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Tribute to Larry Ross (1927-2012) – From a nuclear-free New Zealand to a nuclear-free world

The outstandingly effective New Zealand nuclear-free zone campaigner Larry Ross died in Christchurch, New Zealand, April 18, 2012.

John Gallagher who worked closely with Larry has written the following tribute:

I first met Larry a year or so before he got into nuclear-free campaigning. He joined a social club of which I was also a member, as was Jenny Lineham. Jenny lived just around the corner from his Keyes Road address.

These were Cold War days, and Larry drew us and some others at the club into conversations about the global nuclear situation and New Zealand’s connection to it as a member of Anzus. This was around 1980-81.

At one point Larry put together a paper on the subject, which he piloted one evening with the social club at Jenny’s home.

“Positive Neutrality”

Like many interested in current affairs I had been used to “for or against” framing of many issues which could lead to seemingly endless, polarised argument.

A remark he made that evening rung a lot of bells with me as something that could enable New Zealand and New Zealanders to make a difference.

Referring to the then recently resolved Iranian hostage crisis he remarked that the Algerians, as a neutral third party, had enabled the parties involved to reach an agreement. That crisis involved Iranian students invading the United States embassy in Teheran in 1979 and holding over 50 US embassy staff hostage for 444 days, for well over a year. An agreement was made for their release in January 1981.

Larry also emphasised how Switzerland, because it was neutral, was suitably positioned to offer peacemaking services to Cold War antagonists. In other words, neutrality could be a practical option, indeed something the world actually needed.

Larry carefully differentiated his neutrality from “isolationist” neutrality by calling it “positive” neutrality, and later on more descriptively, “positive, peacemaking neutrality”.

Critics in the peacemovement quickly pointed out that Switzerland had this or that flaw. Of course it did – all countries do. Then there were also three other neutral models of what neutrality could be in Europe, each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, cultures and style of neutrality – Austria, Sweden and Finland. The case did not stand or fall on everything Switzerland did or did not do.

What Larry wanted to do was not just to get rid of ANZUS, but replace it with a clear and viable alternative, which was why he proposed positive neutrality.

Nuclear-free New Zealand campaigning

Larry was soon engaging Jenny, who had a background in typing and office work, to type up media releases and letters. The era of affordable desktop computers had not yet arrived. Soon she also helped set up office structures and procedures in his home.

A hard-working “New Zealand Nuclear-free Zone Committee” also came together. In the early days this included Jenny Lineham, Carol Peters, Bob and Barbara Leonard, Dennis Small, Julie McKinnon, Keith Burgess and Stuart Hickman and others.

Soon Larry was putting out a newssheet which became a regularly produced “Nuclear-Free” magazine. He also toured the country, setting up local groups to campaign and lobby to have their local bodies declare their area nuclear-free zones.

Many volunteer workers also came to his place over the years to help get newsletters out, and increasingly also, to send out petitions for a nuclear-free New Zealand, literature, badges and bumper stickers in response to requests from all over the country and the world.

Larry noted how instead of just discussing roads and potholes, the councils throughout the country were now also debating “the fate of the earth” and what they could do about it.

He encouraged and helped organize the lobbying of politicians both locally and in Wellington. United States, Russian, British and Swiss embassies were also visited.

As Jenny remarked when I contacted her to check out some details for this blog, Larry created a structure that “reached and motivated ordinary grassroots people around the country to feel they could do something and to act together.”

David Lange acknowledges the effectiveness of local council campaigns

The New Zealand prime minister of the day, David Lange, later acknowledged the decisive effect of such public pressure behind his introduction of the nuclear-free legislation in 1987 when he wrote:

“In the early1980s there were more than three hundred recognised peace groups. One of their goals was to have local authorities declare their territory to be a nuclear-free zone. In this, they were largely successful.

“By the time of the 1984 general election, ninety-four local bodies had declared themselves nuclear-free, and more than half of the country’s population lived in self-proclaimed nuclear-free zones. Skeptics found it easy to sneer at the essential impracticality of the zones, but their educative effect was great.” (Lange, Nuclear Free, the New Zealand Way 1990, p. 149)

And so, might I add, was their effect on David Lange himself. With the people of New Zealand behind him, he and his government held firm despite huge US pressure to allow its naval ships into New Zealand ports on a “neither confirm or deny” basis.

After the nuclear-free legislation was passed in 1987 New Zealand was “punished” with suspension from Anzus.

Neutral diplomatic liaison

While New Zealand hasn’t adopted fully-developed positive neutrality, it has taken on diplomatic intermediary roles to help resolve conflicts, albeit nowhere near as much as some of us would like. New Zealand did this kind of work:

  • frequently between United Nations members, both formally and informally when asked, according to Ann Hercus who headed the New Zealand delegation 1988-90 (The Christchurch Star, 13 September 1993),
  • in the United Nations Security Council in 1993-4 during a New Zealand stint on it, as noted by representative Terence O’Brien (Nuclear-Free magazine December 1993),
  • under Labour and National governments to help resolve the Bougainville dispute from 1990 until the signing of the Lincoln Agreement in 1998,
  • between the United States and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear development program when it would not communicate directly with the States. The Labour Government’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters liaised between them in 2007.


Finally, the US itself comes round

Finally, a full circle was turned when US President Obama especially charged our National Government Prime Minister, John Key, to help provide a cutting edge for his project of building global nuclear security.

“New Zealand”, President Obama said, “could offer leadership on the nuclear issue.” John Key commented that “We’ve got to the position….President Obama would like to see the rest of the world,” referring to New Zealand’s nuclear-free status and the US leader’s drive to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles. Obama-praises-New-Zealands-nuclear-efforts

Without assessing these governments’ actual efforts on this project to date, the statements by President Obama and Prime Minister Key can, I think, be effectively taken as ultimate tributes to the vision and work of Larry Ross, along with the many in the New Zealand peace movement, and the many others in this country, who worked together to make it nuclear-free.

1 Comment

  1. SARAH says:

    I think we need to get out the protest movement all over again over this ship visit. Have a read of this in relation to Obama’s statement above about Nuclear Free. Key will be just as sly, as he has proved over and over. John Pilger (who backs up all his statements with documented facts) states that;
    The Obama administration has built more nuclear weapons, more nuclear warheads, more nuclear delivery systems, more nuclear factories. Nuclear warhead spending alone rose higher under Obama than under any American president. The cost over thirty years is more than $1 trillion.

    A mini nuclear bomb is planned. It is known as the B61 Model 12. There has never been anything like it. General James Cartwright, a former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said, “Going smaller makes [using this] nuclear weapon more thinkable.”

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