Two thirds into the winter of 1957-58, Gerald Holtom was feeling 66.6 percent-ish as he agonized over the design. That February 21, as the artist was to explain the genesis of his idea in greater, more personal depth later to Peace News editor Hugh Brock, he 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. I formalized the drawing with a line and put a circle around it.”
The two lines down were the British semaphore signal for N(nuclear) and the one line up for D (disarmament). And so did professional designer and artist Holtom, a graduate of the Royal College of Arts and 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).
The now universal symbol reached the masses for that spring’s Easter weekend first ever anti-nuclear march from London to Aldermaston where nuclear weapons were and still are manufactured. Five hundred cardboard lollipops were made—half black and white, half white on green.
This was an improv on the church’s original liturgical colors change over Easter—winter to spring, death to life, white and green Easter Sunday and Monday.
Said Jackie Cabasso, director of the Western States Legal Foundation: “The first badges, made of fired pottery, were distributed with a note explaining that in the event of nuclear war, they would be among the few human artifacts to survive the nuclear inferno. From the CND website.”
On the march was the American pacifist Bayard Rustin, a confidant of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who brought the symbol back for the growing civil rights and U.S. anti-nuclear movements. Rustin was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR)—created by two men in 1914 to try to prevent war in Europe. The group had encouraged conscientious objectors in World War II; after that war, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) was founded.
Sometime during 1958, pacifist Albert Bigelow and crew attempted to sail their Golden Rule into the Enowetok nuclear test site, during which time the U.S. government declared the journey illegal. At one point in their widely publicized on-again, off-again efforts, they flew the peace symbol flag.
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 thrust that foreshadowed the feminist lysistratagems at the decade’s end) gave the symbol prominence in anti-nuclear actions. During that time, the peace symbol could be worn with 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. Said Altbach, now a professor at Boston College:
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 United States at the time, brought the symbol to wide attention.
By 1965, the anti-nuclear 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. With its student beginnings, the peace symbol spread far and wide from ’66 on.
As the peace symbol was deliberately never copyrighted, this meant it was displayed on everything from earrings to record jackets, roach clips to the Peace Dress — a 1968 San Francisco mini-dress covered with the symbol below a dipping bosom line. (It paralleled an anti-war cry, “Girls Say Yes To Boys Who Say No!”)
A paradigm shift in values, endemic to the ’60s, took place. Older activists decried the peace symbol’s commercialization, as in perhaps thong panties with the symbol in crystals across the butt.
The huge numbers of baby boomers, however, with their TV, LSD and maturing rock ‘n’ roll culture, were thoroughly behind its popularization.
Still, through Vietnam’s war end, the anti-nuclear and Central America demos of the ’80s, and current ongoing Iraq war protests since 1990, the peace symbol has been on hand. Highly visible protests against its display have also taken place, including great multi-body peace symbols on beaches, lawns. . . with the creation four years ago with the beginning of the Iraq War of International Peace Symbol Day, March 17.
Last holiday season, a couple in Paragosa Springs, Colorado put up a wreath of the peace symbol on their home. They were asked to take it down by their homeowners’ association. When they refused, they 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 but soon after, the fine was rescinded. A newspaper poll showed 95.7 percent of people supported the peace sign. Similar battles have taken place in Odessa, Texas and Missoula, Montana—claiming it was anti-Christian and a “sign of the devil.”
Before Vietnam, conscientious objectors needed a rock-solid religious belief and backup to stay out of the military. Mainly these were simple living members of the Mennonite, Amish and Quaker communities. Such experiences were to begin to support many more draft resisters—with the help of the War Resisters League (WRL) and the CCCO.
In his very good ’60s novel, Hearts in Atlantis, Stephen King describes the arrival and upheaval of the peace symbol at a Maine college campus, circa 1966, at a meeting of students and deans called by a right-wing proctor. He said:
Stokely Jones wears a coat with a very particular symbol on the back. . .This symbol. It 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. Dearie looked stunned. I suppose the last person he expected trouble from was Nate Hoppenstan.
“That symbol is based on British semaphore and stands for nuclear disarmament. It was invented by a British philosopher. I think he might even be a knight (Sir Bertrand Russell). To say the Russians made it up! Goodness sake! Is that what they teach you in ROTC? Bullshit like that?”
The peace symbol had been quickly denigrated as a Communist or devil symbol, even, it was claimed, back into the early Christian era as a flipping of the cross. As war resistance increased, it was called “the chicken tracks of the American coward.” Ironically, the like Mercedes-Benz hood ornament, first used in 1937, for arguably the best made car in the world, is emblematic of a technology that evolved through the Nazi war machine.
Currently, the symbol is being further flipped—from outer space. Uber UFOers Michael Horn and the Meier Contacts are spreading the word that the symbol is a deep subconscious death (and resurrection?) zap sent by space aliens. Others maintain the unilateral symbol resembles a missile, a raised sword “the hanged man;” no, a contained missile true believers argue, even the tree of life itself (which it can stand for both ways).
In its Golden Jubilee year (right behind last 9/11’s 100th anniversary of Gandhi creating the pledge of satyagraha—soul force), the peace symbol has weathered numerous wars — and the best marketing opportunities money can buy. Facing today’s horrors of Asian wars, increased nuclear disfunction, global warming, racial injustice, the irreversible military-industrial complex?. . ., it still calls from great city protests and hamlets to all Earth’s colors and creeds for nonviolent resistance (peace marches between the 7 or 8 Gandhi statues—from Boston to San Francisco?) and civil disobedience (sit-ins at the largest defense contracting congressional districts?).
And all from the mind of one person that deep ’50s, dead winter day in grimy ol’ London Town—and the pioneering march through the English countryside to mad western science’s Aldermaston.
Arnie Passman is a Berkeley writer. He is the author of The Deejays (Macmillan, 1971), two plays about black radio history and has appeared in The Realist, Rolling Stone, Anarchy, L.A. Free Press, The-Edge.