Fifty years ago, on a chilly Good Friday, thousands of British anti-nuclear campaigners set off to march the 50 miles from London’s Trafalgar Square to the weapons factory at Aldermaston. The demonstration had been organised by the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC) and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) joined them.
Gerald Holtom, a designer and former World War II conscientious objector from West London, persuaded DAC that their aims would have greater impact if they were conveyed in a visual image. He combined the semaphore signs for “N” and “D” into what has become one of the iconic symbols of the modern world.
“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.” Mr Holtom explained.American pacifist Ken Kolsbun, who corresponded with Mr Holtom until his death in 1985, has written a book, “Peace: The biography of a symbol”, to commemorate its 50th birthday. In it he charts how it was transported across the Atlantic and took on additional meanings for the Civil Rights movement, the counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s including the anti-Vietnam protests, and the environmental, women’s and gay rights movements.In just over a decade, the sign had been carried by civil rights “freedom” marchers, painted on psychedelic Volkswagens in San Francisco, and on the helmets of US soldiers on the ground in Vietnam. The peace sign was adopted by the counter-culture movement. “The sign really got going over here during the 1960s and 70s, when it became associated with anti-Vietnam protests,” he said.
As the combat escalated, he says, so did the anti-war protests and the presence of the symbol. “This, of course, led some people to condemn it as a communist sign,” says Mr Kolsbun. “There has always been a lot of misconception and disinformation about it.”
As the sign became a badge of the burgeoning hippie movement of the late 1960s, the hippies’ critics scornfully compared it to a chicken footprint, and drew parallels with the runic letter indicating death. In 1970, my favourite stalking horse, the conservative John Birch Society, published pamphlets likening the sign to a Satanic symbol of an upside-down, “broken” cross.
While it remained a key symbol of the counter-culture movement throughout the 1970s, it returned to its origins in the 1980s, when it became the banner of the international grassroots anti-nuclear movement.