This essay was originally published at the blog Omnem Movere Lapidem on February 23, 2006.
It's known and immediately recognized all over the world. Little kids are as familiar with it as they are with the red heart, the universal symbol for love, and draw both in the margins of their schoolwork. So it's surprising to realize that the beloved peace symbol, still sometimes known in Great Britain by its original name, "the CND logo," is fewer than fifty years old.
In 1958, as the anti-war, anti-nuclear movement was gathering momentum in England, the Direct Action Committee to End Nuclear War, one of several smaller groups that coalesced to form the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament, or CND, was looking for a symbol or slogan it could use to encapsulate the movement's message in a planned Easter weekend march and rally. Working independently, Gerald Holtom, a pacifist activist, professional designer, and a graduate of the Royal College of Arts designed the symbol and showed it to a few people in the office of the newspaper "Peace News."
To many, Holtom's peace sign looks like a sweptwing bomber seen from above. But the artist wanted a symbol that would incorporate the letters N(uclear) and D(isarmament), combined with a symbol of despair.
Holtom said at the time, "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 formalised the drawing into a line and put a circle round it." (Actually, in the painting Holtman references, "The Third of May, 1808," the man's hands are stretched upward, not downward, but the artist's mind's eye reversed the gesture.)
From the offices of "Peace News" the symbol was introduced to the Direct Action Committee, which produced five hundred large stick-mounted lollipops of it. When marchers carried these in the CND pilgrimage from London to Aldermaston, where nuclear weapons were and still are fabricated, it was the first public appearance of the "peace" sign, and appropriately an integral part of the first mass march and rally against nuclear proliferation.
Shortly after the Aldermaston march, the first buttons were produced by Eric Austin of the Kensington CND. He made these of white ceramic, with the symbol printed in black, and distributed them with a note explaining that in the event of nuclear holocaust, the CND badges would be one of the few surviving human artifacts.
The "peace" sign crossed the Atlantic to the U.S. within a few weeks, carried by Martin Luther King's associate Bayard Rustin, who had participated in the Aldermaston march. Some of King's followers began wearing it, and by the early sixties it was frequently seen in the form of lapel buttons at leftist rallies and demonstrations in places like San Francisco and Greenwich Village, where its meaning quickly broadened from the specific plea for nuclear disarmament to the more general sentiment of promoting world peace.
Knowledge and use of the symbol spread very quickly. Many G.I.'s even painted it on their helmets during the Vietnam War. Today there is scarcely an urban dweller in the world over the age of five who would fail to recognize this universal and beloved sign which encapsulates the human longing for an end to war, and the establishment of the permanent regime of peace.
Related: Wreath Wrath, and the History of the Peace sign