A few days before David Lange left home for his final journey to hospital, he phoned to encourage us to maintain our vigilance regarding the nuclear-free policy, to thank us for our peace work — and to say goodbye. It was a very special moment to thank him for his outstanding contribution to peace both in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the world.
Between bouts of coughing and voice loss, he apologised for being too emotional when opening the Gandhi photographic exhibition in Christchurch in August 2002 – the day he learned he might have only a few months to live. Gandhi was his guru, India his “second home” (he’d been there 28 times), and he had been determined to come. The 200-strong audience experienced vintage Lange: no notes, a perfect balance of heart and head, enriched with personal anecdotes and humour. As he described how Gandhi was ‘shot dead with three shots, and died with God’s name on his lips’, the tears flowed. Full of emotion, he concluded … ‘We have the capacity to love and be loved. They’re pretty old-fashioned words. That’s the guts of it; and that’s why I’m here tonight’.
Like Gandhi, he reminded us of the spirituality, which had sustained him to withstand death threats, ridicule from the media and ostracism from colleagues and officials for his peacemaking leadership. It became urgent to seek formal international recognition for our ‘giant kauri’. Within 15 months he went to Stockholm to receive the honorary ‘Alternative Nobel Peace Prize’ for his ‘steadfast work over many years for a world free of nuclear weapons’.
As Prime Minister from 1984-1989, he travelled extensively throughout the world expounding the myths of nuclear deterrence. His government helped negotiate a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone and demanded compensation from the French for the Rainbow Warrior atrocity.1 He addressed the UN General Assembly three times and was the first Prime Minister ever to address the Conference on Disarmament. The celebrated 1985 Oxford Union debate, where he argued that ‘nuclear weapons are morally indefensible’, was seminal in the creation of a more independent foreign and defence policy. As he warned at the time, the speech “would change everything. We would cut ourselves adrift economically, militarily, culturally — the umbilical cord to our past would be severed.” With great pride he articulated what many New Zealanders felt: “This is who we are, this is what we believe, and damn the consequences!”
The experience of leading New Zealand as the first Western-allied state to legislate against nuclear weapons bolstered him later to call for formal withdrawal from the ANZUS Treaty; rejection of the frigate purchase from Australia; reform of the UN; a moratorium on all nuclear tests; and respect for international law. He was highly critical of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ‘war on terror’.
He also championed the causes of ordinary Kiwi peace activists and citizens. In 1976 he defended Peace Squadron activists in the Auckland courts following protests against visits by US nuclear warships. In 1990 he risked his life by going to Iraq to negotiate successfully for the release of 17 New Zealand hostages. In 1991 he sent a statement to a US Court about the importance of “demonstration as an instrument of international political betterment” in support of Moana Cole’s direct action against US bombers during the Gulf War.
He became a strong advocate for the Christchurch-led international campaign to obtain an advisory opinion from the World Court on the legal status of nuclear weapons. He officially launched the World Court Project in Auckland in 1992, and led the challenge to the National government to argue strongly for illegality in the World Court. In 1996 the Court confirmed that it was generally illegal to threaten or use nuclear weapons.
There is a need for David Lange’s peace legacy to be formally documented so that future generations can be inspired by his visions for a nuclear free and peaceful planet, his intellectual understanding of issues of disarmament, and how small states can make a difference. One of my daughters, who was six when she first corresponded with David in 1989 opposing the frigate purchase, recently thanked him for giving her the courage to become a youth outreach worker for the Peace Foundation, and to address a youth rally of 3,000 in Hiroshima.
With the nuclear-free legislation again under threat, let us be sustained by David’s powerful closing words from his Oxford Union debate speech: “Nuclear deterrence subordinates reason to irrationality, and robs us of our right to determine our destiny. Moreover, nuclear weapons have brought us to the greatest of all perversions: the belief that this evil is necessary when in fact it is not. Rejecting them does not mean surrendering to evil, but instead asserts the moral force of humanity over evil.”
1 See David Lange, Nuclear Free: The New Zealand Way, Penguin, 1990. ^
Kate Dewes is a former International Peace Bureau Vice-President and long-time disarmament activist.