Sixty Years of the Peace Symbol that Gerald Holtom Designed

Troy Lennon | The Telegraph

The Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War were planning a huge Good Friday march from London to Aldermaston, Berkshire, in 1958, uniting with other antinuclear groups. But they needed a symbol that would represent all the participating protesters who were marching under the banner of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

British designer and artist, Gerald Holtom, who was responsible for designing the ND logo which is better known as the Peace symbol.

The job fell to artist Gerald Holtom, a member of the committee who worked at the Department of Education. On February 21, 60 years ago today, he met with his fellow peace campaigners to show them what he had come up with. It was a simple circle bisected by a line with two smaller branching lines.

He explained that it was meant to represent the semaphore for the letters N and D, standing for nuclear disarmament. But, he said, they also suggest a person holding their palms outstretched in a “gesture of despair.”

Despite being so abstract, but also perhaps because it was so simple, it was immediately adopted. Not only is it the global symbol for nuclear disarmament but also for peace.

Holtom’s simple design has now been around for six decades, which means that several generations have grown up knowing it as the only peace symbol. But there have been a multitude of things that represented peace before the CND commissioned their catchy symbol.

The concept of peace meant something vastly different to many ancient people. In ancient Egypt, the concept of the “maat”, meaning harmony, order and balance is close to our idea of peace, but since maat also included justice it could also involve war to restore balance and harmony. The symbol of the maat was a winged goddess or an ostrich feather, which the goddess wore in her hair.

To the Ancient Greeks peace was a goddess named Eirene, the Roman equivalent was Pax from whom we get the word peace. Eirene was one of the Horae, goddesses who kept the seasons and the natural order of things going. Under her watchful eye, there was abundance and a return to normal order. Apart from carrying a sceptre and a cornucopia (horn of plenty) her symbol was also an olive branch.

More than four thousand protesters with torches form a peace symbol on Heroes’ Square in central Budapest in 2006

The olive branch, or olive wreath, was also a symbol of the ancient Olympics, during which a truce was called between warring city states. The olive branch also became a symbol of peace in the Old Testament. After 40 days of flooding rain a dove brought back an olive branch to show that the waters had begun to recede. The dove also became a peace symbol, along with the rainbow, which was visible after the flood.

All of these symbols were used around the world at different times. In World War II the desire for peace was represented by the desire for victory, so the V for victory sign made with the fingers popularised by Churchill became a peace sign. After the war many other potent symbols were created.

Sadako Sasaki, a young Japanese girl who contracted leukaemia from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, heard that wishes were granted to those who folded a thousand paper cranes. After her death in 1955 the paper crane became a symbol for peace and a nuclear free world.

However, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the showdown between powers that possessed them in the 1950s led to the formation of anti-nuclear movements around the world. In Britain, high-profile social commentators such as author John ‘J.B.’ Priestley and philosopher Bertrand Russell along with journalists, politicians and religious leaders formed the core of a movement that became the CND, formed in 1957.

Early in 1958 an affiliated organisation, the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War, suggested to the CND that they unite all anti-nuclear groups for a peaceful mass protest march from London to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston.

Australian marchers take part in the second major British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament Ban The Bomb protest march from Aldermastonat to London in March in 1959.

Holtom provided their unifying symbol, which was turned into hundreds of lollipop-style placards. Holtom, who had worked on farms in England as a conscientious objector in WWII, was happy to provide his creativity for free. He said he drew himself in despair “with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad” but simplified the design to create the now familiar circle and line motif.

The symbol became an instant hit among protesters, because it was so simple and so memorable. Later in 1958 American man Albert Bigelow flew the symbol from his boat when he sailed to the Marshall Islands to protest American nuclear tests.

It was widely adopted by peace movements in the ’60s, such as the mass protests against the Vietnam War, which helped popularise it beyond anti-nuclear demonstrations.

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