Birth of the peace

Nuclear Disarmament

• The peace symbol is one of the most widely known symbols in the world. In Britain, it is recognized as standing for nuclear disarmament and, in particular, as the logo of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). In the US and throughout much of the rest of the world, it is known more broadly as the peace symbol. It was designed in 1958 by Gerald Holtom, a professional designer and artist and a graduate of the Royal College of Arts. 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 CND.

The Direct Action Committee had already planned what was to be the first major anti-nuclear march, from London to Aldermaston, where British nuclear weapons were (and still are) manufactured. It was during that march, over the 1958 Easter weekend, that the symbol first appeared in public. Five hundred cardboard lollipops on sticks were produced. Half were black on white and half white on green. Just as the church’s liturgical colours change over Easter, so the colours were to change “from Winter to Spring, from Death to Life.” Black and white would be displayed on Good Friday and Saturday, green and white on Easter Sunday and Monday.

The first badges were made by Eric Austin of Kensington CND using white clay with the symbol painted black. Again, there was a conscious symbolism. They were distributed with a note explaining that, in the event of a nuclear war, these fired pottery badges would be among the few human artifacts to survive the nuclear inferno. These early ceramic badges can still be found and one, loaned by CND, was included in the Imperial War Museum’s 1999/2000 exhibition “From the Bomb to the Beatles.

What does it mean?

Gerald Holtom, a conscientious objector who had worked on a farm in Norfolk during the Second World War, explained the symbol incorporated the semaphore letters Nuclear and Disarmament. He later wrote to Hugh Brock, editor of Peace News, explaining the genesis of his idea in greater, more personal depth: “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.”

Eric Austin added his own interpretation of the design: “The gesture of despair had long been associated with the death of Man and the circle with the unborn child.”

Holtom had originally considered using the Christian cross symbol within a circle as the motif for the march, but various priests he had approached with the suggestion were not happy at the idea of using the cross on a protest march. Ironically, Christian CND later used the symbol with the central stroke extended upwards to form the upright of a cross. This adaptation of the design was only one of many subsequently invented by various groups within CND and for specific occasions – with a cross below as a women’s symbol, with a daffodil or a thistle incorporated by CND Cymru [Welsh] and Scottish CND, with little legs for a sponsored walk, etc. Whether Holtom would have approved of some of the more light-hearted versions is open to doubt.

The symbol crossed the Atlantic almost immediately. Bayard Rustin, a close associate of Martin Luther King, had come over from the US in order to take part in that first Aldermaston March. He took the symbol back to the US where it was used in civil rights marches. Later, it appeared in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and was even daubed in protest on the helmets of American GIs. Simpler to draw than the Picasso peace dove, it became known, first in the US and then around the world, as the peace symbol. It appeared on the walls of Prague when the Soviet tanks invaded in 1968, on the Berlin Wall, in Sarajevo and Belgrade, on the graves of the victims of military dictators from the Greek Colonels to the Argentinian junta, and in East Timor.

There have been claims that the symbol has older, occult or anti-Christian associations. In South Africa, under the apartheid regime, there was an official attempt to ban it. Various far-right and fundamentalist American groups have also spread the idea of Satanic associations or condemned it as a Communist sign. However, the origins and ideas behind the symbol have been clearly described, both in letters and interviews, by Gerald Holtom and his original sketches are now on display as part of the Commonweal Collection in Bradford.

Although specifically designed for the anti-nuclear movement, it has quite deliberately never been copyrighted. No one has to pay for it or seek permission before they use it. A symbol of freedom, it is free for all. This, of course, sometimes leads to its use, or misuse, in circumstances that CND and the peace movement find distasteful. It is also often exploited for commercial, advertising or general fashion purposes. We can’t stop this happening and have no intention of copyrighting it. All we can do is to ask commercial users if they would like to make a donation. Any money received is used for CND’s peace education and information work.

Information about the origin of the peace symbol is from Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament:

For more information about peace initiatives, visit:
The Council of Canadians:
Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace:
Canadian Peace Alliance:
Department of Peace:
Canadian Peace Congress:
Greenpeace Canada:
Canadian Voice of Women for Peace:
Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility

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