Wellington, New Zealand — More than 100 yachts, speedboats, and even canoes forced the nuclear-powered submarine USS Phoenix to stop twice and go into reverse when it entered Auckland Harbor in early November. On shore, thousands of motorists honked their horns for peace.
In August, a record 7,000 people marched through the streets of Wellington, the New Zealand capital. They were protesting the visit of the nuclear-powered cruiser USS Texas. Union workers halted the rail/motor-vehicle ferries that crisscross Cook Strait between the North and South Islands of New Zealand. The government had to call in the Air Force to run an emergency airlift.
The ''good will'' and rest-and-recreation visits to New Zealand ports by United States Navy nuclear-powered ships have attracted massive demonstrations by antinuclear campaigners here. The ships' crews describe the protests as the biggest they have seen anywhere in the world despite New Zealand's size - only 3 million people.
More than 1.6 million New Zealanders (nearly 60 percent of the population of these South Pacific islands) live in nuclear-free zones. The country's six largest cities and 62 other municipal areas - including such villages as Karangahaka (population 100) and Colville (120) - are officially designated as nuclear-free.
Despite New Zealand's isolation, continued nuclear testing by France at Mururoa atoll in the South Pacific islands - New Zealand's back door - has focused national attention on the nuclear issue. Controversy over whether to withdraw from the ANZUS defense alliance, linking Australia, New Zealand, and the US, has also sparked national debate.
American sailors are not the only ones on the receiving end of antinuclear feeling. Demonstrators showed up in full force at the recent visit of British carrier HMS Invincible, whose aircraft and helicopters are capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
The Wellington Harbor Board declared the harbor a nuclear-free zone two days before the Invincible arrived. But the vote carried no power to bar the vessel. Only the national government has such powers.
''People realize that in the short term these are all symbolic acts,'' says Larry Ross, founder of the New Zealand Nuclear-Free Zone Committee. But he sees such grass-roots pressure forcing the election of sufficient sympathetic members of Parliament to change policies and make the entire country nuclear-free.
There are currently no nuclear weapons in New Zealand - whose own armed forces total only 12,500 personnel - despite the link with ANZUS.
The US sees the port visits as integral to the ANZUS pact. The National Party government of Prime Minister Robert Muldoon agrees. ''To ban the US Navy from New Zealand ports is incompatible with the defensive alliance,'' he says.
The opposition Labor Party's policy would ban nuclear-powered ships unless the US gave its assurance they were not carrying nuclear weapons. Since the US does not disclose whether its ships are nuclear-armed, a Labor victory at the next election - which must be held within a year - would effectively exclude all nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed vessels.
Despite its policy of allowing ships to visit New Zealand, the Muldoon government is committed to nuclear disarmament. In November it presented a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly calling for a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty.