Category: History

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.

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Addendum

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.”