Article Launched: 09/05/2008
by Wallace Baine
I was kinda looking for it, then I saw it. There it was, in a photo
from the Democratic National Convention, on a woman's dress, as big
and round as the biggest pizza you can buy. I'm talking about one of
the most successful symbols in modern history, a logo "" unlike, say,
the Golden Arches or the Nike Swoosh or Apple's bitten apple "" that
belongs to no multi-national corporation, but to all of us.
It's the peace symbol.
And it's 50 years old.
Unlike its corporatized brethren, the peace symbol has not had an
army of trademark lawyers and marketing executives protecting it from
improper use. It has no legions of priests, rabbis or imams ready to
defend it against desecration. It's a feral cat of a logo, there for
anyone's use, proper or otherwise. In a culture where everything
seems to belong to some private interest, it's a measure of whatever
freedom we have left that a free symbol like this one can survive to 50.
Of course, symbols are supposed to carry different meanings to
different people, and the peace symbol certainly does that. It is
political in nature, which means there are many folks who have no use
for it. Originally intended as a symbol for nuclear disarmament, the
peace sign has become a coded icon of the '60s counterculture,
entwined in the minds of many with the star-shaped marijuana leaf as
an undermining influence of everything true and good and righteous.
For others, and perhaps that woman at the Democratic convention is
one of them, it is merely a lifestyle gee-gaw, an over-accessorized
sign of hipness, a wink and nod to political awareness. I saw one
around the neck of my 13-year-old daughter the other day. I look
forward to discussing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty with her.
The peace symbol is being celebrated this year by the publication of
"Peace: The Biography of a Symbol" by Ken Kolsbun with Michael S.
Sweeney. What's noteworthy about the book is that it carries another
symbol, the yellow rectangular box that signifies National Geographic
which these days is, let's face it, a better Good Housekeeping seal
of approval than Good Housekeeping is.
Kolsbun is no mere interested party in the development of the peace
symbol. He started kicking around the subject when he and his wife
attended peace rallies back in the late 1960s Santa Cruz connection:
Kolsbun's daughter, Tuesday Soetaert, is a long-time local. Since
then, he's watched the development of the symbol from its
demonization at the hands of the ultra-right John Birch Society to
even more widespread use in demonstrations against the Iraq War.
So where did the broken-cross-in-a-circle symbol come from?
As it turns out, it was the invention of one man. Gerald Holtom was a
British textile designer concerned about the spread of nuclear
weapons back at the height of the Cold War. He was convinced that the
success of a planned protest march against nuclear arms in London in
the spring of 1958 would be enhanced by marchers carrying a symbol of
the cause. The idea for the symbol came from the initials of "nuclear
disarmament" as they appeared in the semaphore flag signaling system:
"N" both arms pointed downward at a 45-degree angle and "D" both arms
pointed in opposite directions at vertical. Put it in a circle and,
wham, there's your icon.
Holtom, who obviously had a gift for public relations imagery, made
sure the new symbol was tightly linked with the anti-nuclear
movement, and thanks to its simplicity "" any child could draw one ""
it became an enormous success, as symbols go.
The peace symbol's suggestion of a drooping cross gave it a kind of
supercharged quasi-religious significance. And many religious groups
saw it as a symbol for wickedness. In fact, said Kolsbun, the Birch
Society launched a campaign to discredit the peace symbol in the
early 1970s, printing a "history" of the symbol and distributing it
to churches nationwide. The revisionism gained some traction.
"This information went all over America," said Kolsbun, "and for
years, the symbol was attacked for being anti-Christ and from the
Devil and it just kept going and going. And now, though the book has
the National Geographic seal of approval, there are still people out
there who think it's a sign of the devil."
Clearly, the peace symbol has outgrown attempts to paint it as evil.
It has also jumped generations, having been embraced by subsequent
generations of political protesters. From belt buckles to jewelry to
face paint, the peace symbol lives on as a viral marker of political
But none of this success was inevitable. Universal symbols don't just
pop up every day. Consider, for instance, the peace symbol's
forgotten companion, the ecology symbol that came along about the
same time. It was kind of a football-shaped oval with a horizontal
line through it. When I was about nine years old, I had sneakers with
the ecology symbol on them. If I still had them, they'd be eBay
collectibles. But like a dead language from the Dark Ages, the
ecology symbol exists only as a historical artifact, despite the fact
we could use such a symbol today.
The peace symbol, however, lives on.
Contact Wallace Baine at email@example.com.