish, even without the TPP. He's firm that there's little hope now for the ratification of the TPP.

"Because the Republicans control the Presidency, the Senate and the House – they just wait until those people are sworn in and then they start to work on their agenda."

Although he's sure TTP has the votes, he says voting it in ahead of Trump assuming office would be thumbing their nose at Trump. "It's not how you want to start an administration."

US embassy US election party St Johns Wellington,
Mark Gilbert US ambassador once again checking his phone

US embassy US election party St Johns Wellington, Mark Gilbert US ambassador once again checking his phone

The arrival of the USS Sampson this week signals a pivotal moment in the relationship. Will that change under Trump's leadership? Key, who is known for his closeness with Obama – even sharing a spot of golf – doesn't think so. He is quick to congratulate the US billionaire for his convincing win.

The rest of Parliament has joined him, except for the Greens, whose co-leader Metiria Turei vows "to fight climate change denial, the misogyny, the racism, represented by Trump".

Trump is likely to get an invite to visit New Zealand shores and could join Key in a game of golf. "Yeah if he wants to get the clubs out," says Key, "why not?"

The Nuclear ship USS Texas  at anchor on Wellington harbour 10th of August 1983.

The Nuclear ship USS Texas at anchor on Wellington harbour 10th of August 1983.


It is clear when the USS Sampson arrives into New Zealand waters this week, that the nuclear-free policy – so entrenched in our national psyche – will not be a casualty, but rather, acknowledged and further entrenched.

New Zealand never banned US ships from New Zealand, but by default they stopped visiting as a result of New Zealand's nuclear-free legislation, saying it compromised their neither-confirm-nor-deny policy.

"Crewmen examine yellow paint splattered on the Haddo by protesters." January 1979. Auckland Star historical photo ...

"Crewmen examine yellow paint splattered on the Haddo by protesters." January 1979. Auckland Star historical photo archive, Truth library. Nuclear protests. United States submarine Haddo. USS Haddo. Waitemata Harbour.

Author and investigative journalist Nicky Hager says there have been mutterings on whether the visit of the USS Sampson could in some way jeopardise that policy, but he's adamant the answer its a no. "Not at all … the nuclear-free policy is not threatened.

"The many thousands of people who actively campaigned for nuclear-free policy – writing, marching, sailing in boats – and the many more who supported them, should celebrate this achievement."

The Sampson's arrival signals John Key's satisfaction that it complies with New Zealand law, which does not permit a vessel that is nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed to enter our waters.

In between appointments, Key calls from his car. He likens the 33-year stand-off to being "in the chiller, where it was all a bit frosty".

Today, New Zealand's relationship with the US has almost thoroughly defrosted – but will it last?


Groups of Kiwis and Americans are glued, to the big screen broadcasting rolling election results. Their craft beers sit forgotten in front of them as their dropped jaws widen. Even though this is liberal, urbane Ponsonby, in central Auckland, the bar-owner wearing a blue t-shirt with white miniature rocket caricatures gleefully declares he's seen the election result coming.

He says a group of the US Navy's primary special operations forces had been in the bar as they'd been training with New Zealand's special operations forces, which defence has not confirmed when asked.

"They can't stand Hillary."

At another venue nearby, a fresh-faced group involved in the start-up sector pack out a room. They buzz as they wait for the speakers to take the floor. Many try to put away their mobiles and tune out of the election hype.

Seven women involved in business, including Kurdish Kiwi lawyer and activist Rez Gardi, speak. Lauren Peate, the American co-founder of Analytics for Us, talks about the importance of speaking out against sexist, racist comments.

At the end of the first panel of speakers, a visibly distressed woman asks: "With all the problems in the world, how do we keep believing that our actions matter?" She is referring to the shadow over the evening, the impending Trump victory.

"I don't know if our actions will matter or not, but if there's a chance that they do matter, then I'll take that chance of having an impact, however small. Believing we have an impact helps me get up in the morning."

Tears start rolling down the face of the woman in the audience, she's overwhelmed at the reality of Trump winning the election.


Sonya Renee Taylor, an African American slam poet and founder of the successful international movement, The Body is Not An Apology, arrived in Auckland in the week leading up to the election, trying to decide if it was a place she could live. She'd been here before, seven years ago.

Taylor thought Trump would be elected as soon as he announced his candidacy. She was deeply sad about him winning the election, but in no way surprised. "As a black, queer woman in America I would like a life that feels a little easier – a life that doesn't feel like a constant struggle."

She's drawn by the safer haven New Zealand could provide, saying she was struck by "the synthesis of Maori culture into the everyday landscape and life", something she says is not prevalent in the US, where she believes indigenous communities are deeply erased.

Trump polarised people on the issues of race, immigration and women's rights and that pulled people out into the streets in protest in the US.

Sean Gourley, a New Zealander living in San Francisco, says the US was in shock the day after the election.

Gourley studied at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, trained as a physicist and has worked analysing data about modern war and conflict. He says he was saddened by the result and thought it could signal the end of pax Americana, the relative peace in the western hemisphere.

When Gourley flew through San Francisco airport the morning after the election, it was eerily quiet. People refused to make eye contact with each other.

"I was in Iraq when Obama was sworn in and I remember a sense of pride that America would be the sort of country to elect him – this time it was one of sadness."

"This whole process felt as though it was broken ... we saw the same thing roll out in Britain, I was in London on the day of that vote."

"What you can't ignore is the disenfranchisement of large, mainly poorer working class rural people - you can't ignore that in an economy and expect it to work. It is surprising that they picked the billionaire in Trump as their saviour, that therein lies the vagaries of democracy."


Richard Prebble was a brash young opposition MP when he sailed his mate's protest yacht beneath the massive bow of a US warship.

"I told him I wasn't a yachtie," Prebble recalls while laughing. 

His friend replied: "You take the tiller and I'll tell you where to go."

He held the yacht steady while police tried to stop them; their mast was leaning in towards the ship. "I looked up as the stern of our yacht went past and realised we were under their bow. My mate yelled, I know your nickname is Mad Dog, but that's the craziest thing I've ever seen."

Once Prebble opposed ship visits. No longer.

"Anyone opposing this visit is anti-American – this visit is overdue and it's a return to sanity," he says. "We can ultimately say we've won and let's move on."

But Australian doctor and anti-nuclear campaigner Dr Helen Caldicott disagrees; she says John Key has let down New Zealanders by allowing warships from around the world into our harbour next week, as part of the New Zealand Navy's 75th birthday extravaganza.

She says having 1000 sailors marching down Auckland's main street promotes militarisation as a way of solving conflict. "It is beyond belief that New Zealand would host an arms fair for Lockheed Martin, considering its previous absolute, unequivocal stand for peace. Lockheed Martin is the biggest maker of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the world."

Caldicott was key in whipping up New Zealand public sentiment in the 1980s, when she packed out town halls and venues across New Zealand. Her visit spearheaded a march by 20,000 women through Auckland calling for a nuclear-free New Zealand – one of the largest protests by women ever held in New Zealand.

Her 1983 visit came just a year after she had spoken to a group of Hollywood actors, including Paul Newman at the Playboy Mansion in the US.

A tall girl with long black hair approached Caldicott after the talk. It was Patti Davis, US President Ronald Reagan's daughter. "I want you to see my father, I think you're the only person on earth who could change his mind on nuclear weapons."

Caldicott swept into the south portico of the White House in a black limousine. "We engaged in a conversation for just over an hour," she recalls.

"Patti said nothing – I was packed with facts and figures. I let him talk awhile then I would stop him and correct him. He used to get anxious – I ended up holding his hand about half the time, really almost establishing a doctor-patient relationship with him to reassure him."

Soon after Caldicott's meeting with Reagan his messages started to change. In 1985 he announced: "We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth." 

Caldicott returns to New Zealand this week for another speaking tour, timed to coincide with the Naval Review and the New Zealand Defence Industry Association (NZDIA) conference at the Viaduct Events Centre.

As the naval anniversary events unfold this week, the New Zealand Army band will play to large crowds in Auckland. Thousands of sailors will march up Queen Street. The mood will be mostly celebratory, rather than antagonistic.



Back on election night, just half an hour before Trump makes his victory speech in New York, members of Auckland Peace Action are preparing placards on the deck in the backyard of a villa near Mount Eden.

They plan to create a wall of noise with drummers and to blockade around the Viaduct where the NZDIA conference will be held to stop people entering on Wednesday and Thursday. Out on the water, a small flotilla of yachts, motorboats and other vessels including some of the veteran activists from anti-nuclear protests in the 70s and 80s, will sail out to the Waitemata harbour to protest the USS Sampson and a motley collection of about 13 other international ships, plus eight from the New Zealand navy and police boats from around New Zealand and the Pacific.

Auckland Peace Action spokesperson Virginia Lambert says they want to offer up positive alternatives to militarisation and will be offering workshops and events as part of their protest. "We see the the 75th navy anniversary as a propaganda exercise, and we see the weapons expo as profiting from war.

"The question we're asking is: who really benefits from war?"

NZDIA chair Bernie Diver says the protest outside its conference is misguided, as protesters characterise it as being about weapons trading.

"The forum is an annual opportunity for industry with an interest in defence to engage with the Ministry and the New Zealand defence force representatives on requirements needed to enable them to deliver their security, humanitarian and service roles on behalf of all New Zealanders."

While this protest doesn't yet have a groundswell behind it, like the activism that led up to the New Zealand becoming nuclear-free, the activists remain hopeful that off the back of a Trump win and the return of Helen Caldicott to speak, something could be reignited.

"I didn't see Brexit coming and I'd never entertained the idea of Trump winning," says Dan Said at the placard-painting session. "It was foolish to not see it coming – it didn't come out of nowhere."

As the light fades in the quiet Auckland suburb, the group add the last layers of paint to placards lying on the deck and drying on the grass. "No Profit from War," reads one. "Puns Not Guns." "War profits kill." "Lockheed Martin Makes a killing off killing."

And a block away in the bar with the craft beers, CNN predicts the fall of yet another state to Trump. A young Kiwi bloke with close-cropped hair punches the air, and bellows: "TRUMP!"

 - Sunday Star Times

Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback