Peace symbol once said to represent bomber

One rendering of the original peace symbol

It’s hard to believe the widely recognized peace symbol is 50 years old today, but downright scary to think that the Vietnam war protests were 40 years ago.

I was the right age to march in one of those protests, although our march emphasized support for the troops and the nation (“Color us red, white, and blue”), even as we opposed the war itself. I don’t recall hearing then, in the late ’60s, that the symbol actually had originated in England in 1958. I was told U.S. hippies and peaceniks had contrived it and that it was a stylized swept-wing B-52 bomber, the plane being used for carpet-bombing and dropping Agent Orange in Vietnam’s DMZ.

An example of the peace symbol as a bomber

I didn’t read about the symbol’s true origin (Gerald Holtom, England, 1958 ) until just a few hours ago and find it curious that of half dozen or so articles about the meaning of the design, none mentions the bomber image. Surely it’s there somewhere.

Holtom’s design began as a symbol for nuclear disarmament, evolved into an anti-Vietnam War sign, and went on to become an internationally recognized symbol for peace. Intentionally, it was never copyrighted, so that it would remain free to everyone. It has persisted for 50 years and is instantly recognized around the world. What a tribute to effective, simple design.



From the New York Times Morning Briefing, Feb. 21, 2018:

Gerald Holtom, the Briton who designed the peace symbol, was in “deep despair” when he created it on this day in 1958.

“I drew myself,” wrote Mr. Holtom, a World War II conscientious objector who was alarmed by the nuclear arms race. “The representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outward and downward in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad.”

The symbol also combined the semaphores, or flag-signaling codes, for the letters “N” and “D,” or “Nuclear Disarmament.” The circle around it represented the earth.

The symbol, which isn’t trademarked, was embraced by the broader antiwar movement and disparaged by critics as anti-Christian.

Mr. Holtom is said to have later expressed a desire that the symbol be inverted so that it resembled hands reaching to the sky. Such a symbol, in addition to being more celebratory of peace, would also evoke the semaphore for the letter “U” — as in “Unilateral Disarmament.”

24 thoughts on “Peace symbol once said to represent bomber

  1. I am nearly sure I saw the same design but with the bomber fully drawn and painted as a bomber. It was for sale at the US air force. On its rim it said “Peace the old fashioned way”. It was meant as an emblem to be stuck to a uniform sleeve.
    When I started looking around for pictures of the symbol, I found a few that had been altered to look more like bombers. I just found it curious that it wasn’t mentioned in the articles I read.

    1. I have been looking for info of the B52 distributing agent orange. Does anyone have pictures or any info on this?

      1. In a recent Bill Nye Saves the world he got a Monsanto executive to admit they administered agent orange during the war. I know victims from this action and it’s made me never want to join the armed forces

        1. I don’t recall that anyone ever denied Agent Orange was used (maybe Monsanto denied they were the suppliers). Dennis Karoleski, below, corrected me about which planes were used to drop the Agent Orange. There was nothing good about that war. We should never have been there.

  2. Wow, now that’s interesting. I never would have guessed it in a millions years. Funny how something starts out as one thing and then becomes another, isn’t it?
    Prowling my old posts, eh? People keep looking at this one; I can’t figure out why it’s so interesting.

  3. Visualize a Dove’s foot as the peace symbol. Simple and iconic.
    I’d never looked at it that way before, but it’s right there, isn’t it? If only a symbol were enough …

  4. You say you “were the right age to march” in protest but did not realize the “peace symbol” was not derived from the silhouette of a B-52 until a few hours ago. I’m guessing you were maybe 15-17 then and lived in the south or midwest, maybe near a military base.

    My 60th birthday is next week so I was 18 in 1968.

    I went into the Air Force about 5 months after graduating High School. My draft number was 48. If I waited and wasn’t in college I was going to “‘Nam”. I couldn’t afford college plus I wasn’t sure what I would do there so I didn’t want to waste my parents money.

    I missed going to Woodstock, only saw the movie the next summer (at base theater!) and bought the soundtrack album set (at the commissary!).

    I watched Apollo 11 in an open barracks on a portable black & white TV that I bought just to watch Apollo 11. The video from the moon was black & white, so I didn’t miss much not having a color TV.

    I never saw any part of southeast asia though I sweated the arrival of orders to go at any time during the first 3 of my 4 year stint – the understanding was when one was under 12 months “short” orders to southeast asia were unlikely though not impossible.

    As it happened, I spent most of my time in the Air Force in the area of Austin, Tx, at a base that was closed decades ago. A base that served Air Force One during the time of LBJ when he went to his “ranch”.

    Austin is the capital city of Texas and the home of the University of Texas and the Armadillo World Head Quarters.

    Being around a “college town” meant that there was an active “counter culture” community focused on the campus and environs, especially in the late 60’s and early 70’s. “Peace symbols” were everywhere young adult (over 18) people were likely to be.

    I too marched in anti war demonstrations then, out of uniform. And I too came to believe the war was hurting the country and costing us more in lives, respect and treasure than the war was worth.

    That was when I was 20 or so. Since then I have acquired an appreciation for the strategic thinking that was behind the conflict. A WWII like victory was not attainable in Vietnam even with further commitment of military force that didn’t also risk WWIII.

    Johnson, Nixon and Kissinger had Korea on their minds in Vietnam. The danger of the conflict escalating out of control if the now nuclear armed Chinese or Soviets were to enter the conflict in force like in Korea was real. But a precipitous unilateral disengagement was also perilous.

    When I hear people, mostly Republicans, crow about how Reagan “won” the cold war “without firing a shot”, I have to remind them that Korea and Vietnam were part of the so-called “cold war”.

    I couldn’t vote in 1968 because the voting age was 21 then. I voted for George “Bomber Pilot” McGovern in 1972 and for Jimmy “Nuclear Submariner” Carter in 1976 and 1980..

    Even though I was in the Air Force in the “Vietnam Era”, I did not see the B-52 version of the “peace symbol” very much and then mostly after about 1970 or 1971 as bumper stickers on pickup trucks.

    This was when pickup truck drivers blared country music and wore cowboy hats on top of “crew cuts”. These are the guys you see in the 1968 movie “Easy Rider”.

    By the mid to late 70’s, pickup truck drivers were as likely to be blaring the Grateful Dead or Willie Nelson and had long hair under their cowboy hat. They might have shared a joint with Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson in a 1974 remake of “Easy Rider”.

    1. I was 23 yrs old in 1968, had been married a couple of years, and lived in Norman, Oklahoma — definitely a college town with all the anti-war sentiment you mentioned. I was a couple of years too old and “adult” to be part of the hippie movement. But my husband was in grad school and definitely draft age, as was my younger brother, so we were still in the middle of it all. We saw the war as a misguided, unwinnable waste of American lives. Or at least that’s the way I remember it these many years later.

      1. Strange that Norman was such an anti-war town, because 15 miles to the northeast of Norman is TInker AFB, home of the AWACS, the 3rd Combat Communications Group, and one of the largest military aircraft repair facilities in the world.

  5. Yes, other Viet Nam vets have told me that the Peace Symbol is a ‘stylized’ B-52. It has the ring of truth…

  6. I did not know that about the B-52 image or the bomber being the one to drop Agent Orange. I remember wearing it proudly around my neck in 1967, symbol of Peace to bring our Troops home. That is what it meant to me, I wrote of my involvement in the “Peace Movement” on my blog
    This is an interesting post, ohhhh, what we learn through our friends. 😀

    1. I certainly prefer the nuclear disarmament and peace aspects of the symbol, and it’s always meant peace to me. I think the bomber thing is a perversion.

    2. Can’t believe no one corrected your comment. The B-52 was used to drop bombs, not spray agent orange defoliant. The old C-123 twin recip-engine cargo plane was the Project Ranch Hand spray plane of choice.

  7. Noted this post from your ‘Front Page’ and found it quite interesting. I have never heard of the peace symbol being representative of the B-52. I do know that many Vietnam veterans find the symbol somewhat offensive, representing a sign of disapproval of their military service at the time. I personally never gave it much thought even though I am a Vietnam veteran.

    On the other hand, if the symbol had been well known as a reflection of the B-52 then I would have had a pocketful of them. Being in the U.S. Air Force from 61 – 68 and in the Strategic Air Command (they controlled the nuclear deterrent forces in those days which was spearheaded by the B-52) my job was working on and repairing the navigational and radar systems of both the B-52 and the KC-135.

    And I was stationed in Oklahoma from 1961 till late 1965 at Clinton-Sherman AFB which had a contingency of B-52’s and KC-135’s. I sweated out the Cuban Missile Crisis there with the entire contingency of B-52’s locked and loaded – it was a scary moment knowing what those aircraft were carrying and knowing what could happen, both here and with our adversary. Clinton-Sherman AFB was closed and demilitarized in December of 1969.

    1. I just remember at the time someone telling me the symbol represented a B-52, and it certainly seemed plausible. Without the internet, it was years later before I learned of its real origin and meaning. I may be repeating myself, but I never disapproved of those who served in Vietnam. Soldiers don’t get to choose where to fight. My beef was with the government that sent them there.

      I was living in Norman at the time of the missile crisis. Those were scary, scary times. Tinker AFB was nearby, between me and my parents’ house in north OKC. I really felt like Tinker would have been a target, and those missiles reportedly had just enough range to get there.

  8. “Bomb Hanoi”. This was an inscription on a peace sign pendant in the shape of a B-52 in the early 70’s. A cool peace sign at the time, and now a collector’s item. Wish I had gotten one at the time, but being pro-war was so uncool at the time. Sigh.

  9. Posted exactly 14 years ago, glad I found this ; that is certainly intriguing the concept;….

    “with hands palm outstretched outward and downward in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad.”

    …when ever I see this symbol now. it will have an entirely different meaning

... and that's my two cents