Behind the Peace Symbol

Peace symbol.
Photo: Nobel Peace Center

Nowadays we all recognise this symbol, but how did it come about? What are the origins of the peace symbol?

The symbol started its life as a symbol of the British anti-nuclear movement. Since then, it has become an international sign for peace and possibly the most widely used protest symbol in the world.

During the Cold War, in the 1950s, nuclear weapons were being placed in many countries in Europe. This aroused widespread popular protests. In the UK, a committee for direct action against nuclear war (DAC) was formed. The DAC was inspired by Gandhi and his non-violent approach to civil disobedience. One of the first things the organisation did was to organize a march. The event was Britain’s first major demonstration against nuclear weapons — a 52-mile march from London to the town of Aldermaston, home to an A-bomb research center.

Artist Gerald Holtom was assigned the task of creating the visuals for the march, for the banners and signs. Holtom wanted to create a recognisable sign showing that everyone had a joint responsibility to remove the threat of nuclear weapons.

The symbol quickly began to represent the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and in 1960, it became truly famous all over the world when an American student named Philip Altbach persuaded the Student Peace Union to use it. It became very popular, and by the end of the 1960s, it had become a universal symbol of peace, frequently used by protesters.

What was the idea behind the design?

The peace sign consists of two semaphore signs. Flag semaphore is a visual signalling system in which flags are held in different positions representing the letters of the alphabet. This system has been used in the maritime world since the 1800s.

Artist Gerald Holtom used the semaphore signs representing N for Nuclear and D for Disarmament and combined them inside a circle. The circle represents the earth.

From nuclear disarmament to freedom

In a letter written in 1973 to Hugh Brock (former editor of Peace News and a key figure within the Direct Action Committee), Holtom explains in detail the idea behind the peace symbol and how personal this cause was to him:

"I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad."

However, Holtom contradicts himself when he refers to Goya’s “peasant before the firing squad” in his letter to Brock, as the peasant clearly has his hands raised in an upright V position.

American pacifist Ken Kolsbun, corresponded with Holtom until his death in 1985, and said the designer regretted the connotation of despair and wanted the sign inverted:

"He thought peace was something that should be celebrated. In fact, the semaphore sign for U in ‘unilateral’ depicts flags pointing upwards. Mr. Holtom was all for unilateral disarmament."

He realised that if he inverted the symbol, it could represent the tree of life, the tree on which Christ had been crucified. For Christians like Gerald Holtom, this was a symbol of hope and resurrection, and so the symbol could echo both the frustrations of the anti-nuclear campaign and a sense of optimism.

The peace sign has never been registered as a trademark

Today, it is a symbol of freedom and can be used freely by anyone. The peace movement, led by several Nobel Laureates such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), IAEA and the latest laureate, ICAN, continues to fight for a world free from nuclear weapons.

First published on Medium, Oct 20, 2017.