Peace, Love, and Pacifism:
The Untold Truth of the Peace Sign
By: Scarlet Anglesey
Date: June 9, 2022
Today, many turn towards freedom of expression, especially when living in a decade of dividing global dilemmas, such as political havoc, world isolation through pandemics, and international tragedy. The iconic peace sign is a factor of united tranquility during these times, representing order, societal harmony, and joint freedom. Or does it?
Contrary to the symbol's mistaken conception as an emblem for peace, this symbol began at the core of nuclear war opposition and the possible threat it could leave behind during the 1950s, as mentioned in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
In 1958, Gerald Holtom (1914-1985), a designer and Christian pacifist, was assigned by the Direct Action Committee (DAC), an anti-war organization, to create a symbol used for the upcoming anti-nuclear disarmament march and (hopefully) global impact. Holtom formed his design using semaphores, a portrayal of letters used by sailors for far-distance communication, albeit in an abstract way. According to Reader's Digest, "In the case of the peace sign, it was based on the combination of the letters 'N' and 'D,' which together stood for nuclear disarmament."
The peace sign was a design of usage freedom, without restrictions like copyright and trademark. Like a chameleon, as activist Ken Kolsbun said to describe the logo, the symbol formed different meanings anywhere it touched. For example, in the United States, it was used for the civil rights movement powered by Martin Luther King, Jr. In South Africa, it showed opposition to Apartheid, a racial segregation movement. And most popularly in the counterculture movement (most commonly depicted as the "hippie" movement) during the 1960s (Peace Symbols, Wikipedia), where the peace sign's now-depiction would take off initially in the Western world. By 1968, a decade after the first public appearance of the symbol at the anti-nuke march, the emblem had morphed into a political stance worldwide. In part, the peace sign traveled anywhere without restrictions. At last, years later, it met its goal for its initial design: global impact.
Some years later, in 1973, Holtom explained his thought process while designing the peace sign for the political magazine Peace News (peacenews.info).
"It [the peace sign] could echo both the frustrations of the anti-nuclear campaign and a sense of optimism."
In contrast to the protesters in London on that Good Friday march, counterculture's interpretation leads more to a sense of optimism. Although both rage and optimism lead to the want of longing for something, their want for nuclear absence began at the beginning of their reaction: one of optimism, one of frustration.
Ironically, the phrase "holding up the peace sign," which has been countlessly used throughout the counterculture era, secretly does show the untold history. "Holding up the peace sign" is such acclaim to the Londoners who once did the same thing initially decades ago (just for the now-misinterpreted version), bent on societal frustration.
After the symbol's start sixty-four years ago, the original meaning slowly yet quickly deteriorated, it being "no nukes," as Ken Kolsbun put it. "I think it is important to know the true meaning because the nuclear threat hasn't gone away. It is stronger than ever." (CNN's peace symbol history.) That being said, even in times like these where parts of the world are at war, the peace sign remains a powerful symbol, uniting people and their ideas and being represented throughout cultures through tattoos, jewelry, art, and hand gestures, which hopefully prevail in the sense of harmony over frustration.
On April 4, 1958, the design had successfully marked a vital message through thousands of banners and signs during the Good Friday protest. After the rally, the DAC adopted Gerald Holtom's logo to form the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, where the peace sign would further lead to the vision of a no-nuke, tranquil societal standard.
Image by Keira Johnson