Friday, March 21, 2008

The Peace Sign Turns Fifty


Many of you may know this, but I didn’t: the peace symbol first made its appearance fifty years ago at a Good Friday march against nuclear weapons in London.

It was designed by an Englishman named Gerald Holtom, a conscientious objector to World War II who grasped the fact that the anti-nuclear movement would benefit greatly from a clearly identifiable visual image. What he came up with was a combination of letters from the semaphore alphabet—a man with hands stretched down and out (N, for nuclear) and with right hand raised (D, for disarmament), within a circle that symbolized the Earth. Holtom later said he was also inspired by the famous Goya anti-war painting, where a despairing man about to be shot stands with his hands down and out to the sides.

Of course, the symbol took on a life of its own in the sixties and seventies, when it crossed the Atlantic and was adopted by the anti-Vietnam War movement, and by the movement for racial equality in both the United States and South Africa. Now I understand the symbol has come to be viewed by many as somehow emblematic of Communism and of opposition to militant American Christianity, with many seeing it as a symbol of a broken cross. A couple in Denver were actually threatened with a fine when they used a peace symbol as a wreath at Christmas.

Kinda makes me want to run out and stick one in the front yard. Happy birthday, peace symbol!


Steve Malley said...

Ooooh, first comment!

Neat, informative post. Not even 8am here, and you already taught me stuff! :)

And that broken cross thing reminds me of when I was a kid, and the rumour ran wild that you could read 666 in peanut-butter labels. Buncha damn chuckleheads...

Shauna Roberts said...

Fascinating story! I had not known the history of the peace sign. And just when I think the radical right couldn't get loonier, something proves me wrong.

Charles Gramlich said...

So weird how symbols can morph. to imagine someone being threatened with a fine for it. Bizarre.

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