What’s the origin of the peace symbol?

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Dear Cecil: I need to know the origin of the peace symbol. Members of the Alliance for Survival will be constructing what may be the world’s largest peace symbol on Santa Monica beach, and we want our facts correct. We’ve heard some pretty strange rumors. Perhaps you can clear the air once and for all. Jerry R., Santa Monica, California


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Sorry I’m a little late getting back to you on this, Jer. I see where the world’s largest peace symbol was dedicated July 16. However, the pursuit of knowledge can’t be rushed. Incidentally, three rahs on your strategy. Building a gigantic sand castle in La-La Land is sure to make world aggressors think twice.

The design for the familiar crow’s-foot-in-a-circle we know as the peace symbol was completed February 21, 1958, by British commercial artist Gerald Holtom. Holtom had been commissioned by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The CND, headed by philosopher Bertrand Russell, was planning an Easter march to Canterbury Cathedral to protest the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston.

After doodling around with several versions of the Christian cross set in a circle, Holtom hit on the crow’s-foot idea. This had a couple things going for it. First, it was a combination of the semaphore signals for N and D, standing for Nuclear Disarmament. N is two flags held in an upside-down V, and D is one flag pointed straight up and the other pointed straight down. Second, the crow’s-foot has an ancient history as a symbol of death and despair — it looks like somebody spreading his hands in a gesture of defeat. The symbol is shown in a 1955 tome called The Book of Signs by Rudolph Koch, a German calligrapher, although it’s unclear whether Holtom saw it there. The circle, finally, can mean “eternity,” “the unborn child,” and so on. From there it’s easy to cook up a suitably apocalyptic interpretation of the symbol as a whole.

During the heyday of the peace movement, other interpretations of the symbol were also offered. A national Republican newsletter noted that it looked a lot like an emblem used by the Nazis during World War II — an apparent coincidence. Another interpretation, widely promoted by the John Birch Society and other right-wing groups, was that the symbol was really the “broken cross,” sign of the Antichrist. One Bircher wrote that the broken cross had originally been devised by the Roman emperor Nero, who had Saint Peter crucified on it upside down. In the Middle Ages the symbol allegedly was used to signify the devil. I haven’t discovered any good evidence for either of these contentions.

Right-wingers, you’ll remember, also distributed bumper stickers featuring the peace symbol with the slogan, “Footprint of the American Chicken,” showing that their sense of humor was no less acute then than now.

Complaint department

Dear Cecil:

Your thesis of the design of the peace symbol is for the birds. The symbol was actually derived from the left’s attempt to stop the bombing in Southeast Asia. It was an abstraction of the B-52 bombers being used in Vietnam and Cambodia. It was a natural progression to use this symbol, or versions thereof, as a symbol of protest of nuclear arms proliferation, since we all knew from Dr. Strangelove that SAC B-52 squadrons were poised to ruin every Soviet weekend in the foreseeable future. The “B-52” abstraction was encircled as a symbol of containment and also to make a swell medallion. (Medallions were the in thing to wear in that era, generally called B.C. … Before Cokespoons.) The opinions expressed herein were not researched nor documented, but are merely the blissful reminiscences of one …

— Born in ’48, Chicago

Stay blissful, partner. Didn’t mean to confuse you with the facts.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.