The Peace Symbol Celebrates Its 57th Birthday, but Still No Peace

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In honor of the 57th anniversary of the Peace Symbol, I, Bill Berkowitz, fully understanding that I have no official standing, do not possess any super powers, and do not know anyone who will make it thus, hereby suggest that February 21, 2015 be designated as: “International Peace Symbol Day.”

We’re watching Katy Perry’s Super Bowl half-time show and out pops Missy Elliott, and she’s wearing a Jumpsuit, and there, on the left thigh of her outfit, is what looks like a peace symbol. While it may be a little incongruous/bizarre in this age of US acts of war, terrorist beheadings, US Drone strikes and other acts of state and non-state violence to think about the Peace Symbol, Elliot’s outfit reminded me that fifty-seven-years after its creation, the Peace Symbol is still found even in the most unlikely of places, i.e. the National Football League’s 49th Annual Super Bowl.

Over the years, the Peace Symbol has endured charges by the far right, including the John Birch Society, which claimed that it was “associated … with a broken cross, Communism, [the] anti-Christ, and Satanism,” and it has survived twentieth, and now twenty-first, century crass commercialism.

People wear the peace symbol – as jewelry, and on shirts, scarves, dresses, raingear; carry it around on their lunchboxes, book bags, umbrellas; and, I am guessing here, more than a few folks have it tattooed somewhere on their bodies. In short, the Peace Symbol has become as American as hot dogs, crappy television programs, income inequality, and mass shootings.

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Few, however, know of its origins. I know this to be true because I have occasionally stopped a peace symbol wearer, and after mentioning that I admired their peace symbol, I‘ve asked them if they knew of its derivation. The question invariably draws a smile, and a blank look.

The Peace Symbol's origin story

As Berkeley poet and author Arnie Passman pointed out in a recent e-mail announcing his annual February tribute to the Peace Symbol, it was "inspired by Spain's greatest painting, Francisco Goya's 'The Shootings of the 3rd of May, 1808,' and was developed from the British semaphore signals for N (nuclear) and D (disarmament)," which the artist who created it, then placed inside a circle symbolizing the Earth.

Gerald Holtom, an artist and conscientious objector, created the Peace Symbol on February 21,1958. According to Christopher Driver, author of The Disarmers: A Study in Protest, Holtom created the design and then brought it to an organizer of a local British peace group. After several revisions, it was unveiled publicly on Good Friday of that year, by anti-nuclear demonstrators -- the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) -- who marched 50 miles from London's Trafalgar Square to the weapons factory at Aldermaston. It was the first Ban-the-Bomb March.

Holtom was a graduate of the Royal College of Art and had been a conscientious objector in World War II. Two years ago, on the 55th Anniversary of the Peace Symbol, I wrote:

"When Gerald Holtom, a British designer and former World War II conscientious objector, sat down at his drawing board fifty-five years ago, he was in almost total despair. He later told the editor of Peace News: '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 formalized the drawing into a line and put a circle round it.'"

In a letter to Ken Kolsbun, author of the 2008 book titled Peace: The Biography of a Symbol, Gerald Holtom's nephew Tim wrote:

He was a man ahead of his time; one moment, a manic radical genius, the next a magnanimous, charming and genial host and entertainer, and then sometimes, when bogged down by pessimists, his dark brooding side would intervene and ensuing intermittent explosions of roaring rhetoric could be heard reverberating throughout the house like a crescendonous Beethovenesque clamor. ...Despite all the disappointments in his life, however, Gerald never let things crush his spirit... he was always full of resolve and injected considerable passion into the numerous and diverse projects he devised, even when many people around him were skeptical as to their feasibility.

In the epilogue to his book, Kolsbun wrote: "Children of today easily identify it. They may not know its original meaning, but they know it stands for good things – be nice to friends, be kind to animals, no fighting. This is a marvelous achievement for Gerald Holtom's simple design. Peoples around the world have marched with it, worn it, displayed it during combat, held it high on banners, and been arrested in its name. Ask any man, woman or child, 'What one thing would everyone in the world want more than anything else?' The answer would surely be world peace.'"

So welcome to "International Peace Symbol Day." Continue hoisting it proudly at protests for peace and social justice; adorn whatever hasn't already been adorned; and let a little peace in. Peace Out!

This story was originally published on Truthout.


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