The Peace Symbol's Golden Year
By Arnie Passman / Special to the-Edge
April 3, 2007

Good Friday, April 6, 2007, marks the 49th anniversary of the Peace Symbol -- one of the most universally recognized symbols in human history. However, unlike the Coca-Cola logo or the Nike Swoosh, this emblem was not the handiwork of a well-financed corporate branding team. It was born as the result of grassroots inspiration. In honor of its Jubilee Year, here is the story of the birth and global proliferation of the ubiquitous Peace Symbol.

LONDON -- Two-thirds into the winter of 1957-58, Gerald Holtom was feeling 66.6%ish as he bent over his drawing table and agonized over a design. As the artist later explained to Peace News editor Hugh Brock, on that particular day, February 21, 1958: "I was in despair, deep despair. I drew myself the representation of an individual in despair with arms outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya's peasant before the firing squad in his painting, 'The Shootings of May 3, 1808.' I formalized the drawing with a line and put a circle around it."

But there was to be a secondary -- and more hopeful -- signal that would emerge from this odd emblem. For those familiar with the British semaphore system (which employed two hand-held flags to spell out letters that could be read between distant ships), the vertical alignment signaled the letter "N" while the two outstretched lines signaled the letter "D." Taken together, this unusual new symbol communicated an encoded call for Nuclear Disarmament.

And so did professional designer and artist Holtom -- a graduate of the Royal College of Arts and a World War II conscientious objector -- bring the peace symbol to the world.

A week later, he showed his preliminary sketches to a small group of people in the Peace News office in North London and to the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War, one of several smaller organizations that came together to set up the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

Philosopher and pacifist Sir Bertrand Russell first displayed the now-universal symbol at a press conference called to announce the formation of CND, The symbol first reached the masses during that spring's Easter weekend when CND organizers staged Britain's first-ever anti-nuclear march. The marchers trekked from London to Aldermarston, a well-guarded research facility where nuclear weapons were (and still are) manufactured. Many of the marchers carried some 500 cardboard CND "lollipops" consisting of sturdy sticks topped with the ND circle -- half black on white; half white on green.

This was an improvisation inspired by the Catholic church's original liturgical colors, which change over Easter -- segueing from winter to spring, death to life -- to emerge green and white on Easter Sunday.

The Peace Symbol Crosses the Atlantic
On that historic 1958 march was the American pacifist Bayard Rustin, a confidant of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was Rustin who brought the symbol back to the US where it was readily adopted by America's growing civil rights and anti-nuclear movements.

Rustin was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an organization founded by two men in 1914 in an attempt to prevent the spread of war in Europe. FOR went on to encourage conscientious objectors to refuse to serve in World War II. After that war, FOR helped found the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, an organization that continues to offer counseling and support to pacifists in and out of uniform.

Sometime during 1958, pacifist Albert Bigelow and crew attempted to sail their ship, the Golden Rule, into the Pentagon's Eniwetok nuclear test site. The US government declared the journey illegal. During their widely publicized attempts to interrupt the nuclear detonation, they flew the peace symbol flag atop the ship's mast. The image was seen around the world.

Into the early 60s, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA) and Women's Strike for Peace (a highly effective organization that foreshadowed the feminist Lysistratagems that arose at the decade's end) gave the symbol prominence in anti-nuclear actions. During that time, the peace symbol could be worn in two different ways to indicate the direction of one's activism -- one prong up for unilateral disarmament, two up for bilateral.

In 1960, a University of Chicago freshman Philip Altbach went to England as a delegate of the Student Peace Union (SPU). Altbach, now a professor at Boston College, recalls the experience:

"I was in the UK to speak for the national Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and was impressed by their symbol -- the peace symbol& I put a few of the buttons and little flags in my pocket and brought them back to SPU headquarters in Chicago. I managed to convince (there was some reluctance) the SPU officers to let us print up 20,000 buttons as a first try.

"We distributed them to our chapters, sold them at meetings, and 'the rest is history.' My guess is that SPU probably printed at least 100,000 little pins.
The Committee for Nonviolent Action in Chicago, and probably FOR, used the symbol before SPU, but SPU -- which was the largest progressive student organization in the US at the time -- brought the symbol to wide attention."

Proliferation and Commercialization
On March 17, the fourth anniversary of the War on Iraq, people around the world formed "living peace signs." The vigils began in Budapest and now circle the world. For photos and videos, go to:
By 1965, the "Ban the Bomb" movement was slip-sliding away as the anti-Vietnam War breakthrough (via the communist and pacifist left) ascended to critical mass into the last years of the '60s. The use of the peace symbol continued to spread far and wide from '66 on.

Before Vietnam, conscientious objectors needed a rock-solid religious belief to backup their desire to stay out of the military. Many of these war-resisters were simple-living members of the Mennonite, Amish and Quaker communities. During the Vietnam war, many more young Americans began to express their unwillingness to serve in what many came to see as an immoral conflict. Some elected to serve jail terms; others sought refuge abroad in Canada and Europe. With increasing numbers of draft resisters (and active-duty war-resisters within the ranks), the War Resisters League (WRL) and the CCCO were on hand to provide advice and support.

The peace symbol was deliberately never copyrighted. The intention was to spread the designs popularity by offering it, without strings, to anyone who wanted to use it, anytime, anywhere. This inevitably meant that the peace symbol also wound up being displayed on everything from earrings to record jackets, roach clips denim jackets.

The symbol even made an essential appearance on the Peace Dress -- a 1968 San Francisco mini-dress covered with the symbol below a dipping bosom line. (It seemed to parallel a popular anti-war cry from those days: "Girls Say Yes To Boys Who Say No!")

A paradigm shift in values, endemic to the 60s, took place. But as the decades shifted into the seventies, older activists began to decry the peace symbol's commercialization. Growing numbers of baby boomers, with their TV, LSD and maturing rock 'n' roll culture, were thoroughly behind its popularization.

A Symbol both Revered and Renounced
Through the end of the Vietnam war, the anti-nuclear and Central America demos of the '80s, and last 16-years of Iraq war protests (remember, Iraq War protests have been ongoing since George H. W. Bush first attacked Iraq in1991), the peace symbol has been ever-present -- visibly bobbing along atop the froth of great multi-body peace mobilizations or simply standing solitary watch on public beaches and private lawns.

Four years ago, at the beginning of the Iraq War, the design was honored with the designation of March 17 as International Peace Symbol Day. Despite this commemoration, highly visible protests against the Peace Symbol's display continue to take place.

Last holiday season, a couple in Paragosa Springs, Colorado, placed a peace-symbol wreath on their home and the local homeowners' association ordered them to take it down. When they refused, the homeowners were fined $25 a day by the board's chairman. The entire board then resigned in support of the couple.

Within a week, the controversy was the second most popular story on CNN and, soon thereafter, the fine was rescinded. A newspaper poll showed 95.7% of people surveyed supported the peace sign.

Similar battles have taken place in Odessa, Texas and Missoula, Montana -- where some religious fundamentalists have called the symbol anti-Christian and a "sign of the devil."

In his fine '60s novel, Hearts in Atlantis, Stephen King describes the upheaval caused by the arrival of the peace symbol at a Maine college campus, circa 1966. At a meeting of students and deans, a right-wing proctor declares:

"This symbol... was invented by the Communist Party shortly after the end of the Second World War. It means 'victory through infiltration' and is commonly called the Broken Cross by subversives... I hardly think it takes a rocket scientist to...."

"David, that is such bullshit!" Nate said, standing up. "That symbol is based on British semaphore and stands for nuclear disarmament. It was invented by a British philosopher.... To say the Russians made it up! Goodness sake! Is that what they teach you in ROTC?"

Over the years, the peace symbol had been denigrated as a Communist emblem or devil symbol. Some critics even claimed that its roots could be traced back into the early Christian era as a "flipping" of the cross.

As resistance to the Vietnam War increased, the symbol was ridiculed as "the chicken tracks of the American coward." Ironically, the Mercedes-Benz hood ornament, which echoes the Peace Symbol's design, escaped such attacks, despite the fact that it first appeared in 1937, attached to a car whose superb technology was a reflection of the engineering genius of the Nazi war machine.

Currently, the symbol is being further flipped by Über UFOers Michael Horn and The Meier Contacts who are spreading word that the symbol is, in fact, a deep subconscious symbol of death implanted in human minds by space aliens. Others maintain the unilateral (one-line-up) symbol resembles a missile, a raised sword, "the hanged man;" a contained missile, or even the Tree of Life, itself (which the design can stand for both ways).

A Year of Global Celebration Begins
On March 20, to mark the beginning of Spring, the Glass Bead Collective, a New York multi-media group, beamed an image of a 200-foot-tall Peace Symbol onto the side of the towering Verizon Building (along with a dozen other projections of peace imagery). The huge image of the Peace Symbol was visible all over lower nighttime Manhattan.

Embarking on its Golden Jubilee year, the Peace Symbol has weathered numerous wars and the best marketing opportunities money can buy. Facing today's horrors of Asian and Middle-east wars, increased nuclear dysfunction, global warming, racial injustice, and the military-industrial complex, the CND Symbol still presides over spirited protests -- in cities and hamlets alike -- calling all Earth's colors and creeds to engage in nonviolent resistance.

And all of this from the mind of one person who, on one deep '50s, dead-winter day in grimy ol' London Town, turned a sketch of despair into an enduring symbol of hope.

Arnie Passman, a Berkeley, California-based writer, is the author of The Deejays (Macmillan, 1971) and two plays about black radio history. His work has appeared in The Realist, Rolling Stone, and Anarchy.

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