"Most New Zealanders watched David Lange contest and win the 1985 Oxford Union debate, arguing the proposition that 'nuclear weapons are morally indefensible' with a mixture of pride and astonishment. After decades of knowing our place, and several years of government by homunculus, suddenly we had a Prime Minister who could stride the international stage with insouciance. And briefly, we seemed to matter.
Although New Zealand's nuclear-free policy did not become law until 1987, it was integral to early years of the fourth Labour government. The 1984 snap election that made Lange Prime Minister was called by Robert Muldoon when National MP Marilyn Waring withdrew her support for her party over the issue of nuclear ship visits. Labour won the election with a nuclear ban as a flagship policy.
The policy was popular among New Zealanders, but not without cost. Our relationship with the US deteriorated in the early weeks of 1985. On the same journey that took him to Oxford, Lange, four days before the debate, met with a US State Department official who outlined the retaliatory measures that the US would be taking against New Zealand. The ANZUS alliance of which New Zealand had been part since 1951 was effectively cancelled at that meeting."
(Public Address, 14 October 2004)
This is the introduction to the transcript of the Rt. Hon. David Lange's 1985 Oxford Debate. The transcript is copyright to Public Address. It was prepared by Russell Brown and Fiona Rae, with the consent of David Lange. Thanks are due to Radio New Zealand's Sound Archives/Nga Taonga Korero (File: Media Numbers T4705 to T4708), Infofind, the Parliamentary Library and Barry Hartley.
"Although the 'Atoms for Peace' campaign was formally launched in 1957, corporate America began to promote peaceful uses of atomic energy as early as the first few months after Hiroshima. A Is For Atom, an artifact of this effort, takes this highly loaded and threatening issue straight to the public in an attempt to 'humanize' the figure of the atom.
A Is For Atom speaks of five atomic 'giants' which 'man has released from within the atom's heart': the warrior and destroyer, the farmer, the healer, the engineer and the research worker. Each is pictured as a majestic, shimmering outline figure towering over the earth. 'But all are within man's power - subject to his command,' says the narrator reassuringly, and our future depends 'on man's wisdom, on his firmness in the use of that power.'
General Electric, a long-time manufacturer of electric appliances, power generation plants, and nuclear weapon components, is staking a claim here, asserting their interest in managing and exploiting this new and bewildering technology. Its pitch: this is powerful, frightening, near-apocalyptic technology, but managed with firmness, it can be profitable and promising. This 'Trust us with the control of technology, and we'll give you progress without end' pitch resembles what we've seen in films like General Motors' To New Horizons (on the Ephemeral Films disc). But the automobile, of course, wasn't a weapon of mass destruction.
In its first two years of release, A Is For Atom was seen by over seven million people in this version and a shortened ten-minute theatrical cut. In 1953 it won first prizes in both the Columbus (Ohio) and Turin (Italy) Film Festivals, the Freedoms Foundation Award, an 'oscar' from the Cleveland Film Festival, and a Merit Award from Scholastic Teacher. In 1954 it won first prize in the Stamford Film Festival, a Golden Reel Award from the American Film Assembly, and a second Grand Award from the Venice Film Festival. The film was remade in the mid-sixties and is still available for rental.
Like other John Sutherland films, A Is For Atom presents a portentious message in a visually delightful and often self-deprecating manner. 'Element Town' and its quirky inhabitants, including hyped-up Radium and somnolent Lead, is unforgettable, and the animated chain reaction manages to avoid any suggestion of nuclear fear."