Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Peace Symbol turns 50 today

On February 21, 1958, designer Gerald Holton created a symbol for the upcoming Easter march from London to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment near Aldermaston, England. The march was organized by the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War, and the symbol represented nuclear disarmament. It was based on the semaphoric symbols for the letteers "N" and "D."

(See below: images uploaded from Wikimedia Commons, as is the peace symbol .)

How the Aldermaston symbol evolved into the peace symbol is not exactly clear. According to Wikipedia, Philip Altbach, a student at the University of Chicago, brought a bag of the Aldermaston buttons back to the United States. I've also heard that civil rights and peace activist Bayard Rustin played a role in popularizing the symbol in the United States. In any case, once it got to America, it lost its specific meaning of nuclear disarmament and became a generalized peace symbol.
The symbol has been denounced as the Satanic symbol of a broken cross, the "footprint of the American Chicken," and countless other things. But by its its very simplicity it has endured. It even showed up in a Star Trek novel, "Strangers from the Sky," by Margaret Wander Bonanno, in which Mr. Spock is sent back in time to mid-21st Century Earth and helps save two Vulcans who have crashed their spaceship in the Pacific. Spock visits his human ancestor, Professor Grayson, who gives him a peace symbol on a chain. He calls Spock "Ben" in honor of peace activist Dr.Benjamin Spock. In the story, the peace symbol is something of a magic talisman.
I'm sure it will still be around in 2058.
Note: After listening to "Strangers from the Sky" on my drive from Elkhart back to Bloomington while hoping the "Check Engine" light on my 1990 Toyota didn't mean I was going to crash-land on Interstate 55 (it didn't), I realized the story was much more complex and interesting than I remembered. I've revised the summation of the story, though that doesn't do it justice.


SzélsőFa said...

I've never thought of the peace symbol as that, but...
If we see it as a circle and a 3-ended fork within, I came up with one idea.
If ignore the circle, we have the fork.
It is like an upside down turned Hungarian rune for the sound 'zs'.
The original 'zs' symbol represents 'zsenge', any fresh green that peaks out of the ground. It is a symbol of revival, new vitality, springtime, spring of life - I think it's quite visual.

But if you turn it upside down, the plant is dying.
I've begun to see why it was called some satanic sign.

Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

Was it 1958....and I remember that Star Trek episode as well. Good post, Steve....definitely eye catching!

Charles Gramlich said...

I did not know this information. I remember the STar Trek scene though.

steve said...

Szelsofa--It's interesting what different traditions make of the symbol. I've also heard it defined as a jet plane without bombs. I remember some pro-war people using the symbol with bombs on it.

Julie--Only in Britain would someone come up with the a symbol derived from semaphoric signals. It reminds me of the Monty Python sketch of "Wuthering Heights" done in semaphore. "Strangers from the Sky" was certainly memorable. I've heard only the audio version, though it was a complete Star Trak novel. It never actually ran on TV.

Charles--I relied on my memory of "Strangers from the Sky," and forgot the complexities of it. It was a novel by Margaret Wander Bonnano, published in 1987. If both you and Julie remember it as an episode, it was quite an effective novel. I plan to listen to it on the trip back to Bloomington.

Lisa said...

What a great history for the peace sign! Thanks for posting this, Steve. I always learn something new, whenever I come here.

Sustenance Scout said...

I agree with Lisa, you're full of amazing information, Steve! Thanks for the post. Peace! K.

steve said...

Lisa, Karen--Thanks. I wouldn't have picked up on the 50th anniversary if it hadn't been for the NPR program "On the Media." But I knew about the Aldermaston march origin because I'm 56 years old, once wore the button, and read about the controversy over it more than once.



Emperor Ropi said...

It is a nice age for a symbol but there are much older symbols. For example Hitler's sign was used somewhere in Asia (maybe Nepal) a few milleniums ago. It symbolised sun as far as I know or some animals represented a nation in the Antiquity.

steve said...

Ropi--Because I've been studying Zoroastrianism for my Dickens Challenge novel, I know the swastika was a Zoroastrian symbol for the revolving sun, dating back at least 3000 years to ancient Persia. It also is used in Hinduism, Buddhism, and American Indian religions. I remember being in a room in Pullman (Chicago), Illinois, where the 1900-era linoleum floor had a swastika pattern. Unfortunately, this ancient symbol has been ruined by the Nazis.

Peter said...

I remember putting it on my main seventh-grade binder in 1969 -- it was kind of a rush. Later, in my early Jesus days, I bought into the broken-cross story (and a lot of other crazy things) and stopped sporting it.

Mleyneks said...

Google "cross of Nero" and find that the peace symbol is much older than 50 years. Also, roots can be found in Hitler's time linking it with Socialism and Communism. For the Christian, it is a symbol of hatred against the Bible, Jews, and Christianity through the ages. We can't ignore the history that is behind the peace symbol. It does not represent true peace to any of us.