Peace de résistance

Few symbols are as powerfully evocative in the modern western world than the peace sign.

Humans have forever used icons to identify with the divine of course. Many of these marks unite the faithful so intensely that wars have been fought, century after century, under the banner of Christianity’s Latin cross, Judaism’s Star of David, and Islam’s star and crescent. But apart from religious icons, I think only the swastika—the Nazi’s hooked cross, designed to instill prideful power in Aryans and terror in everyone else—rivals the peace sign in symbolic power.

Symbols are powerful because they’re a shortcut to the brain, to the soul. Words are powerful, but they’re laborious compared to an icon, which evokes unconscious emotions in the time it takes a synapse to pass an electrical signal.

Back in 1957, the cold war in full swing, anti-nuclear movements had risen around the world. A few influential Brits, together with religious leaders, politicians, journalists and others across the social spectrum, galvanized the movement that became the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Early the next year the CND, together with other pro-disarmament groups, organized a protest march from London to Aldermaston, home of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, where Britain’s nukes are designed and manufactured.

A 44-year-old artist and textile designer had the foresight to convince the march organizers that their message would have more impact if they led with a strong, simple visual. In his West London studio, Gerald Holtom set to work.

Born into WWI in 1914, a conscientious objector during World War II, he said he was driven to the nuclear disarmament movement by a feeling of deep despair. He first drew himself, with palms thrown outwards, citing the peasant in Goya's The Third of May 1808 (aka "Peasant Before the Firing Squad," 1814) as an inspiration. But he

wanted to create a less despairing mark; he was inspired to produce a simple, distinctive icon. By superimposing the naval semaphore signals for “N” (Nuclear) and “D” (Disarmament), enclosing them in a circle to symbolize the earth, he achieved the desired clarity.

On Good Friday 1958, the peace symbol was born as a "Ban the Bomb" emblem.

On that day, the CND symbol came to light as thousands marched from London’s Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston, 51 miles to the north. Five hundred round cardboard signs were created; half showed a black symbol on white and half were white on green. (It was Easter weekend; black and white were to be carried on Friday and Saturday, green and white on Sunday and Monday.) Eric Austen, of Kensington CND, produced badges with a black symbol on white ceramic. The message behind the material? It was intended to survive in the event of nuclear war.

The icon went viral as the symbol of peace, and of protest. Original and memorable, it became the banner of the peace movement that snowballed into mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. By the time my consciousness was raised during the Berkeley and Stanford protests, the peace symbol was everywhere, a message in a universal language, our badge of counter-cultural identification against the war-making establishment. We wore it, we shouted it on signs. Soldiers drew it on their helmets. Babies wore it

on their onesies. You’d see it on t-shirts, jeans pockets, headbands, jewelry. Tattoos. Bumper stickers. It was pervasive on the evening news, signaling stories of unrest. It flew from boats sailing the Marshall Islands, protesting U.S. nuclear tests there.

As powerful symbols inevitably do, it became a lightning rod for controversy. In my hippie youth, I remember pro-war militants calling it the American Chicken. Some claimed that the icon is anti-Christian, a symbol of devil-worshipers. The reactionary John Birch Society compared it to a Satanic upside-down "broken" cross, supposedly carried by the Moors when they invaded Spain in the 8th century. Some called it a “death rune.” It’s been co-opted to

express antithetical ideas, incorporating handguns, M16s, and B52 bombers. I’ve even read that it was once used as an SS regimental symbol. More recently, a Denver homeowner wanted to use a great big peace sign as a Christmas wreath in 2006, but ran into the homeowner’s association, which called the icon an "anti-Christ sign" with "a lot of negativity associated with it!"

The peace sign isn’t as ubiquitous today as it was a few decades ago, but it’s still true to its disarmament roots, visible at Trident submarine base demonstrations here in Puget Sound for example. It was also worn as a badge against tyranny in Greece. Used as an anti-apartheid symbol in South Africa, where the government tried to ban it in 1973. Now you can see it at climate change protests

and refugee camps. My friends mounted a huge, luminous peace sign on top of their building, visible across a swath of Seattle. And it’s re-emerged in reaction to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps unavoidably, the symbol of peace has also been subverted for commercial purposes. When a retro fashion fad recalling the ‘60s rolled around a few years ago, the peace sign was adopted by consumer brands from Tiffany to Target.

Seeing it on a Fendi bag seems antithetical to the values of its counter-culture roots.

CND never registered the logo as a trademark, proclaiming it "a symbol of freedom, it is free for all." Pat Arrowsmith was on the CND committee that selected Holtom’s simple design back in 1958. His take: “I’m happy for it to be an anti-war symbol without it necessarily being anti-nuclear weapons. It was worn by dissident US sailors staffing Polaris submarines who weren’t happy about the Vietnam War, which is extraordinary. But when it becomes a decoration you can buy on street corners, it’s rather less pleasing.”

The artist who was able to re-purpose his sense of despair to create the enduring symbol of peace went on to raise six children. Gerald Holtom lived in Kent, in southeast Britain, for the last 15 or so years of his life, until he died in 1985. He’s buried there in Seabrook cemetery. His extraordinary symbol is carved on his headstone, just as it should be.

© 2019 Susan Cummings. All rights reserved.

Image credits:

  • Gerald Holtom

  • Two sketches of nuclear disarmament symbol by Gerald Holtom

  • March from London to Aldermaston, 1958

  • Ceramic CND badge

  • Vietnam War helmet with peace sign

  • Footprint of the American Chicken patch

  • Peace Through Superior Firepower logo

  • Peace symbol on helmet in Iraq

  • Peace symbol on Moschino sweatshirt

  • Gerald Holton grave marker

  • Unless otherwise noted, all images licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License

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