The Peace Symbol Originally Meant ‘Despair’

By Debra Kelly on Thursday, April 3, 2014
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“Human life begins on the far side of despair.” —Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Mouches

In A Nutshell

The peace symbol is an internationally known icon representing harmony, love, and the end of war; happy things, all of them, but the origins of the symbol are much darker. The artist that originally created the peace symbol, a British designer and artist named Gerald Holtom, made it when he was lost in despair over the state of the world in 1958. He combined the semaphore symbols for “N” and “D” (referring to Nuclear Disarmament), and immediately thought of it as a person doubled over in despair.

The Whole Bushel

When we see the peace symbol, there are all kinds of mental images we have to go along with it. The end of war and conflict, the end of riots, disagreements, prejudices . . . all happy things that we could only truly wish to see in our lifetimes. But the origin of the peace sign is rooted more in the darkness than in the light at the end of the tunnel, and the symbol was actually meant to represent the despair that the artist was feeling about the world around him.

The peace symbol was designed in 1958 by a British textile designer and commercial artist named Gerald Holtom. He created it during a major protest where people were marching against the construction of nuclear weapons in England, and as a World War II conscientious objector, the movement hit home with Holtom.

It was a sad, trying time for him, when everyone seemed intent on blowing each other up with start of the nuclear arms race—and it wasn’t long after the massive devastation from World War II. So he wanted to create a simple but powerful symbol that would embrace all that he felt was going on in the world around him.

He ended up taking the semaphore symbols for “N” (arms outstretched at four and eight o’clock) and “D” (one arm above the head, the other pointing straight down) and laid them over each other to represent the idea of nuclear disarmament. The circle around the outside of the symbol was added to represent the Earth.

But the idea behind it wasn’t the hopeful, uplifting message that most people see it as now. In addition to being the semaphore code for two letters, Holtom also saw it as a stick person, doubled over at the waist, hands stretched to the ground, gripped in the agony of despair. That imagery came to the artist from a painting by Goya, in which a peasant stands before a firing squad, although he also said that it represented himself.

Holtom purposely didn’t copyright the symbol, because he thought that the ideas and feelings that it represented belonged to the whole world. Belong to the world, it did, but that also meant that it could be used by any group. It was adopted by the counter-culture of 1960s America, in some places it was the symbol of civil rights, and in South Africa, it became such a powerful symbol that supporters of apartheid tried to get it banned. In some places, it’s become a symbol of a fight against oppression and tyranny more than an appeal to the greater good for peace.

It was a bad emotional and mental place that the artist was in, and later, he came to regret it. Once the symbol had become so attached to the idea of peace, he thought that the symbol should be turned upside-down, so the person was raising his arms to the sky in elation. And if it was, that would have made the peace sign “U” and “D,” changing the meaning to the equally appropriate Unilateral Disarmament.

Show Me The Proof

BBC News: World’s best-known protest symbol turns 50
In My Lifetime: Origins of the Peace Sign
CBS: The 50th Anniversary of the Peace Symbol