The Peace Symbol at Sixty-Three, Monetized, Marketed and Yet, Still a Symbol of Peace
Bill Berkowitz / BuzzFlash
(March 1, 2021) — Despite critics calling it a symbol of communism, some claiming it was anti-Christian, and some linking it to Nazis, the peace symbol has become ubiquitous throughout the world. Since its first appearance in London in 1958, it has been present at peace and justice demonstrations across the world.
According to CNN’s Jacobo Prisco, the peace symbol “was probably imported [to the US] by [civil rights activist] Bayard Rustin, a close collaborator of Martin Luther King Jr., who had participated in the London march in 1958. Crossing the Atlantic, the symbol lost its association with nuclear disarmament and came to signify, more generally, peace.” It became omnipresent at anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in the US, during anti-Soviet protests in Czechoslovakia, and in South Africa to oppose Apartheid.
The Peace Symbol was originally created on February 21, 1958, and was first seen in public on Good Friday of that year — which fell on April 4 — when thousands of British anti-nuclear campaigners — organized by the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC) and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) — marched 52 miles from London’s Trafalgar Square to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire.
Gerald Holtom, a British artist and designer, and World War II conscientious objector, created the peace symbol out of feelings of deep despair. In an interview with Peace News, Holtom said: “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. I formalized the drawing into a line and put a circle round it.”
The peace symbol is also marketed and monetized: According to Gear Patrol, “Reebok teamed up with the UK’s Story Mfg. for [a] unique version of the Beatnik [show]. It’s made with an undyed, woven linen blend and features an embroidered peace sign and removable heel strap.”
The actress Shruti Haasan, who was recently seen in Netflix’s first Telugu anthology Pitta Kathalu, and has more than 15 million followers, recently posted a photowearing “an all-blue outfit comprising of a blue bralette with the peace symbol on it along with a denim mini skirt completing her look with a blue denim jacket,” Republicworld,com reported.
BBC News reported that Holtom “considered using a Christian cross motif but, instead, settled on using letters from the semaphore — or flag-signaling — alphabet, super-imposing N (uclear) on D (isarmament) and placing them within a circle symbolizing Earth.”
In his book The Disarmers: A Study in Protest, Christopher Driver, wrote that Holtom created the design and then brought it to an organizer of a local British peace group. After several revisions, it was unveiled publicly on Good Friday of that year, at the first Ban-the-Bomb March. Driver, a pacifist, described it as “probably the most powerful, memorable and adaptable image ever designed for a secular cause.”
Over the years, the peace symbol, which Holtom created without a copyright, is still seen at thousands of protests on buttons, posters and flags. Artists around the world have used it in a myriad of ways. It has been rigorously commercialized, gracing jewelry, lunchboxes, t-shirts, dresses, raingear and other assorted paraphernalia. It even appeared on a jumpsuit worn by Missy Elliott during a Super Bowl half-time show.
As I wrote three years ago, “While it may be a little incongruous/bizarre in this age of US acts of war, terrorist beheadings, US Drone strikes and other acts of state and non-state violence to think about the Peace Symbol, Elliot’s outfit reminded me that fifty-seven-years after its creation, the Peace Symbol is still found even in the most unlikely of places, i.e. the National Football League’s 49th Annual Super Bowl.”
The peace symbol has also been the target of right wing and religious activists: As the Durango Herald’s Thomas Munro reported, “During the Cold War, as a symbol of the peace movement and the left, it was immediately defined by many as a symbol of communism. The geometrical similarity of the interior of the symbol to an upside-down cross was fodder for anti-communists who saw in the symbol a subliminal promotion of atheism. Others pointed out that a similar symbol appears on the tombstones of some Nazi bomber pilots.”
In October 1970, Ezra Taft Benson, the 13th President of the LDS (Mormon) Church, former US Secretary of Agriculture, and an admirer of the far-right John Birch Society, trashed the peace symbol in a speech at General Conference:
“Have we… ‘polluted the holy church of God?’ …. The auxiliaries of the Church are to be a help, not a hindrance, to parents and the priesthood as they strive to lead their families back to God. Do any of us wear or display the broken cross, anti-Christ sign, that is the adversary’s symbol of the so-called ‘peace movement’”?
Benson “was evidently parroting over the pulpit the political fear-mongering propaganda that had been published by the John Birch Society (in their official publication American Opinion) only four months before,” the blog culturalmormoncafeteria pointed out.
Titled “Peace Symbols: The Truth About Those Strange Designs,” the American Opinion article “associated” the peace symbol “with a broken cross, Communism, [the] anti-Christ, and Satanism.”
In addition to falsely claiming that the famed British philosopher, mathematician, and peace activist Bertrand Russell had designed the symbol, author David E. Gumaer, who later published a book with the same title, wrote: “It was the upside-down broken cross. Such anti-Christian and anti-Jewish symbolism is common to Satanists: “The revolutionaries are pushing this business [of Satanism and black magic] like there’s no tomorrow. And those ‘peace symbols’ are a part of it. They are symbols of the anti-Christ!…”
In the epilogue to Peace: The Biography of a Symbol (National Geographic, 2008), Ken Kolsbun and Mike Sweeney wrote: “Children of today easily identify it. They may not know its original meaning, but they know it stands for good things — be nice to friends, be kind to animals, no fighting.
This is a marvelous achievement for Gerald Holtom’s simple design. Peoples around the world have marched with it, worn it, displayed it during combat, held it high on banners, and been arrested in its name. Ask any man, woman or child, ‘What one thing would everyone in the world want more than anything else?’ The answer would surely be world peace.’”
Cultural critic, Stephen Bayley, told CNN that “It speaks very clearly of an era and a sensibility. It is, simply, a fine period piece: the ordinary thing done extraordinarily well.”
Bayley added: “All good graphic devices should be lucid and capable of applications in different media. But this one has the advantage of a nice semantic ambiguity: It can be read in different ways. A missile at lift-off? A person waving in despair? A Druidical reference? But it bypasses interpretation: It’s a thing unto itself.”
Its legacy lives on and is continuously updated. After the 2015 Paris terror attacks, French artist Jean Jullien reimagined the design using the shape of the Eiffel Tower, creating a worldwide symbol of solidarity. The peace symbol was more recently seen at Black Lives Matter demonstrations for justice for George Floyd, killed by a Minneapolis policeman.
Gerald Holtom died in 1971, at age 85. It is doubtful that people carrying the peace symbol at demonstrations have any idea who Holtom is, or the derivation of the peace symbol. The Guardian’s Ian Jack pointed out that Holtom “never made a penny from his design or wanted to.”
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