Boomers Gave the Peace Sign More Than a Chance

One of the most recognizable symbols of 1960s Baby Boomers was the peace sign. It was a circle divided vertically in half, with each side having an angled division forming an inverted “v” about a third of the way up from the bottom. Many people, however — including boomers — may not know the origins of this ubiquitous symbol of our Generation.

The peace sign, as we call it, didn’t start out as a symbol for peace at all, but rather, a symbol for nuclear disarmament. After World War II, the Soviet Union set about building their own nuclear weapon, and was successful in 1949. The United Kingdom became the third country possessing nuclear weaponry in 1952, while France jumped in as the fourth country to possess nuclear capabilities in 1960 and China became the fifth country in 1964. As each country wanted their own nuclear device, in the thinking that that would act as a deterrent against another country’s aggression, each country acquired more, prompting the other countries to increase their stockpile. This rapid rise of nuclear stockpiles — especially between the U.S. and Soviet Union — lead to the Arms Race.

This world-wide activity was not universally accepted by the masses in each country, so a grass-roots protest movement began to rise to remind people of the horrors inflicted with the use of the weapons against Japan. In England, a group called the Direct Action Committee, in conjunction with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament planned a protest march in April of 1958 from London’s Trafalgar Square to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston. One member of the group, Gerald Holtom, was an artist and designer who thought that a common symbol worn by the marchers would help unify the movement. He drew the now famous symbol, based on the “n” and “d” of semaphore flag signaling, grabbing the initials from the phrase “nuclear disarmament.” In this messaging system, the sender positions two flags to indicate letters. The letter “n” is formed by holding both flags downward at an angle. The positioning for the letter “d” is one flag straight up, and the other straight down. Combine the semaphore “n” and “d” and you have the “peace” symbol. Holtom drew a circle around it to balance the design. Eric Austen took Holtom’s drawing and made ceramic badges for the group to wear. These circular buttons were composed of a white glazed background with the nuclear disarmament symbol painted in black glaze. A thin black circle surrounded the edge of the button. Holtom’s original design now resides in the Peace Museum in Bradford, England.

original peace symbol with variations
The first drawing by Gerald Holtom (as pictured by Mister B in the top left) had little flares capping the ends of each line, and a thinner circle encompassing the design. Once it was adapted in the U.S. all types of variations were born, from simple straight lines within a same-thickness circle to oval-shaped symbols made into pendants, and elaborate colorations in stickers and buttons.

So how did this nuclear disarmament symbol become the symbol of the American anti-war movement? In 1958 an American pacifist named Albert Bigelow — himself a World War II Navy captain — sailed his boat the Golden Rule in the vicinity of nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean near the Marshall Islands, with the symbol on his sail. The U.S. Coast Guard intervened and he was briefly jailed.

In 1960, a student form the University of Chicago named Philip Altbach was in England to meet with British peace groups as a delegate from the Student Peace Union (SPU). On his return to the U.S., he persuaded the SPU to adopt the symbol for their own purposes since it had not been trademarked or patented. They did so by producing buttons to sell as a fundraising effort for their cause. Between 1960 and 1964, the group sold thousands of the buttons on college campuses across the country. As TV coverage of protests rose, the symbol became synonymous with demonstrators who wore the buttons and drew the symbol on banners. It had made the transition from “nuclear disarmament” to a more widespread anti-war sentiment, which then made its way back to Europe and rest of the world.

Mister Boomer knew back then that the symbol we called a “peace sign” was actually intended for nuclear disarmament. He used to remark how the symbol looked like a missile on a launch pad. He did not know the details of the story, though, until now!

What was your connection to the peace sign, boomers? Did you buy a button, wear it on a t-shirt or around your neck as a pendant?